A practical approach to queering design

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The co-founder of the Queer Design Club on what a queerer design industry would look like: more expressive, collective, and subversive.

8 min read

An illustration of a skeleton wearing a crown and carrying a scepter in mid-stride over all-caps pink text that reads, "Be Gay Do Design".

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As co-founder of Queer Design Club, I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about queer people in design; but not as much time thinking about “queering design.”

Honestly, I find the subject intimidating. I went to college for design, but not grad school, which I assume is where you learn to “look for alternate readings of texts,” “interrogate your personal narrative,” and get comfortable using “dialectic” in a sentence.

However, I’ve been out as a gay man for two decades, and a working designer for half that time, so I hope that my perspective on queering design might be helpful in supplementing those who are actual experts on the subject—whose work you should absolutely read.

We knew from AIGA’s design census that a disproportionate number of designers identify as LGBTQ+. We also saw that LGBTQ+ respondents earned less and didn’t stay in the field as long as their cisgender, heterosexual peers. But we didn’t have any real data on what the queer experience in design really was.

Images 1-3, left to right: Queer Design Club co-founders Rebecca Brooker and John Hanawalt and members Kelly Small, Seth Katz, Alex Chen, Richard Wade Morgan, and Jordan Green. Image courtesy John Voss.

The Queer Design Count was a survey we ran at the end of 2019 that received over 1,000 responses from all over the world. It turns out that it’s true that in a lot of ways design earns its reputation of being queer-friendlier than other fields, but it still has a long way to go. Although queer designers are half as likely as the American workforce as a whole to overhear anti-LGBTQ+ comments on the job, almost 90% of our respondents had experienced some kind of bias.

And that bias falls along familiar fault lines. Cis folks experience less bias than trans folks, white people are better represented than people of color. Men generally reported better experiences than… everyone else. I think that’s one of the most important takeaways from the count. When we talk about queer community, we’re not talking about a monolith, and we can’t talk about queer identity in a vacuum.

We also can't talk about queer people in design purely in terms of representation. When I look at designs created by the queer community, there are qualities I think demonstrate what it means to “queer design” in practice; qualities I hope we can bring forward in our work.

A photo of a man wearing a vest in a dark room, with a red and purple spotlight shining down on him.
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels. Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-in-black-vest-wearing-sunglasses-4722068

Queer design is expressive

At its heart, I think of being outwardly queer as a process of owning who you are. Growing more comfortable in that identity, or learning to enjoy the discomfort, and sharing it with the world. That experience can be as joyful as it can be painful. It can be celebratory, it can be defiant, and very often, it can be all of those things at once.

When people submit their profiles to Queer Design Club, we ask what part of queer visual culture inspires them most, and drag tops the list. Drag is visually rich (even—or especially—when executed on a budget), but its expressive power goes deeper than that. Drag uses hyperbole to challenge societal constructs. The best drag performances acknowledge their own artifice while conveying its message with confidence and authenticity.

Any time you express some part of yourself, you have to be a little bit vulnerable. I think a queered design field would make space for authenticity and vulnerability. To be honest about the intent of our designs as we build a show around it. To acknowledge the vulnerability of people who are looking to the products we design to improve their lives. To be responsible with how vulnerable they are when they are in experiences that are not of their design but ours.

"In a queerer field, we would encourage users to make decisions based on informed consent and not slick heuristics."

In a queerer field, we would encourage users to make decisions based on informed consent and not slick heuristics. We would let them define themselves instead of forcing them into binary choices that determine how we talk to them and what we allow them to do. Designers would feel responsible for what their empathy uncovers and would use that insight to create experiences that actually empower people to be themselves, freely.

A black and white photo of the ACT UP protest. Two marchers hold the Silence = Death poster, June 26, 1988.
ACT UP protest featuring Silence = Death poster, June 26, 1988, Eugene Gordon/New York Historical Society.

Queer design is collective

Although empathy has been packaged up as neat little Design Thinking™ books, workshops, and proprietary consulting models, the queer designers I know have a lifetime more experience in empathy than even the most skilled sprint facilitator.

A lot of queer designers I’ve talked to feel they are able to more fully put themselves in others’ shoes because of how much time they’ve spent pretending to be someone else. We’ve turned a survival mechanism of being able to move through spaces that aren’t for us into a professional adaptation. And we bring that outsider perspective with us when we enter the field.

In design today, people on the outside are considered edge cases and most large organizations don’t design for them. But as designer Eric Meyer says, “When you say ‘edge case’, you’re really just defining the limits of what you care about.” So it’s not enough to bring outsider perspectives into the design process, we need to bring in people currently relegated to the edges of our practice and actually center them in our work.

"A lot of queer designers I’ve talked to feel they are able to more fully put themselves in others’ shoes because of how much time they’ve spent pretending to be someone else."

One way to do that is having diverse teams. Studies have shown that diversity leads to increased productivity and innovation, although the queerer the design industry becomes, the les