Better Products, Stronger Teams: Why Diversity and Inclusion Took Center Stage at Adobe Design Summit

Anthony Tussler, Rosa Lee Timm, and Adobe’s Matt May on stage at Adobe Design Summit 2018. Photo credit: Alnie Figueroa.

Hundreds of designers work at Adobe — across many products and departments, spread all over the globe in both brick-and-mortar offices and offices of their own making. Adobe Design Summit is a yearly event for all of those designers (and their supporters) to come together, talk about the state of the industry, celebrate successes, and unpack the challenges facing the global design community. This year, we assembled in San Francisco to share ideas and listen to speakers, many of whom had a clear message: design has never been more powerful or significant than it is now. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and that was a key theme at the summit.

“Accessibility [is sometimes used as] a metaphor for compliance, of just getting by, of doing the minimum that everyone can agree to. What people with disabilities want is not to be complied with — they want to be designed for. Designing is including,” said Matt May, Adobe’s head of inclusive design, who was one of several speakers that stressed that the time is now to rethink how designers create products with diversity and inclusion in mind.

“We have a role to play in enabling people to be creative and do their jobs,” he said.

Disability isn’t tragedy — it’s a creative way to live

Often, designers that create products neglect diversity and inclusion principles until the end of their processes. The assumption is, if you create a strong product first and then make adjustments to accommodate for diversity of ethnicity, ability, and gender, you’ll tick all boxes on effective design. At Adobe Design Summit, the emphasis was on rethinking this process, focusing squarely on how companies build and operate design teams.

Disability activist and photographer Anthony Tussler speaks at Adobe Design Summit 2018. Photo credit: Alnie Figueroa.

Photographer and disability activist Anthony Tusler took the stage and pushed the audience to rethink inclusivity. He stressed that having a disability is not a tragedy, and talked about the creative ways he’s found to adjust to the environments that aren’t designed for him. Rosa Lee Timm, a deaf performance artist, shared the stage with Anthony, and had a strong message for those building products and product design teams.

“Get a [disabled] person, like myself, in on the ground floor, at the beginning of the process, so then it becomes organic. And then when it’s done, it’s designed readily with easy distribution from the start,” she said.

“You don’t have think about afterthoughts and revisions. You don’t want those ‘uh-oh’ moments where you have to invite someone in as your consultant, and then dismiss them after that. You want to have them included in the process and be a member of the team. And who knows, some of us may have some new inventions and ideas and creativity that you wouldn’t think about.”

Deaf performance artist Rosa Lee Timm on stage at Adobe Design Summit 2018. Photo credit: Emma Salom.

The sentiment taps into Adobe’s own diversity and inclusion strategies. Creating products and services, built from the ground up with diverse groups of users in mind, is both good for business and a moral responsibility. Just as non-accessible environments (like stairways and bathrooms) have the ability to disable a person, so do our own products.

“If Adobe is creating products that are central to people doing their job, and those products are not accessible, it means that an employer cannot hire an employee because the software doesn’t work for them. That’s where the tragedy is,” said Anthony. Matt May made it clear that Adobe is listening, and making conscious decisions to better design for people with disabilities with its current and upcoming products.

“If you’re under the impression that diversity is just about shades of brown, you’re not paying attention.”

While it’s important to incorporate people with diverse backgrounds of all kinds in product teams, it’s simply not enough to hire for their perspective without acknowledging their greater culture and experiences. Farai Madzima is the UX lead at Shopify, and he said companies that design products could be doing a much better job at helping their “diverse hires” integrate with teams and unleash their true creative potential.

“If you’re under the impression that diversity is just about shades of brown, you’re not paying attention. If you think diversity is just about gender or ability, then you’re not paying attention. You need to work with people who don’t walk, think, and talk like you. You need to have those people be a part of how you’re working,” said Farai.

From speaking up in meetings, to attending work events, to making decisions, and giving feedback, it’s not enough to just assume all people will work in the exact same ways in harmony. Culture and background need to be considered at all times, and while that may sound like more work, it comes with a potential payoff.

Shopify’s UX Lead Farai Madzima delivers a keynote address at Adobe Design Summit 2018. Photo credit: Emma Salom.

“This sounds like a difficult thing, on top of solving the problems of designing a product, but it is absolutely critical. The challenges that we see in society are born of the fact that we have not seen what the world needs from our industry. We have not understood what our colleagues need from us and what we need for ourselves, which is this idea of being much more open-minded about what is different in the world,” he said.

Designing for the world (and taking advantage of global opportunities) starts by not only with building a diverse team, but also fostering their ability to work together. This forms a key part of Adobe’s own diversity and inclusion strategy.

“Great design doesn’t mean the same for everybody. There’s no such thing as universal design,” added Dan Gebler, director of product for Smart global design starts at home.

The golden age of creativity, for all

There were many other topics explored at Adobe Design Week, from the future of design strategy and ethics, to Adobe’s efforts to create a dynamic new design system, to the hobbies and habits designers do to refill their creative tanks. But at the core of the company, and in the hearts of many of its designers, it was this message of inclusivity that resonated most. That’s why Adobe is launching World Interaction Design Day on September 25, a global celebration of interaction design’s ability to improve the human condition — with presentations, workshops, and design showcases from all over the world centered around the theme of diversity and inclusion in design.

“It used to be enterprise software was about the back office, then it moved to the front office, now it’s about the customer. There’s nothing that the customer wants more than good design and creativity,” Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe, told the crowd of designers.

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen on stage with Scott Belsky, chief product officer and executive vice-president. Photo credit: Troy Church.

“I really believe everybody has a story to tell, and if you can help people tell that story through technology, then that is a way in which we can have an incredible impact,” he said, adding that we’re living in a golden age of creativity, one where anyone with an innovative mind and a desire to create deserve to be empowered to achieve their greatest level of potential.