April 12, 2023
Written By Liz Achanta

As a designer, the stereotypical expectation is that we are the creative masterminds of the workplace. But what happens when we don’t look like everyone else?
Most leadership would agree that diversity and inclusion is important in design work – especially given recent movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. However, when it comes to inside the office, challenges can occur when creative employees don’t look like the stereogype for their role or like their non-creative employees.

Keep reading to learn about the common “too creative” types in the design space, and how to shift the paradigm.


Common “isms” in the Creative Workplace & how to battle them:

Ageism: is discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. Ageism in the workplace is so common that in a 2005 study, Ageism was found to be a larger problem than sexism, racism, and discrimination based on disabilities – with the only age group to not experience the discrimination being those aged 35 to 44, who are “too old for negative youth stereotyping and too young for prejudice based on advancing years.”

In the design world, ageism is often seen by employers not hiring younger professionals due to “lack of experience,” but not hiring older professionals because age signifies not knowing how to use the latest software or not having new ideas – both instances we know, of course, are simply not true. In order to understand what designers are saying regarding ageism, AIGA put together a Design Census for members to share their age, gender, and salary. Of the 9K+ participants, only 279 contributors were over the age of 60 (3%!) – and 50 survey-takers responded that they felt ageism was a critical issue in the industry.

Ways to battle the ism:

  • Show off your technological skills: this goes beyond throwing random software names on your resume. In your design portfolio, give credit to what types of programs you used to create your designs – and when. If you’re verbalizing that you’re using a software that just released last year, you’re also showing off that you’re staying on-trend with the latest and greatest in the design field

  • Dictate your experience: regardless if you’re a new grad or you’ve got 20+ years of experience under your belt, showing off who you are and what you can do is a critical piece of fighting creative ageism. Even better is if you can quantify how long a singular project took you to complete: for example, if you created an awesome reel for a new project and it only took you 4 hours to make, add that piece of information to your portfolio! Remember: experience means you now know how to work smarter, not harder.

  • Prove that you’re constantly learning and growing: name-drop a recent creative seminar you attended, and put down any new certifications you’ve received on your resume: the secret to avoiding age discrimination is showing your relevancy in design.

Sexism: is the prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination – typically against women – on the basis of sex. According to Pew Research Center, roughly 42% of women have said they faced gender discrimination while on the job.

In the design world, 61% of working American designers are women – however females account for only 29% of creative directors, according to AIGA.

Ways to battle the ism:

  • When you’re interviewing, remember that interviewers are not allowed to ask you about your marital status, number and/or ages of children, or if you plan to have any children at all. If you come across these types of questions in your interview, know that you can respond by saying you do not wish to disclose that information, and you can report that employer to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission here.

  • Challenge the gender norm by showing your passions: regardless if you’re a male wanting to design for a doll factory or a female who wants to design for the next great motorcycle magazine, prove to your interviewers and potential employers that you’re a designer who knows their stuff. In your portfolio, show a wide range of design work that includes masculine- and feminine-type qualities to show your versatility, and if there’s an industry that you really have a passion for, make sure that passion is expressed in your design.

Racism: is the discrimination against individuals on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority. The recent Covid pandemic showed us that racism in the workplace is still very relevant, with one study showing that 42% of Black respondents saying they’d experienced an increase in race-based hostility at work since the start of the pandemic.

In the design world, Zippia tells us that 76% of designers are white, followed by 10% of designers being Hispanic or Latino, 7.5% Asian, and 3.5% of designers being Black or African American.

Ways to battle the ism:

  • Use design to educate and foster empathy by practicing inclusive design. Venngage offers a great list of questions to ask yourself when it comes to diversity and inclusion, which you can find here. Similarly, the Illinois News Bureau released an article on how to identify racialized design.

  • If you see something, say something: call out racist behaviors or racist designs you see both at work or in the wild. If you’re experiencing racism in the workplace, remember that it’s important to document the event, report to HR, and, when in doubt, consider filing a complaint to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Other Creative Discrimination: So you’ve got some body art, or your hair is hot pink: you’re a graphic designer who isn’t customer-facing, so who cares? If anything, this shows your managers that if you’re able to sit through 16 hours of getting a tattoo, you’re equally able to sit through a painful 2-hour meeting.

Unfortunately, having tattoos, piercings, colored hair, or other forms of body art is not a protected classification under the US federal law – except in rare cases where these forms of expression directly relate to one’s religious practices, like the 2005 court case where Red Robin fired an employee for their religious tattoos. While there’s no clear path forward for these types of creatives when it comes to the workplace, ProfSpeak provides insights into when an employer can – or can’t – discriminate against certain grooming policies.