During this year of unprecedented change, frogs from around our global studios have come together to voice their concerns about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, both internally and in the world at large. We spoke with two frogs who have been particularly active and engaged on the studio and community level. Vanessa Kirby is a Senior HR Business Partner supporting frog’s New York studio, and leads frog’s global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. Alexis Puchek is a Principal Director of Design in frog’s Austin studio. She leads frog’s interaction design practice in North America, runs client projects as a creative director, oversees the internship program in the Austin Studio, and is a member of the DEI Committee.
What does “diversity, equity and inclusion” really mean, and why is it so relevant for the design industry right now?
AP: To break down the definition: Diversity is moving away from a homogenized group perspective, toward bringing together different voices and participants with different ages, sexualities, genders, disciplines, abilities, ethnicities, languages, perspectives. Equity is about creating opportunities that are accessible to all who are participating, taking into consideration their differences in backgrounds, and realizing that not everyone achieves success or has needs in the exact same way. And then I would say inclusion, for me, is making sure that everyone feels “safe” and that they have equal footing to opportunities and sharing their voices, bringing everyone to the table, but also recognizing that the table was probably built from a Eurocentric perspective, and that the structure itself needs to be reconsidered to be inclusive.
When it comes to the field of design specifically, I believe that diverse voices, perspectives, skill sets, backgrounds, and makers create better solutions, period, full stop. I just don’t think you can achieve amazing solutions that are well thought through and intentional if you don’t have a non-homogenized group of people and voices and perspectives to contribute.
VK: I agree. And when it comes to diversity, inclusion, equity–the biggest thing for me is equity, which is why design is not as diverse as it could be when it comes to underrepresented minorities. And by that I mean Black people, Latinx people, Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, Indigenous Americans, and the LGBTQ+ community, particularly trans folks. We don’t want to meet people where they are, we want people to be where we are, and that is why there’s a lack of diversity.
How did you get involved with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at frog?
VK: I think that no matter where I work, I’m always involved in something diversity-related, just because of how I identify, as a Black gay woman. Whether I really have the time or not, I’ve always been passionate about these issues, and I want to make sure that people are supported and have an inclusive environment. I want to be in the loop. Ultimately it’s just about wanting to make sure people get the support that they need when they come into an organization as a minority. So starting at frog as part of HR, I was able to jump in and start supporting it because of my role, but also because of my personal interest.
AP: Yeah, I think I’ve kind of been like the de facto queer expert since I started my career. It’s (fortunately and unfortunately) a position that often gets put on individuals that are a part of minority groups. I started mentoring queer kids in college, once I got my own head wrapped around my sexuality and my own authenticity. And then in my working career, I’ve mentored people from entry level all the way up to the executive suite, and frog has been no different. I joined the DEI Committee because there were conversations happening in silos and I didn’t see any global change from those conversations. Being a part of the global committee helps reassure me that the perspectives, the voices, the contributions all will create real change and foster a supportive, inclusive environment, considerate of individuals that may or may not have been considered before.
VK: I agree—I think being on the committee is one way to really stress how important these issues are, and having an executive sponsor is also super important. That was really important for me. Because the only way change will ever happen in the organization is if it is top-down. So being on this committee, it makes me feel like everything is more possible because we have an executive in the organization (Anthony Pannozzo, CDO North America) who’s so bought-in.
AP: That’s a really great point. Prior to 2020, DEI at frog existed, but it was really grassroots, where studios led their own initiatives. We created a global committee, but it was mostly made up of people like me, who opted in based on already being vocal in this space or being an activist. But we didn’t have that executive investment, so it was a mixed bag in terms of real success. We saw some change in studios. Some conversations would happen over Slack. But this feels so much different, I think—to your point, Vanessa—because we have executive sponsorship, there is an actual investment from frog moving forward into DEI commitments, and that means that we can also hold ourselves accountable because it’s bigger than people who don’t really have an official role. It’s now what frog is doing.
What sparked the shift in the efforts or organization around frog’s DEI Committee?
