#9: Representation in Design: The Ethical Dilemmas of Diversity and Inclusivity


The podcast discusses the importance of representation in design. The hosts define representation as portraying diversity in imagery, content, and accessibility to be inclusive of different demographics.

They explain how a lack of representation can alienate users and cause legal issues. For example, not accounting for colorblind users or accessibility needs.

The hosts emphasize research, involving diverse users, and focusing on empathy and inclusivity in the design process. Imagery should avoid stereotypes and reflect society’s diversity. This makes designs more innovative, relatable, effective, and profitable. However, overly forced diversity can seem disingenuous. Accessibility should consider impairments beyond just visual disabilities. Sites should have options to change fonts, colors, etc.

The hosts conclude that representation should be holistic, not just diverse images, and they recommend vetting clients to avoid issues.

Action Items

  • Research best practices for accessible web design and content.
  • Audit imagery on website and other materials to ensure diversity and avoid stereotypes.
  • Consider opportunities to involve diverse users in design process and user testing.
  • Look into third-party plugins to improve accessibility with options for fonts, colors, etc.
  • Update client contracts and website messaging to reinforce commitment to diversity and representation.
  • When onboarding new clients, have discussions to ensure alignment on diversity and inclusion.
  • Explore adding page on website detailing core pillars like diversity, accessibility, etc.
  • For next design project, focus on empathy and put myself in the position of diverse users.
  • Set up process to continuously evaluate website, content, and designs for opportunities to improve representation and accessibility.


Monique Jenkins:  Welcome back to the Design Imposter podcast. I’m one of your hosts, Monique Jenkins, and today we’re gonna discuss a topic that’s becoming more and more vital in the design world, and that’s representation in design. 

Monique Jenkins:  If you’re as familiar with what representation is per the Oxford Dictionary, representation is a description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way, or is being of a certain nature. 

Monique Jenkins:  An example of that is seeing people of your race, religion, sex, or a million other attributes represented in places and spaces so that you can imagine yourself there. Representation in design is so important to my business. 

Monique Jenkins:  It fuels so many of my extracurricular activities, with nonprofits that I’m a part of, and businesses that I want to bring into my respective business and work with, and I try to make sure that it’s reflected in all of the work that you see presented on my site. 

Jessica Valis: Monique, this is definitely your area of passion. This is your niche right here, underrepresented minorities. But this is something every business owner needs to be conscientious of. When it comes to representation, there’s more than one type of user. 

Jessica Valis: In addition to race, you need to be considered of demographics, such as age, religion, education, and gender. And while you want to be considered of your niche, you want to ensure your company is inclusive. 

Monique Jenkins:  I think we talked about this in a previous episode, but we are talking about, I think you were talking about how older women are portrayed in advertisements and how they always have the gray here and that’s not representative of your grandmother or minds for that matter. 

Monique Jenkins:  That is a trope that you see pretty often and it’s not representative of every older woman that’s out there in industry. You kind of see those images get recycled and reused and they become stereotypes for what this person should look like. 

Monique Jenkins:  Representation is essential because it ensures that designs reflect a diverse user base that will interact with it. It is absolutely about inclusivity and understanding different perspectives and creating designs that speak for everyone. 

Monique Jenkins:  Jess, can you give us an example of how lack of representation can impact design? 

Jessica Valis: Absolutely. I remember this one time that I was looking into getting solar panels for my roof, and a representative came over, mapped out the square footage, and we’re discussing some of the perks and benefits. 

Jessica Valis: She had some brochures with her, lots of greens, because green is, you know, for energy and efficiency. And then there was a lot of deep oranges for some of the text. And I realized the colors won’t work for everybody, like my dad, who was colorblind. 

Jessica Valis: It was orange text over a green background, and he wouldn’t be able to see it. I told her that. And of course the representative, she has nothing to do with the design, but considering one in 12 men is colorblind, that’s a large percentage of potential buyers who are going to be missing out on critical information. 

Jessica Valis: So in this regard, the representation necessarily isn’t the imagery of, you know, my father and the people like him, but the representation is recognizing an impairment of the colorblindness. Likewise, consider a mobile app that’s designed without considering the accessibility needs of visually impaired users. 

Jessica Valis: The lack of representation in the design process can lead to a product that’s unusable for a significant portion of the population. And in UX design, empathy plays a key role in ensuring that we understand our users and we design with all users in mind. 

