Designing for Black Lives and the Politics of Creation: A Conversation with Kristy Tillman

In the current cultural moment many of us are looking for new solutions to centuries old problems, and it's clear that and we'll have to go beyond traditional activism and organizing to find them.

Kristy Tillman is design director at Society of Grownups, a financial literacy startup, and the co-founder of the Detroit Water Project. Her latest project, Tomorrow Looks Bright, curates Black women's creative work in a weekly newsletter. Tillman is also an alumna of Florida A&M University.

She sat down with editor-in-chief, Kimberly Foster, for a discussion on the new possibilities design presents and how to get more Black designers seats at the table.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

For Harriet: I told somebody yesterday I was going to come and interview a designer, and I realized that a lot of people have no conception of what that is outside of fashion. What do you do?

Kristy Tillman: That's the general frame. People know fashion design, and that's pretty much it. Then they might know graphic design, but they probably don't really even understand the depth of that. Basically, I lead a team here and I work on brand and product. What that means is that I actually work on what we sell and lead the team through that. Then I work on how we look, which is kind of the brand design. The basic definition of design is rendering with intent and then there's lots of processes and methodologies, and the school of thought behind how you go about doing that. How do you build products? How do you make things look? There's a whole school of thought about that. I actually, went to design school, and I'm a trained graphic designer. I went through a typical Bauhaus, Swiss-inspired program. Then I worked at a couple of athletic shoe companies and really kind of cut my teeth learning brand there and product design.

Then I went to IDEO, spent about four years [there] and I got a huge breadth of problem solving skills. I worked on diabetes pens, lupus pens, apps for banking, mental health, [and] packaging for 2,000 pound paper rolls. You name it, we solved it. Culture transformation projects and everything, so I got a huge depth of range there because it was a consultancy. You kind of worked on problems for all these different types of companies like Lily, and Azucca, and some other really large companies.

I came to Society of Grownups and now I kind of work on one thing. We offer a lot of different things, so I lead the team through exercises in really thinking, "How do we solve the needs for customers." That's really what it essentially comes down to. How do you build products in a way that it pulls people in, they use it, it becomes sticky, and helps them solve their problems.

FH: How did you get into design?

: I went to FAMU, and I was a business major. My mom was like, "You should go to business school." I was like, "Okay." I was 17. You do what your parents say. I hated it. I did an internship at NASA. I was a budget analyst intern at NASA. At that time there was a message board that I was a member of and I met people who were designers. I spent a lot of time on art in high school, but it was just a hobby, right? You never think that you're going to do something with it. I met these guys, one of which I'm still very much in contact with, who were designers. I was like, "Oh, this is interesting. This is like a way you can monetize your art."

I actually taught myself Photoshop. I downloaded a pirated version of Photoshop. At that time you'd build websites by slicing images, so I made my first website for this girls company and I charged her $50 for it. I did as much of that as I could until I couldn't do it anymore. I was like, "You know, this is pretty cool." Actually went to grad school and got a co-op with the museum and they needed graphic help so I was able to also kind of extend myself there and I was like, "I'm not getting any better with this, but this is really cool and people are demanding it." I was getting positive feedback, even for the really bad designs. I mean it was horrible. I was like, "I can either go to a PhD program or I can go to design school." I applied to the PhD programs and design school at the same time. I got into both. I was like, "I think I'm going to do this design thing. I'm going to do something crazy." I was young.

I went to design school. I was like, "And I'm gonna go back ...," because I got a BFA in design, "I'm going to go back and do a second bachelors. I have to really do this. There's no other option. I can't fail at this. This has to work." My parents were like, "What the ..." They were like, "You're crazy. What are you doing? We're not giving you any money to do this, so don't ask." I just went out on my own and I moved to Atlanta and I spent a year there and then I transferred schools to Kansas City.

I did internships at Payless and Converse, and I spent a lot of time in the studio really nailing it. I graduated in 2009. The economy was dumb. They weren't taking anybody. Converse canceled my second internship. I was supposed to come back and work with them again, and they canceled my internship because they couldn't afford to pay me at that time, like a week before. I was devastated. I came out of design school and actually got a job at Reebok. I spent a year there as a fellow. I did product design there, so I did a lot of baby clothes, shoes, [and] classic shoes. I was doing graphics for those items and really learning the business of design.

