How DesignOpp are working to diversify the Irish design industry
“My six-year-old definitely has a creative streak in her, and as a father, I have to try and leave the world a little bit better than I found it. DesignOpp is my thing that I do to create opportunities for her – so that if she goes into an agency, she will be judged by the quality of her portfolio and not the colour of her skin.”
I am talking to Greg Osborne, brand and design consultant, lecturer in Dublin Design Institute, and co-founder of DesignOpp, a not-for-profit initiative championing diversity in Irish design and helping people of colour fulfil their creative potential.
Greg tells me that DesignOpp is the brainchild of Grace Enemaku, Mic Chikanda and himself, and was inspired by their lived experiences as designers of colour. “I was studying for a Master’s degree in Professional Design Practice in Technological University Dublin, which is where I met Mic. He came to Grace and me after the death of George Floyd in 2020.”
Struck by the global reckoning about racism and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the trio formed DesignOpp. They pitched the concept to the Institute of Designers in Ireland (IDI), who “thought it was fantastic,” because their mission tied in with Why Design?, the IDI’s equality initiative for the Irish design sector.
DesignOpp launched in 2021 with a focus on three core strands: opportunity, community, and education. One of their first initiatives was an online directory for people of colour working in creative fields such as graphic design, illustration, 3D/motion, web, UI/UX, architecture, product design, interior design, photography and videography. The aim of the directory, Greg tells me, is to give “more equal opportunities to designers of colour.”
The community aspect of DesignOpp, Greg tells me, centres around talks, meet-ups and events such as Drink & Draws, which allows designers of colour to meet and connect with one another.
Greg tells me that his role as a father is a motivator for his work: “I have two little kids that are six and three. My six-year-old definitely has a creative streak in her, and as a father, I have to try and leave the world a little bit better than I found it. DesignOpp is my thing that I do to create opportunities for her – so that if she goes into an agency, she will be judged by the quality of her portfolio and not the colour of her skin.”
Born in Islington, North London, to an Irish mother, Greg moved to Ireland when he was 19. He reflects on his experience studying in Ireland and the lack of diversity in design curriculums:
“In Ireland, or even in the UK, I wouldn’t have seen any designers of colour. [In college, we were taught about] Stefan Sagmeister, Paul Rand, Paula Scher.. all white European or white American designers. [Design education] was Eurocentric – Bauhaus was considered design, but not African design, or Asian design. These are all the things we want to change.
I am currently reading Decolonizing Design by Dori Tunstall, who was the first African American dean of an art college. That is a book that we’ll use to create a more honest reflection of design history.”
Greg heads up the education segment of DesignOpp and much of his work centres around reimagining the way that the discipline is taught in Ireland. “Most designers have gone through education,” Greg notes. “It’s one of the most important and expensive parts of a young designer’s life – if they’re fortunate enough to go to college.”
They are currently working with the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) to develop a Professional Certificate in Creative Diversity, as well as content for undergraduate classes for NCAD’s Studio+ programme.
The DesignOpp team are also working with Technological University Dublin (TUD) on a series of workshops centred around direct provision. “We’re going to get the students to think about the whole journey of people that use direct provision centres and highlight marginalised groups through the process of design.”
As well as providing new course content, Greg highlights a need for universities to revisit the way design education is structured and to reconsider the potential difficulties that students of colour may face.
“We have to help students of colour not only inside the establishment of a college, but outside of that, because that also affects their work. If they turn up to college, and they are suffering from microaggressions – say it’s racism from their landlord, for example – that is going to affect their marks. If we can help with that in some shape or form, it creates a better experience for the student.”
Greg is keenly aware of the struggles that design graduates can face trying to get employment. He highlights that universities need to support students and help them to put their best foot forward in the working world.
“I’m just about to start a course on LinkedIn on inclusion, and one of the things they said is that ‘diversity is being invited to the dance, but inclusion is being able to change the music.’”
“I think college is geared towards getting people into agencies as opposed to getting people to become business owners. Yes, you learn a lot going into an agency, but you have the opportunity to learn a lot as a business owner as well. We have to give students the options for that. We need to be telling them about what software to use, how to invoice, how to price their work, how to get deposits. There is a massive gap here.”
As well as that, DesignOpp’s work highlights the need for agencies to diversify their hiring practices and give more opportunities to designers of colour. DesignOpp hopes to encourage agencies to connect with marginalised groups, make their workplaces more approachable, and show them that design is a worthwhile and important career to pursue.
“Design is about human-centred problem solving. If we are designing for the public, we have to have the public reflected in our agencies, because otherwise we are only designing for a particular group of people.”
It is clear from my conversation with Greg that he is a passionate advocate for the power of design, and he believes that design thinking principles can be applied to all aspects of society to affect real change. He hopes that DesignOpp’s work can reach a governmental level:
“As an organisation that promotes designers of colour, I think that we stand at a good spot to help government organisations be more all human-centred…I hope that we can work with local TDs when they are designing or creating policies to ensure that they are more reflective of marginalised groups.”
This year is looking busy for DesignOpp, with the launch of their collaborations with NCAD and TUD, as well as a campaign in the works to celebrate their third birthday. Reflecting on how far they have already come, Greg highlights that there is still plenty more work to do – and DesignOpp’s mission is something we can all play a part in aiding.
“I’m just about to start a course on LinkedIn on inclusion, and one of the things they said is that ‘diversity is being invited to the dance, but inclusion is being able to change the music.’ You know, there’s another bit on top of it as well. You got invited, but you want to be able to go up to the DJ and say, ‘I want my song played.’
We need to reconsider what it means to be Irish. [We need to understand that] a person of colour can be Irish. We have to change the language we use around race. I think that starts in schools, but we have to have more politicians, teachers, and people in areas of influence advocating for this too.”
Words: Kerry Mahony