Monique Jenkins:  Yeah, agreed. There have been so many celebrities that have been sued recently because of a lack of accessibility in design. And I think accessibility, representation, and inclusivity is incredibly important when you’re designing something and you need to take all three of those things into account. 

Monique Jenkins:  But not being representative in your content and your accessibility can be a costly mistake for organizations to the tune of millions of dollars. I think the celebrity that comes to mind for me is Rihanna. 

Monique Jenkins:  I think her site did not have any alt tags on any of the images on her site. And I think someone who was using a screen reader sued her for, I don’t know, maybe three to five million? 

Jessica Valis: Yeah, I see this problem all the time, especially when my clients are providing me images. And I tell them, change the image from image-65 to Jessica Valis-stands-by-the-window-and-its-raining.jpg. 

Jessica Valis: Because it’s much more descriptive. And when you upload the image, somebody who has a program that reads the images to them, that is going to read better than image 65 because they’re like, I don’t know what the heck that is. 

Jessica Valis: So use your descriptive language for your users. But also, side note, Google will penalize you if you don’t do this. So… Thank you. 

Monique Jenkins:  Yeah. Yeah, you have to keep those things in mind. And I think that’s more about being organized and how you redesign or restructure a website is that these are two diligence that you have to think about and they are very tedious. 

Monique Jenkins:  You could have 500 images on your site and all of them need to have alt ads. And the code needs to be written in a way so that if a screen reader has to intersect with that, that it comes off properly. 

Monique Jenkins:  And I just don’t think people do that as Austin. Yeah. 

Jessica Valis: And then there are tools too that can help you. So if you have gone through and you’ve relabeled all of your images, for example, like Jessica Valles by Windowsill, then if you, I mean, you have to go into the image once you’ve uploaded it and type that in. 

Jessica Valis: But there are plugins that if you have the descriptive file name, it’ll take that file name and make that the alt text for you automatically. So you’re not going through manually and duplicating and redoing redundant work. 

Jessica Valis: So that’s kind of a cheat, especially for some of my larger clients. Like I have a radio station and there’s just thousands and thousands and thousands of images. So I’m trying to encourage the rename it and then, you know, what, at least do that because it’s a lot of work to be accessible. 

Monique Jenkins:  And I don’t think that people are like, oh, I’m just a small website. No one’s going to care or no one’s coming to my site. But you never know what audience you’re touching. Obviously, you want to be intentional about the audience segment that you’re going after and you want to do your diligence and look at your own data. 

Monique Jenkins:  But you also want to make sure that in the event that someone does come to your website, that you’re able to use your site in a way that seems logical. And that’s as simple as like, I think you need to have the ability to use a tab button to get across your website. 

Monique Jenkins:  So to go to all your CTAs, images and all those different things. Those are things that are accessibility issues that people need to look for and are representative of specific populations. So just be diligent about those things. 

Monique Jenkins:  So, Jessica, what do you think representation ties into graphic design? 

Jessica Valis: Well, in graphic design, representation means using imagery and visuals that reflect the diverse society we live in. It’s about avoiding stereotypes and creating designs that resonate with different cultures, genders, and backgrounds. 

Monique Jenkins:  Yeah, so representation doesn’t just make ethical sense, it makes business sense too. 

Jessica Valis: Exactly. By embracing diverse perspectives, designers create more innovative, relatable, and effective designs. In the end, that leads to more satisfied users and potentially higher business returns. 

Jessica Valis: If I have a client that mostly identifies with retired white couples based on the demographics of their location, I’m going to make sure the imagery reflects this. But I’m also going to make sure that I’m adding a black family, Latinx, or blended families, because we miss out on opportunities when we singularly focus on one type of individual. 

Jessica Valis: And you have to show that your business is inclusive. So if somebody does come, maybe you do work primarily with retired white men. But if somebody is a retired black man and they don’t see themselves on their website, they’re going somewhere else. 

Jessica Valis: So for you, is it you will… I know that our clients are white men, but I’m going to add imagery here that reflects for anybody so you can see we are an inclusive business. What are your thoughts on this? 

Monique Jenkins:  Yeah, it’s like blended families like you never know. Even the white men that you are specifically targeting for your website, they live in the world and the world is inclusive of a bunch of different people. 

Monique Jenkins:  Their family dynamics are made up of a bunch of different things. So you just say to be kind of thoughtful of that. But as a person of color, I know that I’m always looking for more people who look like me in different spaces. 