What you do in school is so much different than when you get into a corporation that actually has a business need to drive that. I spent some time there, and I kind of job hopped after that. Then I landed here.

It's been a long journey, and I think it's one of the best decisions I've made. I thought I was going to regret it, but I haven't. I'm glad I'm not an MBA. I'm glad I'm not wearing a suit every day. I don't miss those days at all. It's interesting how things have come 360, right? Here, at Society of Grownups, I spend a lot of time helping my boss, our CEO, understand design as a business tool. I'm helping enter the business, and using design for a higher purpose at the business level versus just making things. That's kind of the graduation from making things to really understanding it as a leadership competency than understanding it as the business competency. I do a lot of that.  It's like, "Oh, well, you're kind of back in the business seat but in a very different way."

FH: Is Society of Grownups describes itself as a startup?

KT: Yeah, we're a startup. A startup is just a phase, right? : A startup is just something that intends to get bigger.

FH: Okay. It grew out of IDEO?

KT: Yeah, so IDEO and MassMutual came together and conceived this concept over two years. I actually worked on Society of Grownups at IDEO and I loved the concept so I kind of stuck with it and came. I left IDEO to come here.

FH: Why choose to work for a start up?

KT: The thing about working at a consultancy like IDEO is you always do a really big project at a higher level, but you never really get to implement them. Businesses usually come to you and they have an idea of a need. You help them solve that one problem then you pass it off. As a designer, there's a couple of issues with that. It's a great skill to have, that pie in the sky, solving big problems [skill], but at some point, you really want to implement your solutions. When you hand them over to a company, they [might] loose the design intent. I've designed things that will never make it to the market just because of the process. It's like, "Okay." It was time to learn a new skill.

A startup, because startups don't have a ton of money, is a breeding ground for learning skills, learning the business of design. I was the first design hire so everything was on me. Then I learned how to build a team and how to use design at the business level. I've been here a year in July. I've learned as much in that year and some change than my whole design career. The growth has been accelerated because it's such a scrappy environment to be in.

FH: What kind of skills do you have and what kind of skills have you honed that help you thrive?

KT: Understanding how to translate needs into actionable items. Design is really about problem solving, so what I do is listen to people who don't quite have a sense of what they need and help them figure out what that is and how to go about solving that. That's what all of us do here. Whether you do that on the higher level with business or "This product isn't working quite like we need it to. How can we improve it?" All of us designers are always just problem solving. We help other parts of the organization figure things out. If someone says, "Oh, I need x, y, z for this experience." It's like, "Okay, what does that really mean?" We say, "Oh, well how about we approach it this way or that way." You help people expand their range of thought to solve a problem. That's kind of what we do. That's what I've been doing here at a much higher level.

Building a team has really been instrumental. This is my first time leading a design team. As you can see, I have my books. I'm really schooling myself in the business of leading teams. How to hire people has been probably one of the most interesting things that I've been learning how to do. As each new person comes on, I'm slowly getting better at it. You know how to assess people, but also how to give my job away. As you bring people on, you give your job away and you find new things to do.  I'm really getting comfortable with being able to give my job away every time we bring someone on and onboarding them properly so that they can start to contribute to the organization. Then we can find new ways to help the business solve problems. That has been a really instrumental thing.

FH: I love the idea of design as problem solving. I think that following you and getting to learn more about design and the breadth of what it encompasses has taught me a lot about how ubiquitous design is.  We are in a point culturally where we're looking for solutions to huge problems. It's not just about reform, but tear it down, start over. I'm interested in how what you do can connect to the larger structural issues that we are trying to find solutions for.

KT: That's a great question. I don't have a answer, but it is the question that has been on my brain. That's actually why I started my blog because I want to start working those things out. I've been involved with Boston Youth Design. Boston Youth Design brings in Black and Latino talented high schoolers and puts them in a design setting and pays them to be design interns for the summer. I've gotten a chance to mentor a group of those kids. One thing that has occurred to me is that because design has this rigor of problem solving, more of us needs to be exposed to it in order to start applying that thinking to cultural issues.

