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Exploring DEI and its Impact on Design

September 29, 2022
6:00 PM - 8:00 PM
George Brown College - Waterfront Campus - School of Design

Etuaptmumk – Two-Eyed Seeing

It refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of colonial knowledges and ways of knowing… and learning to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.

— Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall (2004)
“DEI,” which stands for diversity, equity and inclusion, has become broadly recognized as the litmus test for creating fairness and achieving social justice in our society. Today, it’s considered a good way of measuring our relative progress in recognizing the contributions of those from underrepresented groups as well as creating environments where all individuals and groups can feel sufficiently respected and valued in social life.

When these three elements work together harmoniously as mutually reinforcing components, they create a sense of belonging, where everyone feels part of the wider group and is empowered to speak up and play a part in creating a truly equitable and inclusive environment and culture. Based on present evidence, this is perhaps best described as a work in progress. While many design organizations in our space have had success in creating diverse surroundings, we’re still a long way off from being equitable and inclusive. Fostering diversity is a great place to start but we need to make progress in all three of these areas.

To date, Canadian employers have been slow to take up the challenge. A recent survey showed that while most companies are focused on DEI, only a few seemed to be committed to achieving the end result in the long term (Mercer: 2020). As user-centred design researchers, we’re motivated and inspired by the true meaning of human empathy and compassion. And as designers in the humanist tradition, we’re challenged to design from this perspective in human behaviour and experience.

The question is, how can we take this perspective to the next level? Can we take our user empathy a stage further and go beyond what we currently understand as “inclusive design”?

With origins in the 1970s, inclusive design stemmed from the concept of universal design developed by U.S. architect Ronald Mace. He saw “universal design” as the design of all things used to the greatest extent possible by anyone capable of using them, regardless of age, physical ability or status in life. It was to become the design standard for the built environment that was deemed as “inclusive.”

Conceptually, design and DEI take us further along this spectrum. It means targeting all users across the full range of human diversity and cultures, and integrating them within our design practice and design thinking principles. In effect, significantly reconfiguring the evolution of our profession.

So, is DEI destined to be a dominant factor in the growth of our profession? Will it be a force behind our thinking and creativity? And will it shape the design studios of the future as well as the career choices of the next generation of designers?

The Panel

Today’s hybrid format presentation, “Exploring DEI and its Impact on Design,” which marks DesignMeets’ return to an “in-person” setting, considers these questions. In this session, our panel of experts – Ana Rita Morais (ARM), Shaun Vincent (SV), and Gavin Barrett (GB) – talk about DEI and Design and what it means to them.

Ana Rita Morais

Chair, School of Design, George Brown College

Ana is the Chair of the School of Design at George Brown College and holds a doctorate from the Communication and Culture Program at Toronto Metropolitan University. She’s devoted much of her academic career to investigating mobile media, including her SSHRC-funded research-creation doctoral project, me-dérive (me-dare-eve): Toronto— an augmented reality counter-archive of Toronto's historical urban environments.

She’s also the principal investigator on a multi-year NSERC-funded project in partnership with Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, a former member of the HOUSE programming team, and the recipient of Eastern Canada's 2021 RGD Educator Award.*

“Every conversation that happens in an academic institution, especially as it pertains to DEI, should start with positionality. I’m a Portuguese-born educator and administrator who came to Canada in 1989, which makes me a settler on this land. On the back of the sacrifices of my parents, I was able to get a doctorate and establish a career in education, while my parents couldn’t get educated past the fourth grade.”
A headshot of Ana Rita wearing black framed glasses looking off into the distance. The photo of Ana is placed next to the quote written above, typed out on a blue background.

Ana’s work has always been centred in and around the world of design. As chair, she’s worked with prospective and current students, alumni who have gone on to be design industry leaders, faculty and government officials from across Ontario. These touchpoints offer a clear insight into DEI and our shared responsibility for it across the design landscape. As educators, we need to teach students to be collaborative and prepare them for the studio environments where they will eventually be working.

The design sector in North America is comprised of 85% white designers who are historically middle-class men. How are we making space for those who don’t fit into these categories? How do we encourage students from equity deserving groups to choose design?

How do we change the narrative and how does DEI fit into all of this?

Diversity, equity and inclusion are interchangeable phrases that collectively mean doing the right thing but need to be grounded in a design context. Writer and designer Jennifer Regnerus sees diversity as representative of design practices and opinions. If diversity is the “who,” inclusion is the “how,” helping us to understand how these spaces are occupied and the manner in which we intend to impose changes across the landscape. Equity is the “to what end,” asking us to consider the circumstances and needs of individual designers, and then allocating the necessary resources to ensure an equitable outcome for everyone.