Monique Jenkins:  And I think that we’ve gotten to a place where we are seeing more black people representatives represented in different spaces and in different places that I don’t think that we did probably 10 or 20 years ago. 

Monique Jenkins:  But that doesn’t mean that I only want to see black people. It also means that I want to see people who are differently abled and I want to and not just one type of black person because they love to put a black person inside of a commercial with a little song and dance, a little ditty bop. 

Monique Jenkins:  I don’t like it. I don’t like it. Every single time I see someone shucking and jibbing in a commercial, I’d be like, no. 

Jessica Valis: Or what about that client we had where they focused on minorities and they only wanted very dark black individuals. And you’re like, that’s not my shade. Yeah. There’s more than one type of black. There’s more than one type of brown in Caucasian. 

Monique Jenkins:  Exactly. We are a diverse subset of people and black people, all spectrums. The lightest of lights, the darkest of darks, blonde, blue -eyed, all the in -betweens, we in there. But I think that we have to do a better job of making sure that even outside of race that we incorporate things, differences in who we are and what we wish to see. 

Monique Jenkins:  And I always think about that as some kind of design agent. So how can designers ensure that they’re incorporating representation in their work and not just representation of people who look like them, but representation more holistically? 

Jessica Valis: Research is key. Understanding your audience, involving them in the design process, and maintaining a focus of empathy and inclusivity can lead to a design that truly represents its users. And you as a UX designer, you get to do this every single day, where you’re taking those steps to understand the user, and when you don’t have that UX background or aspect of your website redesign, you’re kind of losing out on this. 

Jessica Valis: So what about you? What are your thoughts on all this? 

Monique Jenkins:  Yeah, I would agree. I think researching different ways that you can be representative is important. I have seen websites that are super effective at interacting with screen readers. I’ve seen websites that are really good about being inclusive of people who have dyslexia. 

Monique Jenkins:  So the font changes and the color scheme changes based on what someone is trying to do. And it’s not even that you have to necessarily do that on your site, but you can add a plugin like a third-party plugin that you can incorporate on your site that gives you a variety of options that you can do to make sure that your site is accessible on all of these different levels. 

Monique Jenkins:  Outlet that we know about is many of them as humanly possible, but there are a couple and we should totally do an episode on how you can integrate third -party accessibility onto your site to make sure that you are being representative of that audience segment. 

Monique Jenkins:  Absolutely. 

Jessica Valis: Real quick though, I know that on your phone, for example, when if you’re, for example, visually impaired, like your phone will read the text. So for, yeah, I mean, you know, you can use script. The phone’s going to read it. 

Jessica Valis: But I mean, for somebody who is dyslexic or, you know, has difficulty reading, when you use those scripty fonts, maybe you’re not alienating the people who are visually impaired, but you’re alienating those who are not going to be able to make out what the letters are to begin with. 

Jessica Valis: So you have to be consider of that as well. 

Monique Jenkins:  Yeah, I think the way the app works is that you design it. So, you know, I’m a fan of Poppins right now. That’s my font. That’s why I’m going to font. And Poppins. But yeah, you can like design it in Poppins. 

Monique Jenkins:  And then there’s like a, just like you have like the little chat box at the bottom of your computer screen and it pops up and it tells you a bunch of stuff. This will pop up with like an accessibility kind of pot. 

Monique Jenkins:  And then you’re able to change the settings on that in order to change how accessible the page that you’re looking at is, depending on what you’re, you know, what’s happening with you and what you need it to be. 

Monique Jenkins:  Which I think is super interesting. I’ve not used it yet, but I’d want to incorporate it on my own website to make it more accessible. And I’ve been looking around at a couple of different ones to kind of see which ones kind of work. 

Monique Jenkins:  So all of that to say, being representative in the world that we live in, it’s absolutely imperative and that you should do that and all of the things that you do and all of the sectors that people work in in order to just create a better world for everyone. 

Monique Jenkins:  But I do have a question, which is not a question we prep for, but I asked, I put it in there anyway for you, Jessica. Okay, all right. What would you do if you had a client who did not want to be representative in the work that you were creating for them? 

Monique Jenkins:  So I know we had a similar situation before, but if someone was like, nope, I don’t want those black people on my website, I’m not gonna use black because that’s essentially the topic right now. I don’t want them white people on my website. 