That is exactly where I am in my career now. Design is an agent of business and has lived in the business domain for so long that it's actually just coming into it's own. John Maeda who used to be the president of RISD and was instrumental in starting the MIT Media Lab, has done this design and tech report where he's really tracking the business of design and how design companies are being acquired now. We're at this really critical cultural moment where people know the importance of design. Designers are aware of design where they used to not be. I think the next step to that is starting to use those processes on ourselves, our own eyes, and some of the larger cultural issues.

One of the things I've been really wanting to examine, too, is how do we approach problem solving? Design is not a neutral thing. My program was based on Bauhaus and Swiss design. That is a way of thinking. Different cultures always have their own ways of thinking. Even when we look at design processes like design thinking, which is sort of the buzzword now, which was developed at IDEO and is a process of building and iterating really fast, and going through empathy exercises in order to understand populations. Is that even the way to approach it? What would an African or Black-centered way of approaching problem solving look like? When you talk about investigating institutions, and not being tied to anchor ideas, and rethinking them, I would like to go even further and look at the processes and challenge that. Is that the right way to go?

I'm highly aware that the way that we solve problems is not neutral culturally. When you start to want to say, "Oh, I want to apply this to maybe an issue in our community." Is that the right way? What would our methodology look like. Those are the things that I'm kind of starting to interrogate myself. I started my blog to give myself a space to write about those things, and think about those things, and get feedback.

FH: I guess what we would need to even begin that process is to have a significant number of Black people in the room doing this work. Do you know a lot of black designers?

KT: I'm actually working on an article for my blog about hiring for diverse teams. I've been very intentional about that, so our team is pretty diverse. If you go look on our website you can see we only have one white male on our design team and that's very unusual. In my own personal circle, I probably have three Black designers that I know personally, that are friends. I've met a lot on Twitter. I'm actually compiling a list. I have gone through LinkedIn, and when I meet people on Twitter, I'm actually compiling a list because I have some intentions to do something with this.

There aren't a ton of us, so all of the information you see about diversity in tech, the same thing applies to design. It's actually probably worse. It's my sense that even design is behind on talking about it. Our AIGA, which is kind of the national association for design, they feel like they're just getting their feet wet to start having this conversation.

There are more than I thought, but there aren't a lot, and we're not concentrated. I'm like "Wow, you exist!" The Design Exchange Boston is happening this weekend, which is a conference being held by AIGA Boston, and I had no idea that the Director of UX at Vine is a Black guy. It was just by going through their conference bill. We're not connected

FH: UX is User Experience?

KT: Right. We're not connected at all. This is a major tech company that got acquired by Twitter and the guy that's leading the design of it is Black. The creative director of The Atlantic is Black, right?

FH: Who knew?

KT: Exactly. There are some of us. We're in little nooks and crannies, but like you said there aren't a lot.

FH: How do you solve it? Is it a pipeline problem? Is it an exposure problem?

KT: Yeah. I think it's both. A lot of us are first generation college graduates, maybe second if we're super lucky. People don't send their kids to school to go to art school, which is where you get educated about design. That sounds crazy to Big Mama and whoever else has been saving, and hoping, and dreaming. You are the golden nugget of the family, and we're all in this together. They're not going to art school. You're going to business school like where my parents sent me. That's problem number one. We're just not exposed to it, and I don't think, in terms of career wise, people understand the implications of what it means.

First of all, design is a very well paid career. You can make a very decent middle class salary, and in some instances, as much as a lawyer or a doctor. That's number one. You can make a good living and I don't think people really realize that.

Number two, I don't think people understand that making is cultural commentary. You realize that the entire Black imagination is missing from store shelves. It's missing from clothing racks. It's missing off the street from cars. It is on the body. That's one place we do have it, but it's missing from everywhere else. We have it in some books. We have a good number of black authors, but in general the entire Black imagination is missing. We're not creating commentary through making. It's not monetized. That is huge. There's been a lot of stuff about the soap dispenser that you put your hand under doesn't work for Black people. My friend Jackie uploaded his picture to Google Apps and Google photos and it tagged him and his friend as apes. When you see these things breaking down constantly, you know there aren't people at the table.

I've been at the table saving projects. If I worked there, I know it would have gone completely wrong. The implications of us not being at the making table in a real way is tremendous. What I'm starting to see, though, and I really want to write about this, is sort of like a Black Renaissance or a black Harlem Renaissance re-do. Black people are making things. You're setting a great example, Tristan Walker with Bevel. All of those businesses that have sprung up around hair and beauty products. I just found this African fable interactive story app.