VK: I’m new to frog. I’ve been here for just over six months, but even still, I did see a very big shift in June, which was unfortunately due to the violence against underrepresented minorities, particularly Black people, in the United States. After the highly publicized murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which sparked protests around the country and the world, we saw how companies were pushed to react, many looking around saying, “Oh my God, what are we doing? How are we going to show up?” I think that got frog as a company to ask some hard questions, like “What did we do before? How can we be better?” So when I joined frog, like Alexis said, it’s not like nothing had existed in terms of DEI. I know there’d been speaking and networking events, as well as trainings, and frogs themselves are very motivated to create change, so they create space to make things happen. But it wasn’t anything, I think, like it is now. The Black Lives Matter movement coming to a head in the public eye really got people on board with the fact that leadership has to be held accountable. We have to have metrics, we have to have programming in place that’s formalized and supported by our executive team. And that shows now that we have our CEO saying that this is important and continuing to ask how we’re moving forward. So I think that’s the big change.
AP: Historically, the design industry, and most industries for that matter, have been a part of or directly responsible for oppressive systems. It’s really infuriating, yet not that surprising that it took such violence against Black people in this country to really wake people up—wake white people up. I think what is unfortunate is that this awakening spurred a lot of these performative actions of allyship, so that individuals and companies could pat themselves on the back and say that they participated in this moment or the movement. It’s really important for us to hold ourselves accountable to the commitments we’ve made–and I think this is the real change that I’ve seen in 2020 from the kind of grassroots initiatives that we were working on before. There is a generated voice, an activism, and global community of people who are trying to stand up and against oppressive systems. frog is buying into that, and is investing in that, and holding ourselves accountable to participate in an educated and intentional way.
What are some ways in which frog is creating this change within the culture or organization, and how are we able to create safe spaces to have these conversations?
VK: I shouldn’t speak for everybody—but I think it’s hard to make any space truly 100 percent safe, just period. To me, “safe space” is really about those people in our lives we feel safe with, people that we have relationships with, that we trust, that we identify with, that have shown us ongoing support, right? So when people come into spaces where we’re going to have conversations about something as serious as racism and violence against Black people, that is something that’s really emotional; it can be triggering for people, or bring shame around what people have or have not done. So there’s all these emotions flying around. I’m a part of HR, and can assure you there’s never going to be any retaliation for sharing your feelings. We want to hear from you, we want to know how to make things better for people to thrive and feel comfortable at work. But as an individual, the fact is you’re being vulnerable in sharing, and that’s really difficult to do. After you share things about yourself, you’ve shared things about yourself. And now they live in the minds of people you’ve shared them with.
But we have tried to create opportunities for people to engage throughout this whole process. Fortunately, we are privileged enough to have access to online platforms and collaboration tools that have really helped facilitate these conversations while we’re all still working remote. It took some time to get used to, but I think we’re doing a good job of staying connected in that way in general. We’ve had speakers come in to share their experiences as Black professionals in corporate America, their upbringing, and the discrimination and racism they faced while navigating their careers. We’ve also helped facilitate conscious conversations with an exercise that we did in a couple of studios where we were all asked to explore our own privilege and share that with each other. So from my experience here, frogs are really big on communicating how they feel, the changes they want to see, and being open about those things. And we definitely create space for people to do that. But I think it’s always important to remember that these conversations are difficult, and we can’t expect people to all have the same comfort levels around sharing or participating.
AP: Yeah, without repeating any of the awesome initiatives that Vanessa mentioned, one thing I thought was really powerful at frog was a letter written from so many global frogs, from all levels, articulating their expectations around DEI commitments and accountability from this company. It was open and honest and super transparent into how people felt the company was achieving or not achieving their expectations. And it was socialized all around the globe. It went all the way up to executive leadership and the president of the company, and our environment was at least perceived to be safe enough to even do that, for people not to fear for their jobs or anything else in circulating and socializing such an honest letter. And I’m really proud that this is the environment that we worked in already, and that people felt like this was a big enough issue for them to commit to, regardless of whether or not it had accountability on their job. Beyond that, I agree with Vanessa–it’s so impossible to create truly safe spaces. But at least our commitments from frog seem to be facilitating further opportunities around discussing and sharing perspectives, whether they’re difficult or familiar to us, and I’m seeing some more active participation in conversations from people who weren’t necessarily sharing their voice prior. Whether that’s on the studio level or in what we call Monday Morning Meetings, which every studio has every Monday morning, or in our global diversity Slack channel, which is, you know, shooting something into the ether that everyone can see.
