Leveraging Design Through Leadership and Empathy
Humaira Tasneem playing cricket with teammates.
By Humaira Tasneem
As an athlete, I think of design as a team sport. The leader has to guide and inspire the team to win games, giving everybody their roles and responsibilities while supporting them to bring the best out of them. A team captain also prioritizes inclusivity because everyone has different experiences that need to be acknowledged. From my personal experience as the captain of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Women’s cricket team, I know that every athlete and designer has a drive that motivates them to keep going. Finding the correct problems can streamline the collaborative design process. Problem identification begins by asking the right questions, strategic thinking, tactical, technical, communication skills, creativity, and curiosity.
Why this comparison between sport and design? I learned important skills and lessons through playing cricket and basketball when I was 13 years old. When somebody made an error and got yelled at, I saw some teammates blaming the person by saying, “It’s your fault we lost that point.” This attitude was new to me; I only played for fun before, so I did not know we would be chastised for making mistakes. So when mistakes did happen, I put myself in my teammates’ shoes, asking, what if I messed up in a game? How would it feel? How would I feel if somebody was pointing fingers at me? This realization helped me from then on. I used it in all aspects of my life, especially when I became the captain. I always went the extra mile to put myself in my teammates’ shoes if they were late to practice, messed up a team strategy on the field, or didn’t show enough energy.
As designers, athletes, leaders, and people, as human beings with souls, we have to constantly empathize and understand the importance of designing with the people, not for the people. Regardless of age, gender, class, race, ethnic group, abilities, all leaders should be empathetic. Imagine a world where empathy was a part of the job description for leadership roles. How can one lead, serve, and strategize for others when they cannot imagine themselves in the shoes of the people they serve? How do you solve a problem from the perspectives of the people experiencing it and not from convenience?
Where was the focus on diversity and inclusion before the civic unrest of 2020? More companies are adding equity departments, and hiring practices only drastically changed after the civic unrest in 2020. Have you wondered why inclusion is being talked about so aggressively these days? Have you looked around you? In your team? Have you considered including people from the global majority in solving problems? The BIPOC representation in a design team offers different experiences, perspectives, and approaches for the products and services of tomorrow. BIPOC designers can help creative teams become more empathetic and human-centered designers. A global and diverse perspective assists in discovering various viewpoints and pain points that otherwise take triple the time to unearth. As a person who has pushed to understand different cultures and surround myself around people that make me grow, I can vouch that my brain is more creative than a person who has only been around people who look and talk like them. I am more focused on solving problems that are causing harm to communities that are not rich and capitalistic. I’m a Hijabi Muslim woman, a person of color, a designer, an international cricketer, an artist, and a millennial dedicated to serving a purpose within my communities. I want to offer principles of accessibility and equity in my work and push myself to design with the people I am helping.
The core of any design solution is diversity in the design team. Diversity does not only mean race or ethnicity, even though race is a major part of that word. Diversity in terms of accessibility, in terms of languages, in terms of experiences, in terms of personality. If you want real criticism and good feedback that helps you grow as a designer and person, you need to be intentional about including people on your team who are not similar to you as a person. It’s important that we make intentional decisions or even go out of our way to include people that do not define the general population. If people different from you can’t be found in your community, use a virtual network! The pandemic helped us understand that connecting online is an excellent way to communicate with others. My dad would always say, “Whatever it is, don’t make excuses.” and my mom would always say, “If you don’t do it today, then when?” These things did not resonate well with me when I was a kid but these are my life mottos as an adult. And to amplify this topic of “using time efficiently” further, my husband says “You can’t say there’s no time. You need to make time.”
We need more BIPOC designers on teams and as leaders to represent the various cultures and races forgotten in the design process. Our beliefs should emphasize the importance of inclusion, while appreciating and utilizing our differences. Ideally, future products and services should be designed by a team representing the global majority to understand a problem from all points of view. This way, the design will be usable by various BIPOC and marginalized groups.
I saw this theory come to life when I chose to do my master’s topic on inclusion in a predominantly White city: Portland, Oregon. Let me backtrack a little. I completed my Master’s in Design Systems in Portland and my thesis work involved creating an online community platform to connect individuals of color, so we can find each other in a densely White city. Oregon is one of the few states known for its Black exclusion laws and its liberal nature. The city gave me firsthand experience of the alienation that one can feel if they are not of the same color as the majority in a space. I understood the significance of risk-taking and how such a simple topic of risk is not a privilege for everyone. Cultures and ethnicities, income, race, gender, and access divide people so that they can or can not take risks. I realized that the risks I was taking were not only risks, but they also represented me as a Hijabi Muslim and as a Brown person in the classroom. Suddenly, I was not just a student, I was more. I was a hijabi-Muslim-Brown-international-studentdesigner- athlete. I realized how much work I had to do to include my experiences in classroom conversations. My experiences in life influence the direction of classroom conversations, design work, my school work, and my thesis in a surprising and unique way. I noticed that some experiences, like feeling alienated in Portland, were in my unconscious mind and needed to be acknowledged in order to understand the problem that affects many like me and create a solution that also affects many like me.