Looking at the design education ecosystem this way shapes our biggest DEI initiatives and defines our actionable goals around them. As a matter of principle, DEI is part of every decision, from recruitment to enrolment, curriculum, learning experiences to hiring practices. Under this framework all of these actions are interconnected. In this scheme, we need to ask ourselves:

Last, most design schools have close ties to industry through internships and co-ops that are remarkable opportunities to meet people working in the industry and learning what it’s like to work in a studio or firm. Unfortunately, many internships continue to be unpaid if they are for academic credit, which makes them exploitative. As a result, they undermine DEI efforts and perpetuate financial hardships and make design only accessible to students from affluent backgrounds.

American author and social activist Bell Hooks once said, “the classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” What we’ve learned through COVID is that learning spaces are not limited to the classroom or traditional campuses. The design classroom of today is composed of many applied learning experiences that students encounter across our sector. We should be mindful of the values we promote and also our role in this larger classroom.

Shaun Vincent

Founder, Vincent Design

Shaun is an artist, graphic designer and entrepreneur. He founded Vincent Design Inc. in 2007, after working in the design industry for several years. With strong roots in the Métis (Met-e) community, it was early in his career that he recognized the need for representational design.

It was to become the inspiration for striking out on his own and building a branding and marketing firm focused on Indigenous communities, organizations, and companies.

From the early days of working in his basement, he knew he wanted to create authentic, memorable work. Since then, Vincent Design has grown to include a team of 17 people serving local, national and international clients.

He's known for his personable working style and careful intention to create authentic, memorable work that speaks volumes.


Shaun Vincent is from the Red River Métis Community and homeland of the Métis Nation from Santa Clara, Manitoba, which is at the tip of lake Manitoba. “Names are important here,” he says, as they have a lot of meaning in my community.” There are a lot of connections through family and name in the community. I’m very involved in a lot of different ways and I volunteer as much as I can to have as much of an impact as possible.

Shaun does illustration, design, storytelling, branding, marketing and, most of all, connect to the Indigenous aspect, which is listening.

Every design starts out with a pencil and paper and, from a design perspective, fits with what he has been experiencing. These designs have an added value not only for clients but also for him as well. An Elder once told him that the design he creates from nothing is part of the spirit. His spirit creates it. Something beyond what he sees, smells, tastes and hears. It emanates from another place. It is something different.

So, a lot of the design coming out of Vincent’s company begins on pencil and paper. It’s really important to both designers and clients. Using modern methods, design standards and Indigenous storytelling, they create inclusive design. Vincent Design does a lot of work for institutions that represent a lot of communities. Southern Chiefs organization, for example, represents 34 First Nations communities in Manitoba. These are the people the studio works with and, among them, the Elders, knowledge keepers and carriers that they consult with.

As a result, design needs to be flowing, inclusive drawn from different cultures, groups, ages and demographics. In this design process, the work must not only be approved by the client but also by the community. There’s an extra layer of complexity and challenge within the design, so you need to do your research to make sure it has all of those fundamentals.

A headshot of Shaun wearing a red checkered shirt, looking directly at the camera. The photo of Shaun is placed next to the quote written below, typed out on a blue background.

“One thing that is amazing for me as a designer and entrepreneur is that I discovered I was using a philosophy where you’re merging two worlds together – Indigenous and Non-indigenous, “ says Shaun. “Your stories and legends need to be representative of their community and able to project that community to the world.” This made sense through the concept of Two-Eyed Seeing, which was spearheaded by Elder Albert Marshall, who really helped to define this methodology and explain this philosophy.

In Marshall’s words, it is learning to see from one eye the strengths of Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, and from the other eye, the strengths of colonial knowledge and ways of knowing. And then learning to use both of these eyes together for the benefit of all. What’s remarkable about this philosophy is that it goes far beyond design. It has implications for every single industry and everything that we do.

Gavin Barrett

Founder & Chief Creative Officer, Barrett and Welsh

Gavin is the CEO of the award-winning Toronto agency Barrett and Welsh. He’s also a co-founder of People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing (POCAM) and of the Multicultural Marketing Alliance of Canada.

In his time pursuing the big ideas, he’s variously nibbled on pigs' ears, gone “elephant-back” in the Thai jungle, and gambled in a casino in Macau. His work has been brought to life on screen and in pages by Deepa Mehta, David Carson, Bruno Barbey and Louis Ng. among others. His work spans 35 countries, helped elect prime ministers, attracted the ire of lawyers representing Dolly the cloned sheep, drawn an angry crowd in Lagos, been the subject of business texts in Canada and India and he’s even been mentioned in a John Irving novel.


Gavin came to Canada originally from Bombay – now Mumbai – in India after living in Hong Kong for six years. In 2003, he founded Barrett and Welsh, the multicultural design and marketing agency he now runs helping brands “speak Canadian.”

