diverse by design

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Recently I was in an uncomfortable situation. Or rather, I responded uncomfortably to the inner movies that play in my head when faced with a situation bearing deep implications. The two are different, really; it could all be in my head. The situation- while reviewing some public information images, I noticed that all of the students in all of the photos appeared to be young, white, healthy, and male.

The obvious problem is the lack of representation of a diverse student population. We'll adjust that so there is a truly diverse representation; but therein is my problem. On one hand, showing a diverse group is good for many reasons. On the other, it's bad for one- it may be false advertising. With that thought, the movies of wealthy white men in suits start playing in my head and they're all saying that we should artificially slant the images or I should use Photoshop to "diversify" the images we have. It's their motive that makes me uncomfortable. Do they want to deceive a fund giving populace into thinking we're more diverse than we are? Or do they want to correct a shortcoming by openly trying to attract a more diverse group? I'm not sure, and my tendency is to be very suspicious of wealthy men in suits.

So the issue is this: as designers, do we artificially misrepresent our university's diversity or not? Is it good? Is it bad? Is the intention important? ...and what is the real intention? I think the images should be diverse, but they should be honest and we shouldn't have to struggle to get them. They should be easily found and truly representative. If you read this, let me know what you think. I've watched these inner movies for twenty years, and I'd love to have a different perspective.


PS from dave: said:

Maybe I can make the movie real for you:
The relatively new College of Game Logic and Design has trouble getting female applicants. The student population in this technology discipline is 97% male, faculty is all male. You're designing brochures for a conference at the College and are asked to use clip art showing an interested and enthusiastic student population that appears to be 50% female. You're also asked to add some of the female figures to photos that are obviously taken at the college.

Is it wrong to falsely represent the population this way? It may encourage more young women to apply. It may encourage financial donations. It may attract students who, after seeing accurate images, might have gone to another school that has a better ratio. What do you do? Say? Recommend?

Chris Stubbs said:

I guess in my mind, its all sales. I'm not sure whether the informational materials you described Dave were meant for external consumption or not, but regardless I'm guessing their purpose, like any marketing material, is to sell someone something. Lying isnt a fair word to use, but there is always a "subtle disconnect" between sales materials and the way things really tend to be. Have you ever seen the Dove chocolate tv commercials with beautiful women sensually eating candy while rolling around in silk? I love chocolate, but I won't lie to you, when I eat a piece of Dove, my experience is... a wee bit different from the one they show you on tv. Ford's new F150 can apparently stop a 15 ton airplane (wtf?) but they dont go out of their way to tell you it gets like 15 miles to the gallon. And I'm pretty sure I've never seen anyone in a Nike or Reebok or Under Armor ad that was obese or not pleasing to look at. I won't even get started on runway models.

I took 3 tours of Penn State before enrolling here as an undergraduate and during every tour it rained. It turned out my sampling of the State College weather was pretty accurate, as I think we had more rain than Seattle during my student life. And yet I don't believe I've ever seen any University branded material for anything where the campus wasnt bathed in sunshine or snow, much less overcast rain.

You don't see pictures of State College in the rain, Frat parties, Beaver Avenue on a saturday night, students coming out of the Forum after an OChem final, girls wearing sweatpants to everything or doom rooms looking the way that doom REALLY look when college kids live in them. What you see are selectively chosen images meant to entice people. Is it lying? You could look at it that way I suppose. But I think it would be more accurate to say you are putting your best foot forward. Its marketing.

My own background is quite diverse, and diversity is something I value as much as anyone. But unfortunately, it is just another commodity, like a strong football team or a beautiful campus when it comes to selling this University. Its another way to get people to invest, or enroll, or seek tenure here, and in and of itself thats sad because its using the power of diversity for all the wrong reasons.

But I do think that the awareness that it brings is a good thing. If someone looked at your work and said "we need more diversity Dave", then hopefully that leads to administrative conversations where the focus is not on changing an image but on changing a University landscape. And if religious, sexual, or ethnic minorities see those adds and it inspires them to come here, then I would say that the ends justify the means.

So back to your original question - is it wrong - I'd have to say no. How we represent our population, like the way anyone represents anything, is sales. In the end, diversity is a good thing and regardless of what inspires it, if efforts are being made to improve it, then its good by me. Though as the consumer, it never hurts to remember the phrase "buyer beware" =)

Fantastic post Dave.

dave said:

Thanks for this intelligent answer Chris; it raises my standard and honors my blog. I think your explanation is right on target- it is marketing. For me though, that answer doesn't quite make me feel better: I associate marketing with selling Sugar Bomb cereal to kids, Camel cigarettes to inner city adolescents, and overruns of ineffective drugs to third-world countries.

The concept of caveat emptor is an inevitable justification; "let the buyer beware" often appears as this Latin phrase because it's been a justification/warning for that long of a time. That fact shoots down any plans I had of questioning the breakdown of contemporary ethics. I appreciate your pointing out the awareness a campaign might bring, and I agree. You point out good work, and imply, gently, that sometimes the ends justify the means. Sometimes.

I ask myself if I had a choice, would I rather work for someone who sees that the student body needs to be diversified and wants to fix it or would I want to work for someone who wants to be the one to diversify the student body? Both result in good outcomes. The guy with the images of himself as the great diversifier may actually get more done- he has a great marketing plan because it includes his own acclaim. Damn. No contest though. I'd work for the first guy. Which isn't saying that that should be everybody's choice. I do wonder what the campaign would look like ... Maybe a room full of white guys saying, "Come to Penn State and help us appreciate another point of view."?

kevin said:

This is anecdotal, and only N=1.

I attended the Enrollment Management Conference this past fall and was moved by the keynote address by the founders of the Penn State Race Relations Project. It's interesting stuff.

I chose to go to a break out session on the RRP, and to my surprise - the session was set up so that I could take part in a student facilitated dialog, just as student participants in RRP do. The young woman who ran our session was just marvelous.

Anyway - I was taken back by a comment of one of my group members about the kinds of posters you see around Penn State, the ones that have representation from seemingly every ethnic group. She thought they were trite and hurtful - as opposed to significant and helpful.

I think I'd put myself in the category of every little bit helps - so why not show diversity. The alternative is to not show it, and we know what that outcome will be.

I've regularly seen young women that I coach go through the kind of phenomena I think I'm thinking about - in that when they are exposed to alum who have an interesting job or go to an interesting school - they add it to their thinking. When not exposed to difference, they stay in their groove/rut. So in the end, I'm for demonstrations of diversity.

dave said:

The RRP group members reaction to the "Diversity" posters on campus mirrors my own: I'm embarrassed by their triteness. I think people respond to cries of selfless honesty. It would be interesting to see what someone who is passionate could come up with instead.

Are the differences I feel ones of semantics or of very fine shades of meaning? If something obviously demonstrates diversity, there's a sense of insincerity about it. If something demonstrates the culture of your workplace, campus, or neighborhood it's honest. Like the difference between a posed photo smile and a natural smile captured in a photo with friends, I don't think diversity for the camera works.

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April 18, Symposium 2009; reimagine.
New content. Symposium 2008.Digital Commons at Penn State. Improve the workplace; hire for variety.


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