Having more BIPOC representation would have certainly helped me feel comfortable and less drained of my emotional labor. I felt like this has been an ongoing story in my life—feeling the odd one out. When I was in the UAE women’s cricket team, I was also the only hijabi Muslim and felt like I needed to put in more effort and talk about myself in a hijab. This wasn’t about discrimination, this was about me feeling the odd one out and expecting myself to put in the extra effort to explain myself. There was already the added frustration of doing extra work to express different cultures because I am an Indian, born and raised in the UAE. Additionally, tiresome interactions with White men who assume they know more than me have taken their toll. On top of this, I was frustrated being in an educational setting where risks are a part of learning. If I said or did something wrong, I would embarrass my people and get judged for my actions. And “my people,” my Muslim family of this world, my “ummah” have already been through a lot historically. The emotional drain of frequently putting in more effort than anyone in my class because I was scared that any mistake could only harm my image and the image of my people. I realized then how much of an effect it would have made if my team members reflected some of my cultural identities. So, as a BIPOC leader, I intentionally decided to increase the representation of people of the global majority on my teams to grow creatively and take previously unimaginable risks.
I am passionate about leveraging my skills to create more resources for BIPOC people. As an outsider, I spent the last year uniquely positioned to understand the problem because I experienced being hyper visible, isolated, othered, and alienated in the city. In addition, the people I interviewed opened up to me because they recognized that I have similar experiences, if not the same. Who will design better for marginalized groups if not oppressed people? Who would I design for then, if not the very people who brought me here? It is of utmost importance to me to constantly push the boundaries when it comes to including BIPOC people in my team, my designs, my surroundings, and my work. I try my best to take responsibility as a leader of my soul, be empathetic, and learn on the way. The last iteration of my thesis is an online community platform designed to provide support to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color residents by building community and connections in the online world. Representation in a design team helps discover innovative viewpoints and historically ignored pain points more efficiently than majority-White teams. It is important always to do the extra work of questioning and accounting for the forgotten ones in the capitalistic design process. How are the people in your team feeling about risks? Have you had a conversation about taking risks regarding the type of life a person has lived?
Let’s come back to the real question: How are you pushing yourself to ensure that the people around you are not the same as you? Are people welcome? This isn’t to say that only design leaders are responsible for creating inclusive and diverse spaces. It is the responsibility of every individual to work towards creating an equitable relationship with their designs. Ensuring others that “I am not racist, my best friend is Black,” is an unhelpful defense mechanism. “I collaborated with my best friend who is Black and has a better perspective when it comes to designing for a target audience of Black-identifying individuals,” is a more equitable approach to design collaboration.
Design is similar to a team sport. Let’s take cricket as an example. There are batters and bowlers with diverse skill sets on the team. Everyone has different roles and responsibilities in the game and we all have to collaborate in order to win. We come up with strategies and plan A, B, C so that we are preconceive and have a plan for any challenge that arises. The more conflicts there are, the more difficult it is to create an environment of a winning team where everyone feels like they contributed. If we put this same situation in a design team, a team will have varying degrees of skill sets and professions. But if most of them are batters, you have one bowler and maybe a few specialized fielders, that one bowler has a lot of pressure and labor to succeed and those few specialized fielders will be running the team. It is important for a design thinker to thoroughly understand what motivates and frustrates the people they are designing for. As a result, the final design should be accessible and scalable, accommodating users with disabilities while also accounting for various languages and cultures. It is of utmost importance that wherever I go in the future, whatever I turn out to be, I am constantly pushing the boundaries when it comes to the inclusion of BIPOC people on my team, my designs, my surroundings, and my work.
BIPOC identifying designers will not merely work on a design or a product, but we will work on changing the foundation that we rest on—a system that was never designed for us to succeed. With more of us in design and even more in leadership positions in design, we can begin to create equitable systems, which I know will lead to a better tomorrow.
Ultimately, design leaders set the tone for how the next generation of designers conduct themselves as leaders at work and as individuals. Unfortunately, under capitalism, it is possible to lead without morals. It is an uphill challenge to put empathy and ethics first. However, it is a challenge that all leaders must commit.
Design is similar to sport in that they both help us express ourselves freely and push us to converse with people from around the globe. Through these experiences, we meet people from various cultures, ethnicities, and races who speak different languages, behave differently when they win or lose, and show respect in various ways. So how are we as leaders pushing our teams and the people around us every day to make this world an equitable place?