Impact Series

‘What does it imply to be an ally?’ Black Designers at Microsoft helps others discover the concept

Cherian Porter, lower left, and Terrell Cobb, lower right, co-founders of Black Designers at Microsoft, present their Thinkercyze virtual design challenge as part of the Seattle Design Festival, with two of the event’s organizers, Yasir Altemeemi, upper left and Trevor Dykstra, upper right. (Video below)

The Seattle Design Festival is now under way, marking its 10th anniversary. The almost entirely free event runs Aug. 15 to 23 and explores design in its many forms, including the roles that technology plays in this broad field.

This year’s largely virtual festival includes live-streamed webinars and discussions, virtual programming and interactive activities such as viewing outdoor displays, augmented reality experiences, socially-distant scavenger hunts and a virtual design challenge called Thinkercyze.

One of the organizations submitting a challenge is the Black Designers at Microsoft employee resource group, which shared an activity titled “What does it mean to be an ally?”

GeekWire caught up with Terrell Cobb, Cherian Porter and Zoë Chinonso Ene — the trio who founded the group — for a Q&A to learn more about their Thinkercyze challenge, and the intersection of design and equity issues, to better understand their goals as an organization within the Redmond, Wash.-based software and cloud powerhouse.

What do you hope users take away from your Thinkercyze exercise?

Our goal for the Thinkercyze challenge was to help others learn a bit more about themselves, their assumptions and their flavor of allyship. (Check out Types of Allies by Jodi Ann Burey.) Ultimately, this challenge should help users spark a healthy conversation around what it means to be an ally and have fun designing their own quick posters illustrating that concept in the process!

What impact do you hope it has in the larger community?

The dialogue must stay alive in order to keep making changes and allyship must be designed for that to be successful. It’s a strategy, commitment and lifestyle.

Our hope is that the larger community can start to think deeply about how they answer the following questions: “What does allyship look like to me?” and “What conversations am I having about equality and equity?” These questions provide a general framework of empathy to allow designers and non-designers alike to explore their individual approaches toward allyship.

The founders of Black Designers at Microsoft, from left to right: Terrell Cobb, Zoë Chinonso Ene and Cherian Porter. (Black Designers at Microsoft Photo)

Since this was for a design related event, why is it important to talk about equity and ally issues in this specific space?

Design is, at its very core, the art of finding authentic solutions to challenges and these solutions are driven by a deep understanding of the person/people experiencing said challenge. Inequality and inequity for Black people have always been a problem in this country; unfortunately, it took more deaths for awareness to lead to action.

Design is simply to be driven by research and powered by empathy, and empathy is required to be a good ally. What better space other than design to talk about it?

Can you tell me about Black Designers at Microsoft?

(From Microsoft’s 2019 Diversity and Inclusion Report)

Our story as a group began back in early November 2019. Cherian met Terell and was thrilled to see another Black designer on her team. Within the same week, Terell and Cherian met Zoë and realized there was another Black designer in our studio! We met for lunch in the café and started to ask the question, “How many other designers like us are there within the company all together?”

That same year, AIGA conducted a design census and found the number of Black and African American designers in the design industry was 3%. We started planning and ideating with full support from our leadership, Jonah Sterling and Amelia MacLeod, on how we might connect Black designers across the company, build a community, and ultimately grow. Like true designers, we identified a problem and got started on the solution.

Today, as an official employee resource group within the Cloud + AI org, we’re a growing number of designers (emphasis on the greater discipline of design that includes content design, research, data science, producers, motion, audio, front-end development, illustration and industrial design) that see the importance of our voice and influence within the creative space of our company.

We desire to build an intentional community to help influence diversity and inclusion within design at Microsoft by providing catalysts to personal and professional growth for hired and potential Black designers. We collaborate on hacks, showcase and review work, share tips and resources, and discuss job changes and career pivots for us and other Black employees at the company.

We believe that action + words are truly important and that our words become most impactful through our actions.

What are the main objectives of the group?

We want to build a community, spur growth, recruit and retain exceptional talent, and partner with existing groups (inside and outside Microsoft) like ours. These are our goals and values:

  • We believe no Black designer should feel alone: community is necessary.
  • We want every Black designer to be able to bring their whole selves to work and confidently bring their value to Microsoft every day: you do the best work when you’re you.
  • Our community is also a place where Black designers at all levels of growth can share work with, celebrate and learn from each other…
  • …and consequently, share tips and empower those outside the discipline who are considering a career shift to design.
  • We believe in the power of representation and the motivation that comes from seeing someone who looks like you in a leadership position.

Have those objectives changed in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the dramatic increase in awareness of equity issues for BIPOC?

They haven’t changed; if anything they’ve been propelled. It’s brought quicker opportunities to turn these words into actions, quicker access to influential partners and, just like our Thinkercyze challenge, an opportunity for people who may have dismissed any of this as an actual issue in the past to face and explore it. Equity and equality are important to all cultures, but as it pertains to the BIPOC community, equity and equality are imperative.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Microsoft’s corporate culture and operations as relates to Black employees?

Like many corporate institutions, Microsoft is on a journey. A culture of inclusion is a core priority for us and we are all accountable. Each one of us needs to look introspectively at how we can apply our values of embracing a growth mindset to building inclusion — a growth mindset helps us design new products, and when it comes to inclusion, it can help deepen our empathy.

The impact of this group, with the support of Microsoft leadership, can bridge the gap between hiring candidates and retaining those hires by creating an inclusive culture where every person can thrive and be their authentic self. Microsoft as a company has committed to investing in broadening our talent pipelines, and our community will focus on building a safe and open culture where people want to work.

What are your hopes for the future for Black Designers at Microsoft?

We aspire to be the change that we would like to see within the design practice across the world by starting here at Microsoft. We want to continue empowering young people and professionals in other disciplines who are interested in design and acquiring and retaining more incredible design talent for Microsoft that just so happens to be Black.

Editor’s Note: Funding for GeekWire’s Impact Series is provided by the Singh Family Foundation in support of public service journalism. GeekWire editors and reporters operate independently and maintain full editorial control over the content.

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