“When I say we’re helping brands speak Canadian,” he says, “I mean we’re helping them see Canadians as they are in all that diversity, and to speak to them with respect and intelligence within that.” Speaking to the Canada that exists in the 21st century, not the one that existed in the 1970s. For Gavin, this makes Barrett and Welsh Canada’s only true mainstream agency. It specializes in communications and design, and it does a lot of branding and advertising.

A black and white headshot of Gavin, wearing a collared shirt, looking directly at the camera. The photo of Gavin is placed next to the quote written above, typed out on a blue background.

Barrett and Welsh designs and communicates to create inclusion, and provide access to racialized minorities. That’s the focus. It is differentiating, empathetic work with words of lasting value for the communities they serve.

Also, a group founded People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing (POCAM) around the time of the pandemic to change the face of the industry, to make it more diverse like Toronto (Toronto city proper is 52% visible minority; the Ad industry is 72-73% White).

Things changed when George Floyd was murdered in June 2020 and everyone knew something massively important had to be done about it immediately. There was a common realization that a call to action was needed, and the organization created the Call to Equity, 12 principles that POCAM asked organizations in the industry to sign and – if you were a client organization – 15 in recognition that clients were in a position of power as they were in control of the money.

In essence, these principles insisted on change in equity on multiple levels. The Call to Equity has received a lot of attention and continues to grow. To date, more than 600 allies and supporters, and some 123 organizations, have signed up in support of these goals. And recently, POCAM has created a report card to update on progress. Are they keeping their promises? Out of the 12 principles, some people have managed six or seven, all the way up to 12.

Selected Q&A

How do you see the portfolio assessment process changing to be more equitable and inclusive?

ARM: In our design program, we get about 500 applications for about 120 places, especially from students straight out of high school with the same kinds of projects and skills. Measuring curiosity is a hard thing to do. For me, it’s the storytelling piece is how you can tell when someone is starting out as a designer, how they created something and how well their curiosity is well communicated. I would rather see two or three really expressive things than 15. One of the things we’ve done is add more of a writing component, so you can tell a bit more of the story and why this is a career you want to get into.
GB: You’re always curious to learn about the person you’re interviewing. You want to hear a story and you want to understand they’re authentic and know why it is they’re in design. Why do you want to work here and is there anything you want to share about working in an inclusive and equitable environment? There’s a lot of fear for immigrants who are trying to find their way in Canada that are worried they will run into that great “Canadian experience” barrier. One of the things I see is people celebrating the joy of their own work because if they’re truly creative people and they love what they do, they will find a way to bring that to the surface.
SV: I can only speak of my experience going through design school but I thought the system was pretty awesome. My instructors knew what to focus on and you could go anywhere from there. I mean, literally you can become a graphic designer and go into environmental design or do all things interior design once you have the fundamentals. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I didn’t have that training.

How do we cater to members of different ethnic backgrounds, cultures and identities, and broaden our audience too much? How do you balance specificity and inclusivity?

ARM: Inclusivity means everybody gets to be there. When we think about modelling design for a specific demographic, what we’re trying to say is that it’s not for anybody else. But really good design includes everybody. When you think about universal design, it is not just for specific folks, it is for everybody. I think we need to move away from design being a vehicle for consumerism and being a vehicle for change. I think that is the space we need to be in. We need to pick the values and design that are meaningful and possible for everyone.
GB: The other thing we have to consider is the role of design in creating equity. Because equity and inclusion are not synonymous. In the practice of inclusive design, we have to be constantly vigilant and ask ourselves and examine whether our biases are surfacing, and whether convenience and expediency are being made more important. When we do not practise equity in our design, people are being kept outside the door. We still have to be able to ask the hard questions and say, “why are we not including them”?

Do you have any ideas for business designers to bring the Truth and Reconciliation Report to the forefront with clients? Can it be integrated into the work through Discovery?

SV: In answer to your question, we try to do it with calls to action. We are still learning but we do it automatically, raising it with our clients and they will explain it to us, what they’re doing and why they are doing it. Also, we currently have the Foundation of Hope Society which has a travelling display that goes across Canada. So, we have an exhibit and crafts.

Is there an icebreaker with clients to bring up the topic of DEI or equity and inclusion?

GB: I think there are two ways. I’m a bit of a rabble-rouser, so I’d say something controversial directly. You don’t want people to be terrified and you want them to be working with you, and you’re acting on them to buy into your idea. The other way, which is my favourite, is through the stakeholder interview process where people have different points of view from within the organization. Using this technique, you’re bringing people around the table anonymously. You’re not giving anything away but instigating a robust discussion that forces a sufficient amount of humility and candour across the organization.

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