Inside Our Effort to Make Design Careers More Accessible

Inside Our Effort to Make Design Careers More Accessible

IDEO and RepresentEd share an eagerness to keep growing and expanding our fellowship program for underrepresented young designers
Jordan Cisneros (She, They)
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By the time Sasha Orewa graduated college in 2019, she had been exposed to plenty of things. Design research wasn’t one of them. Ditto UX, interaction design, or experience design. “While I had done a good deal of research and was familiar with evidence-based design in an academic setting, I had little knowledge about design-related career paths,” she explains, a scenario she sees as typical for a lot of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) students. “I think there are only certain paths presented to you as viable,” she says, “which is unfortunate because I think a lot of the systems and things that need redesigning disproportionally affect people of color.” And yet less than three years later, the public health and sociology major would find herself working on an IDEO design-research team.

She got there via Color by Design (CxD), RepresentEd’s newest fellowship designed for BIPOC in partnership with IDEO. The first cohort of design-research fellows will finish the program in June, and the experience has been groundbreaking: for IDEO and, we think, for the fellows, fewer than five of whom came to the fellowship with any previous design experience. That’s, well, by design.

“The program is about increasing access to design—not just to IDEO but the design industry as a whole,” says RepresentED CEO and founder Rashida Hanif. “CxD has served as a proof of concept that someone can go from zero design knowledge to designer and bring value from day one.”

After completing a three-month part-time professional training course that ran from September through November 2021, the 14 fellows have been integrated as full members of the IDEO community during their six-month fellowship. They’ve been working alongside IDEO employees on key client projects, among them engagements with a major tech company, projects around access to abortion, and the reimagining of the student experience at colleges like NYU.

They’re a month away from wrapping up, and IDEO had planned to keep the ball rolling by launching the application process for the next round of fellows this month. But we’ve decided to take a beat and will be postponing the next cohort until 2023. It’s not hesitation, it’s preparation. Together with RepresentED, we have a shared eagerness to keep growing and expanding, but that’s paired with a shared commitment to scale the program in a thoughtful way.

So many rich learnings have emerged since September. Rather than try to synthesize them and make adjustments in real time, we want to spend more time with our questions and give ourselves space to put our insights to work.

One of the biggest ones is that the fellows only participated in design research. We want to expand and scale CxD to other disciplines—perhaps communications design and experience design—and other divisions of IDEO have made it clear that they’d love to welcome fellows of their own. The opportunity is there, but it’ll take some additional work to put the pieces in place.

We’d also like to finesse the bootcamp aspect, the three months of training that precede the paid, full-time fellowship. As it stands, the bootcamp is largely focused on design thinking as a whole, with modules about design research, methodology, etc. We realized some of our fellows need deeper design research support, and we’d like to get ahead of that earlier in the bootcamp.

Getting the foundation right is important, and we are glad to be able to provide it. One fellow in this cohort was a freelance graphic designer who worked as a bartender. He told me CxD has changed the trajectory of his career and his life—and that’s a real gain for the industry. The fellows may not have deep design backgrounds, but they bring rich and varied experience to the table. Another worked as a doula and felt ready for a career change. Yet another worked on the White House’s National Economic Council. Others did content marketing for international fragrance companies, spearheaded community initiatives to inspire change, and co-founded creative agencies.

The reality is that if not for a program like this, IDEO would have probably overlooked their applications. There are so many barriers to entry within the design industry, and Sasha puts it so well: “It’s not that the fellows don't have experience that would make us successful designers, but that what is seen as relevant experience is often so narrow.” RepresentED has an uncommon ability to take a wide view, which has in turn allowed us to welcome folks whose perspective is missing.

The design industry has long been a homogeneous one (IDEO is no exception, with a U.S. community that is still only 5 percent Black, less than 1 percent Indigenous, and less than 7 percent Hispanic/Latinx.) We needed to expand access, and RepresentED excels in recruiting non-traditional candidates and among communities of color.

“Our sweet spot is people who studied the social sciences and humanities, the ones always told, ‘What are you going to do with that major?’ The ones who are told they have to get a graduate degree, or go into academia,” says Rashida. “They often aren’t aware of how vast their options are and how to present their skills to the job market as viable candidates. English students are incredible writers. Anthropologists understand people and culture. Transfer students bring an amazing life context to the table. We teach them how to use human-centered design to their advantage.”

She thinks of these candidates in a striking and insightful way: “I often feel like we live in a society where we like to throw away the beautiful things. I see them as this collage of beauty. There’s more of that than there is of the status quo.”

And CxD is proving to be a viable way to shift that status quo. It has also shifted things in IDEO’s internal structure. The program touches so many different parts of IDEO—the marketing team; team building, which oversees project teaming and staffing; IDEO’s Research and Insights cohort; and IDEO U, IDEO’s online learning platform. In the process of building up the program we’re learning how to create more equitable structures and thinking about how we onboard employees differently, too.

The fellows very intentionally have a strong network of support. In addition to their interactions with the CxD leadership team, each is assigned a manager and a craft mentor as well as a steward, an IDEO designer who holds a non-evaluative role and creates a safe space for the fellow to take any challenges to. As Sasha puts it, “It helped with building creative confidence. The attitude is, ‘You’re supposed to be here, but if you have a question you know where to go.’”

As for Sasha, she spent 14 weeks on the IDEO design research team that partnered with a major baby retailer to reimagine the registry experience. “The video of a Zoom interview I led with a parent—the first interview I had led—was used continually throughout the project,” she recalls. “That always felt like a rewarding moment: being reminded that those were insights I helped to uncover and the affirmation it provided that I had done a good job.” She moves to a new project this week.

“I’ve developed confidence in myself as a designer. I’ve been equipped with this toolbelt of skills that will be useful no matter where I end up,” Orewa says of her experience. “Last week I had a call with someone who saw I was a part of CxD but had a background in public health and reached out on LinkedIn to ask questions. That makes me excited, that there are people like me who are learning that the opportunities are out there. It’s the ripple effect.”

The next CxD cohort will launch by the end of 2023. We will share updates as we get closer to the recruitment season. If you have any questions, please contact

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Jordan Cisneros (She, They)
Jordan Cisneros serves as a Senior Content Lead on IDEO’s Talent Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion team. In their role, Jordan designs programs, systems, and processes centered in equity. Their motivation is to break down barriers to the field of design for communities of color historically gate-kept by the industry with the goal of creating more access to design knowledge, career paths, and empowerment. Currently, she leads the inaugural Color by Design fellowship program in partnership with local Bay Area nonprofit, RepresentEd Leadership.
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