VK: That open letter was awesome. I’m so glad you brought that up, Alexis. And to your point, it did prove that at least some people felt comfortable enough to say, “This is a safe space where I’m not going to be worried about retaliation. I can speak my mind. I can tell leadership what I want to see, the change I want to see.” That was really amazing, to see people feel like they had the power to ask for the change they wanted to see.
Do you think these efforts are really beginning to break down the status quo in design, and the world at large?
VK: I think it’s important to note that when it comes to racism and discrimination, this is not our first time at the rodeo. I find it hard to believe that people working (sometimes for decades) in the design field never noticed that they did not have a diverse workplace, or they did not have diverse leadership. So, why would it be different now? We’ve had Black Lives Matter protests before, we’ve seen the outrage on social media when other people were killed. So, why now? What’s different? I’d love to know from you, Alexis, as a designer, if you’ve ever seen a shift like this before in the industry, where people are like, “Yes, we have to change it,” and then it’s just status quo, nothing changed. Or if you feel like somehow, there’s going to be a difference now?
AP: I have seen it in the past where voices spur up and the rallying cry happens, and everyone wants to do something, and then it just gets squashed down. What I’m seeing now that feels so different is that there are so many groups, both historically and currently oppressed BIPOC and marginalized people, that this global dialogue and movement finally seems to be happening at scale. And it’s also being recognized and reported on in the media. And then that recognition is perpetuating down into organizations, design industries included. So now, you’re seeing all of these companies speak about racism and how they are actively fighting against it, or what their stance is.
When we think about design in particular, what is really critical for us to continue to think about is universal design practices. Yes, we are a human-centered design company, and many companies focus on human-centered design or design thinking practices, but I think too often it’s really easy for us to think about only the people we’re designing for, which is maybe one sub-community or a subgroup of people. What I really took to heart from attending Where Are the Black Designers? is to ask, “Are there any communities that this design might actively cause harm to?” And I think that was really poignant for me, because I’ve always been a voice of the user, but I was doing so from my perspective, from my background, with my biases and my privilege. So I think because of these conversations we’re having about universal design principles and how to actively fight against bias, I am optimistic to say this will continue forward.
What are some ways that you see these universal design practices coming to life in frog’s client work?
AP: The impact that design can have when designers listen to, live in, and participate with communities, is huge. Being invested in this way allows us to help solve problems and create more valuable solutions together with the people who are in the most need. I’ve seen that in the work I’ve done at frog around accessibility, healthcare solutions for Veterans, and reimagining the energy sector. But when we’re talking about universal design practices, it doesn’t just stop at people—design also has an impact on the manufacturing of more things, which in turn affects the environment. We need to have the hard conversations and make the hard decisions together as a global company and culture to figure out what our priorities are, not only for continuing in the work that we do, but for literally continuing in our existence as a society. When we think about impact work, many designers—many people—really want to change the world. Impact work creates a direct connection to empathetic, community-driven, meaningful work, and it allows us to effect change that may have a local, global or environmental impact, which is universal design at its finest. It allows us to solve problems and create solutions that will inherently benefit us all. Who wouldn’t want to do that? But we also have to be aware that what we make and design has lasting consequences. As designers, we need to be really intentional and thoughtful about what we do and what we put into the world.
VK: That’s a great point, Alexis. Additionally, the question I pose for myself and for anybody thinking about diversity, equity, inclusion is: How are you going to hold yourself accountable and those in your life accountable to change? What’s your commitment to change?
Find out more about frog’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion here.