Black people are starting to make things and we're starting to make business out of them in a more visible way. We've always been doing that but it just hasn't been as visible. I think the internet, obviously has been helping raise the level of consciousness about that. Relative to us over here, it's still really, really small. I don't think people think about it in that way. The other two biggest things, it's defiantly pipeline issue. It's definitely an exposure issue, and it just has real implications that I don't think people have thought about.

FH: Whenever we talk about the invisibility of Black people in any space, the push back always is, "Don't wait for them to find you." Right? Meaning don't wait for the people who are in control who have the money and have the resources to find you. People are always saying, "Just do it yourself." Like you said, Black people have always been making things. There's a value in that. What is the value of going to the people and through the people with the resources?
KT: I mean, resources.

It raises the fidelity. The real thing is you need capital. That's just the in and out of it. We can say, you know, "Skip that channel. Let's do it ourselves." I really would love for that to be the case. Trust me I would. We have a constraint of capital amongst ourselves. It raises the level of fidelity. For example, what Tristan Walker's been able to do with Bevel is huge. I'm really rooting for them to succeed. He's been Tweeting that they're coming out with their second product. He's been able get it to more people. That's another thing. You can be Little Rhonda's Hair Beauty Supply on Twitter, and that's okay too, but that just has such a limited scope, and a limited magnitude, and resources allows us to have greater impact, greater magnitude, greater visibility.

One of the other things that it does is that it allows us to continue to perpetuate wealth. The interesting thing about it to me is, you talk about tech and not being hired by tech companies. Getting Black people jobs in white tech companies is like a mediocre goal to me. Getting people in early stage startups so they can get connections to access the equity, and then those companies flip. Now you have just minted a millionaire who can go and invest in other small businesses.

If you think about all the people who missed the Facebook IPO or missed the LinkedIn IPO, missed the Twitter IPO. All of those people who were denied jobs just missed out on opportunity to be minted and to be able to help other people. We have to begin the pipeline. I feel like it's really a progression. You need people to play the game and then once we get enough resources of our own, then obviously we can start creating our own channels. I feel like you have to go through that fire at some point. It's the decision everyone's going to have to come to make if you get big enough.

FH: Do you ever feel moral tension because ... I'll say this is something that I struggle with because we understand that systems of capitalism are inherently oppressive, right?

Do you ever feel conflicted about the necessity to acquire capital and navigate these oppressive systems and the fact that the systems that you're working within will always serve to oppress the people that you want to help?

FH: I haven't gotten to that point. I worked with the Detroit Water Project, and it went through Y Combinator which is one of the premiere Silicon Valley incubators. Tiffani [Bell]'s been doing that with the company, and that project went from a small side project on Twitter to now the full fledged non-profit. She and I have had those conversations. I haven't really had to deal with that yet, but in my career itself, I purposely have turned down specific jobs that might have been lucrative because of what they did.

I have a personal philosophy that I have wanted to work with companies that have at least some kernel of social good. Here we work on democratizing financial literacy. All of our stuff is super low cost, so people can walk in and get help with their finances and not have to deal with the Certified Financial Planner gang where you have to have a million dollars in liquid assets to get help.

I've been offered jobs with places that probably could have gotten me much further than I am now, and because I have personally said that I did not want to use my skills on things that I find mundane, like I would never work at a parking lot app company or a photo company that did filters, I've actually have come up against that. Hopefully it does happen, and I'm going to tell you now: I'm going to take the money. I have an end game. I'm just be honest. I'm going to take the money. As long as it doesn't come out of the most evil person's pocket or with crazy strings attached. I just feel like it's a necessary evil.

If I ever want to get to the point where I can invest in underrepresented startups or invest in Black women businesses, I can't do that on my salary. I mean I can. I can do the little PayPal button stuff, but in a real way that gives impact, you know. You just have to have a certain amount of capital to get things done, that's just it.

FH: You mentioned your work with the Detroit Water Project. How did the Detroit Water Project even come about?

