Written by Emily Barker, Graphic Designer
In the midst of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests around the U.S., the design community revived discussions of anti-racism and activism and how it fits into the field of Graphic Design. Just what exactly does designing for social change look like? Specifically in the field of marketing and advertising, the topic of social justice can often feel at odds with the day-to-day worklife in an agency. That’s especially true in the field of real estate–centered design, where the emphasis is often ‘heads-in-beds’ and being 100% leased up, without much room for discussions on equity. However, this sort of all-or-nothing thinking, especially in fields that are complicated, nuanced, and related to issues of housing and equity, can stymie conversations on race and equity before they even get started. The truth is that there are many avenues toward anti-racist marketing while also meeting the needs of clients whose focus is on leads and leases, and real estate designers have a unique position in advocating for those anti-racist strategies.
Creating Historically-Informed Real Estate Design
Anoushka Khandwala in her article entitled “What Does it Mean To Decolonize Design” talks about understanding the schema of one’s own history as a way to re-examine motivations and find new and better modalities of design for the future. She argues that, “With every design choice we make, there’s the potential to not just exclude but to oppress; every design subtly persuades its audience one way or another and every design vocabulary has history and context.”
What can that mean for us as real estate designers? At Threshold we delved into the history of redlining and the Fair Housing Act as a way to better understand the industry and its numerous failures and shortcomings. This meant a combined team of creative and digital staff researched the history of the Fair Housing Act and redlining to create an agency-wide presentation of the history of the Fair Housing Act and red-lining. The creative team made social posts outlining the history of redlining and the creation of the Fair Housing Act during the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. For more information on redlining and how it denied Black American’s housing and generational wealth in the U.S. please click here.
What this revealed to us was that, as real estate marketers, we had an obligation to help our clients adhere to the FHA rules and regulations. Strictly speaking this meant using photos of diverse individuals in the marketing materials, ensuring that websites were ADA compliant, and using FHA and ADA icons. But it also revealed holes in the system or gray areas where we could advocate for our clients to choose inclusive marketing and branding strategies and also choose to go above and beyond in their digital marketing strategies to prioritize inclusivity.
How Designers Can Be Advocates for Social Change
In Jarrett Fuller’s article on Isometric Studios he describes the studio as one that is “rethinking the way in which designers build a better world”. The founders Andy Chen and Waqas Jawaid describe their clientele as broad: “We’ll take on any kind of client who demonstrates a desire to think about what authentic inclusion looks like, what foregrounding marginalized narratives looks like.” The article goes on to describe the work of Isometric as that of advocates as well as designers.
This is a familiar role for designers as we are already advocating for good design as we talk to our clients about our work and advise them on the best choices for their brand. Isometric Studios would take that same advocacy a step further and challenge the client’s perspective on social issues when needed and advocate for development of brands that support the greater social good. Sometimes this advocacy can look like recommending that a client incorporate people of diverse races in their lifestyle photography or choosing a logo that celebrates the existing community culture where their new development will be built.
One important way to have these conversations with clients is to directly addressing the elephant that is so often in the room: gentrification. By addressing this openly we are better able to advocate for our clients to help them maintain a positive reputation and resident satisfaction. These types of conversations present the opportunity for us to simultaneously advocate for our client and the greater community’s needs by encouraging our clients to create positive connections with their communities.
How do we ask our clients to connect with the communities they will exist in? Here are a few suggestions:
- Hosting events for the neighborhood at the property
- Striking mutually advantageous partnerships with local businesses
- Resident appreciation events that feature goods and services from the local community
- Hiring local instructors to teach fitness, art, or meditation classes
- Hiring local artists to design artwork for the property
- Host a concert of local musicians
- Offer communal spaces to local groups for weekly meetings
- Organize volunteer days with residents or staff in the local community
The point of these conversations and ongoing partnerships with the community isn’t to whitewash the real estate industry, but to offer real-world pathways for community engagement for our clients.
Isometric Studios, in their interview with Jarrett Fuller describes their name’s origin as “a floor plan drawn at a thirty degree angle where the same scale is used for every axis, creating a non-distorted image. ‘It’s an ideal that isn’t really possible,’ Jawaid said. ‘But we’re interested in that ideal. We’re designing for that ideal.'”
In the same way, we can also struggle towards a more ideal design practice in real estate design. We can become advocates for creative work that will be better suited for this current, complex, and multicultural world and our clients will benefit from the nuance that design will bring to their brands.