Monique Jenkins:  What would you do? Or how would you like have that discussion with your client? 

Jessica Valis: Okay, first I’m gonna flip it because I had a client who was checking out one of my previous designs and she only looked at like one page of the website and she was like right on the cost of signing the contract and she was like Jessica, um, I’m a little concerned looking at this site because I only see Older white men on here and I need to have representation on my site and I was like whoa, whoa, whoa Diversity and inclusivity that is a pillar of my business and my life And you know education is among that two of those pillars too But if somebody if I was in the middle of the design and someone was like, yo, don’t put those white people on there I’m gonna put them on and you can you can change those pictures after the fact but you need to realize like my name is on this too and We or we can just stop the contract right there if we have a disagreement and you’ll just pay for the work That’s done and then you can take your design to someone else. 

Jessica Valis: I mean fortunately I’ve not had that incident happen and I think When we’ve talked in the past about feeling out your client If you’re getting certain vibes if they’re dropping some kind of you know, they’re joking in a negative way and you said that hate You know, you know, that’s not the client for you and that’s you know, that’s not how I align my business Yeah, have you had that happen to you? 

Monique Jenkins:  No, because I think that the base of my business is about supporting women of color. I don’t think I’ve ever had that problem. And we vet our clients. So like we talk about before, like their questionnaires from my side of the house, there’s a vibe check. 

Monique Jenkins:  I call them, I’m like, hey, can we work together? You know, I throw a couple of jokes out there, see if it lands. If it doesn’t, I’d be like, I don’t know about this. So I think that we do due diligence in that sense so that we could potentially get that vibe. 

Monique Jenkins:  And I haven’t had this experience as of yet. But I’m willing to drop a client in a second. I’m not doing this with you. Because I get paid upfront. I accept all of my revenue in the first payment. So once and it’s in my contract, once the payment is cashed, there are no refunds. 

Monique Jenkins:  There’s no interjections. And there was a bunch of stipulations inside of my contract about the fact that, like, you know, if we come to a place where there is an agreement or a line, both parties can exit this without any repercussions. 

Monique Jenkins:  There will be no refunds. But, you know, I hope that you find success with another designer who is more inclined to design in the way that you think and you want. But because, you know, design by either of our businesses is a big investment, I would think that the client did their due diligence on us just like we do our due diligence on them. 

Monique Jenkins:  So not at this point, but we’ll see. Yeah, I think. 

Jessica Valis: I think this might be a really good clause to include in your contract as well, or even just to have something like this on your website. For example, I think I’ve started to prep a page about this, about my core pillars. 

Jessica Valis: One of them is, I’ve said before, education, another is diversity and inclusivity. And so you can have on your website, this is a core pillar, and if these don’t align, then we won’t align. Or to have maybe somewhere in your contract that you refuse to do anything hateful or something that excludes a certain demographic based on hate or something negative like that. 

Jessica Valis: This is to protect yourself even more, but also just to show, I mean, you’re not down for that. 

Monique Jenkins:  I’m trying to think through like recent advertisements and things like that that I’ve probably taken in over the past couple weeks to see what group I think is more underrepresented right this second than any other group. 

Monique Jenkins:  And I think that for me, it’s always people who are differently abled. I don’t see as many of them in movies and pictures and graphic content on like super fun websites. And I think I was like watching a video the other week about a father who built a like, what’s it amusement park, some type of amusement park for his daughter, who was in a wheelchair because typical parks like to zoom world or, you know, six flags or whatever the case is like they can’t. 

Monique Jenkins:  They don’t have the capacity to allow those people on those rides because they haven’t built with accessibility in mind and like how I don’t see that reflected even in the things that we do like I think I was buying like tickets to Baltimore Ramans game and my father needs a wheelchair and I could not find seating for him at all at the game. 

Monique Jenkins:  I don’t know if like all of the seating, I’m sure all of the seating had been taken. I was like, what do they have like 20 or 30 seats like, do you need more seats for people or a little chair so that I could bring him because he has early onset Alzheimer’s. 

Monique Jenkins:  So we’re like trying to get him to get out and like be more like active and in the world and he watches football religiously every single Sunday. And I felt really bad that I couldn’t find a game in the next like four or five weeks that I could take him to because there wasn’t seating and he cannot walk through the stadium, especially not with his like, but anyway, all of that to say. 