KT: Basically me and Tiffani, we actually tried to work on another side project together that just didn't work out. We couldn't figure out the technology behind it. Then we saw an article that said the United Nations is coming into Detroit because of the water issue and we were like, "What the Hell? We're the United States. What do we need the UN for?" We were like, "We just want to help." The obvious thing to do was to help people pay their bills because Detroit was cutting off water. After doing a little digging, we found a PDF that had some delinquent business on it and their account numbers. We plugged the account number in the web site and realize that you can get into the back end of the website with just an account number. You didn't need a password or anything and you could see anyone's bill.

We were like "Okay, all we need is account numbers and we can pay someone's bill. Okay, so whose bill are we going to pay? Let's just throw a spreadsheet out there and see if we can find people who we can help." I posted it on a Facebook group. I saw a Daily Beast article that had a woman's tee shirt on it, and there was a URL on the tee shirt. I went to the URL of the Facebook group of this issue. I posted it on there. We spent two days putting this all together. The people who needed help and the people who wanted to help just started flooding in, literally. We had both intended it to be like "Maybe we'll pay a bill, and maybe a couple of our friends on Twitter will sign up." We had no intentions of it going bananas. Then it just started going gang busters. We got a slew of press, National Geographic, BET, it was nuts.

I think around the sixth month or so we took a hundred thousand dollars and we're like "Okay, this is something real." It was just continuing to grow, and we applied to Y Combinator like "Okay, this could be a real business."She and I had a conversation, the result was that she would continue on with the business and that's what she's doing, and I'm here at Society of Grownups.

Literally, I started working here the same month that happened. I was literally at our old office in the conference room on my break doing NPR interviews between work. It happened at the same time, and I wasn't prepared to move to California and to leave my job to do that full time. She's carrying on with the business as Executive Director and doing a really good job. She's expanded to Baltimore and still paying bills.

FH: It seems to me like the Detroit Water Project directly connects to what your talking about earlier about design thinking being used to solve real life problems. I don't know if you want to share, you don't have to, but do you have any ideas for other sorts of problems that you are interested in tackling?

FH: I actually do. We're in a hyper-growth state here at Society of Grownups. Our team has literally tripled since I've been here. We're in a very interesting spot, so it's really hard for me to concentrate on other things. Banging out a blog post is about as good as it gets now. I actually do have some ideas, and I actually have an idea for another company that I would like to start and try. Hopefully when we calm down a little bit, I'm going to take some time off and see what I can do in a couple weeks. Then, you know, I have some other ideas in terms of affecting design curriculum. I'm doing a brief residency at MICA to talk about cultural competency in design. Really that's how do you start to help designers who are designing for people not like them?

There's no talk about that in any design curriculum I've ever seen. Definitely not the one I went through. No one has ever said "Hey, you're designing for people not like you. You should really think about that." In the design thinking process, there's this thing called empathy where you go through empathy exercises to help you get in the frame of mind of someone you might be designing for. For example, I worked on a project where we redesigned the mammogram experience. All the women on the team, we went and got mammograms, and went through that experience so that we had actually gone through it. There are just things you can't know if you're not that person. There are just lived experiences that you cannot get from an empathy exercise.

How do you start to train people who are making things for the globe to think about the effects of what they're making. I'm actually working on that. I have to design a workshop around it, and I'm going to teach it to five classes over the course of a couple of weeks. I have never seen that exist, so I'm going to be the first one. I guess I'm going to put it on my blog to share. I hope to start impacting in that way too, outside of just the monetization of some ideas to really start effecting how we train designers.

FH: Is it possible that the kind of training deters people of color away from design?

KT: I think that's a super interesting question.  Off top the amount that design schools cost is definitely a barrier. Design school is expensive as hell. Mine was, like, $40,000 a year. I think that is a deterrent, number one, and that is questionable for people. I'm not sure if there is anything necessarily in the training. I would have to really investigate that. I'd have to take some time to sit with that one.

I went through a graphic design program, and the interesting about that is I never thought I'd be where I am now. When I went to a graphic design program, it was because I like making stuff that looked good. That's why I was drawn to it. I never even had considered what the possibilities of design could be passed branding stuff. It's just only through experience and meeting people and my own personal condition that I started to consider it in a wide way. I think this is a natural result of being a professional. What if you could speed that process up? I haven't seen any design curriculum or programs that are centered around solving cultural problems. What if that existed versus a graphic design program, or a UX program, or something that's very discipline specific?  This idea of social impact design is starting to emerge, and I think SVA has a masters program around that.