Jessica Valis: I went to Hershey Park a couple of weeks ago with a friend and we stood in line for this one roller coaster for like an hour and we get up and she has very wide hips and she couldn’t fit in the seat and they were like trying to shove her in there and she’s like, no, like my hips are wide. 

Jessica Valis: I cannot fit in this seat. And I said, do you have, you know, a seat for wider individuals? Because I feel like a lot of rides do. It’s usually like in the back, there’s a designated row on like every set of cars that come through and I mean, these are just teenagers, you know, working their summer job and they’re like, no, we don’t. 

Jessica Valis: And then, you know, so I ended up going on the ride by myself. I hate it because it’s not inclusive. I can’t enjoy something with my friend now. And I got off and then, you know, we looked up and I was like, oh man, that guy looks really, really big, like bigger than you. 

Jessica Valis: And somehow he got on that ride. So maybe there was a special seat, but they’re just worn enough to be inclusive. Kind of. All right. So I, this has come up a couple times and I’m going to call it like diversity stuffing. 

Jessica Valis: And it’s when you’re watching a show and there is like, you know, the white teen, the black teen, the LGBT person, there’s the friend in the wheelchair, there’s somebody else who’s experimenting sexually. 

Jessica Valis: And like, how do you feel about that? Is that like a true representative of representation of society? Or do you think like, sometimes it’s like trying to be too much? 

Monique Jenkins:  I think sometimes it’s trying to be too much. I don’t think that you have to have, you don’t have to have all of those people in the same scene with each other. Like you could spread it out across a couple of like, like if it’s an hour and a half, like you could spread it out. 

Monique Jenkins:  They don’t all have to be breakfast clubbing it, sitting in the same room together for joking. The misfits crew. 

Jessica Valis: This whole show is about diversity. Exactly. Yeah, I hear a lot of this from people who watch Disney movies. And like the new stuff that comes out, like they’ll be like, oh, for the very first time Disney shows, LGBTQ couple. 

Jessica Valis: And they’re like, no, it’s they’ve been in there for a while. And then people, why are they just shoving it in there? Like not every family is, you know, like this. So kind of a, you know, it’s kind of a controversial thing. 

Jessica Valis: We’re entering this new era where obviously we are trying to be, we say we as like a society, not we as you and me. We as a society are trying to be more accepting of diversity and accepting people for who they are as they are. 

Jessica Valis: And obviously there’s still a lot of individuals who are not okay with this or there’s religious conflicts and everything. But it’d be, you know, it’s just things I hear as I’ll be like, oh, did you see this show? 

Jessica Valis: What did you think? And they’d be like, it just felt like too much. You know, I couldn’t relate to anything because they just shoved in every demographic trying to please everybody. 

Monique Jenkins:  I’m trying to think of that Netflix show that does it. It’s like the one where there’s like a school shooter or something and then the net, I hate the show. I don’t know what it is, it’s like 15 seconds, 10 seconds. 

Monique Jenkins:  Something seconds, words and then seconds after. The seconds might not even be in there, but I’d like, come on, bro, come on, like come on. We don’t have to do this. Like we don’t have to do this. I don’t love it. 

Monique Jenkins:  So yeah, I think that there is a balancing act between using representation for good and then just shoving a bunch of people onto a site just to be like, yeah, we’re accessible. And it’s not even about just like the visual imagery. 

Monique Jenkins:  It’s about a holistic, holistically being a representative of different people and populations and things like that. And I think that like, by and large, I think that people think of representation as like, if I could just showcase someone of a bunch of different races, that’s enough when that isn’t enough. 

Jessica Valis: Yeah. And you know what? If you’re not going the imagery route, that’s fine. I have plenty of client sites where they don’t actually show people aside from their teens. And that is 100% okay to do. So instead of having an image of, you know, a diverse family, if it’s an accounting firm, maybe they’re just going to put a picture of town because they’re really big into their local community or something. 

Jessica Valis: And I think that’s totally fine to do because you’re showing the inclusivity of your town and it’s not just a generic stock photo. So again, like you said, it’s all about the holistic and the feel of everything. 

Monique Jenkins:  I think this is probably a good note to wrap on because we want to have a separate episode about accessibility. So thank you guys for listening. Join us next time for more deep dives into the fascinating world of design until then keep designing with empathy and inclusivity and representation in mind. 

Monique Jenkins:  See ya. 

Jessica Valis: Bye.