FH: What's SVA?

KT: School of Visual Arts. It's in New York City. It's one of the bigger art schools. I'm starting to see stuff about social impact design, I haven't looked at those curriculums. I imagine that they're not centered on any particular group. What would a Black design school look like? What would a Black girls code for design look like? I've kind of thought of all these things.

Back to your other question about money. I do struggle with the idea of a non-profit versus a for profit business. Do I want to be immersed in a non-profit? I kind of want to be rich. I'm not going to even lie about that. I want to make money. I do. Could I dedicate my life to a non-profit? Those are some of the things that I have actually been wrestling with.

FH: Is that the reason why you're drawn to tech?

KT: No, I just have always been in tech. I've always been interested in technology, so that wasn't the specific reason. It just so happened that it's  a decently paying field.

FH: I've seen you tweet and talk about a lot the lack of diversity in tech and talk about culture. In the companies that you've been in, have you had any clashes with regards to company culture?

KT: Oh God. Yes. The answer is yes. When we talk about diversity, I saw a quote on Twitter, it was like "Diversity is bringing in different people and inclusion is making them feel safe when they're there." I feel like a lot of companies don't do a good job with that. I have worked at places where I didn't feel included or safe. I felt like the culture there was so strong that it even affected my performance. I'm actually having the opposite experience here, where I've been able to really grow.

Our CEO, her parents are from Bangladesh, we have a number of Black women on our team. We have a number of Latino people on our team. We have a number of LGBT people on our team. Our team is really diverse. It has really helped me a lot, career wise and culturally, to feel a lot safer here. I've been able to do much better work here than I have at other places that were more homogeneous. It's a real thing. I think HBR put out an article that about it. I can't remember the stat, but maybe 70% of people of color don't feel good about being at work.

FH: That seems low, honestly.

KT: Yeah, and you know what, it's a real impetus to start your own thing, too. There's been all this talk about Black women are the rising entrepreneurs of the country. You get fed up with that kind of stuff. To me, there's probably a huge connection.

FH: From this conversation, I have really started to think of design skills as critical thinking skills ...focused critical thinking skills. It seems like everybody should have that kind of experience and exposure. I'm wondering, where should we start? If I have a child and I want them to be exposed to that and see it as a viable path, how do I start them?

KT: That's interesting, the answer is, I have no idea. I don't know what exists for kids who want to be in design. I've heard story of the people who felt like they were born designers. It has tended to be people who were attracted to visual design. To me, obviously your solving visual problems, but that isn't the type of critical thinking that we're talking about here.

FH: Is it maybe exposure to certain ideas?

KT: Yeah, maybe the exposure to ideas, maybe the exposure to the profession. I don't think that exists. It needs to exist. I can't think of one way, if you had a kid what I'd tell you to do.

I might tell you to give them programs, but here's the thing, design means so many different things. Giving them Photoshop or Illustrator will teach them to start to maybe solve graphical or visual problems, and maybe that might lend them to exploring the field more, and then they might see all the opportunities. Design as a problem solving skill is a generalist field. Maybe you start them building apps and designing interfaces. Then they get exposed to that and, maybe, have a natural evolution that helps you apply this lens to other things. That's what happened to me.
FH: You seem pretty happy with your job. What do you enjoy most about doing this work?

KT: It's different all the time. One of the best things about being a designer is you get exposed to so many different topics. If you're a person like me, I have three degrees in three different things, and I could literally keep going to school if I could afford it, but I can't. If you're a designer, it's sort of the same thing.  I've told people, "It's like you're getting paid to go to grad school, because you have to get exposed to so many different topics." When I was at IDEO, I learned a ton about Type II Diabetes. I know a ton about Lupus. I know a ton about how paper is made. I can have in-depth conversations with you about Schizophrenia, about design thinking in the classroom. I could go down the list of all the projects I've worked on.

It's being exposed to all those different lenses and subjects. Here, I'm designing a team which is totally different, and really thinking about what are the things necessary to help people do their jobs well. I'm working on a cultural manual now for our team. It's always something different. You're kind of problem solving the same way, but it's always influenced by the subject matter. I think that's my favorite thing about it.

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