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Why being 'inclusive by design' is harder than it looks

Fran Payne discusses D&I challenges from a designer's perspective

28 January 2020

The illustration of puzzles

Much of our work at RY involves breathing new life into areas of corporate communications that historically haven’t gotten much love – and in our experience, diversity and inclusion definitely falls into that category. 


In recent years, social progress and the shifting political landscape have seen D&I rocket from a mid-level priority to 100% business-critical. Companies are rapidly realising that to attract and retain talent, customers and investors, they need a clear, firm, contemporary stance on D&I within their organisation. They’re realising something else, too: how they communicate their D&I policies, targets and progress to the worlds within and beyond their walls is as important as the information they have to share. 


At the risk of committing a cardinal sin among creatives, I confess I’m always slightly wary when briefed to devise creative concepts to support D&I communications. Because while they’re vitally important, and always fascinating, they do carry an element of risk.


As a creative, you want to create a core idea that’s brave and stand-out, but also sensitive, empathetic and nuanced. Terminology rules in the D&I space change all the time, meaning copywriters need to keep up. Working agency-side, while we offer a fresh perspective on how a company can communicate, getting a true understanding of its unique culture is only possible if our client is willing to share it. It can be tough to craft something that feels like it comes from inside a company from our position outside it. And finally, while the comms team we’re working with may be ambitious and want to select brave work that could be hugely effective, “brave” sometimes sits uncomfortably with more cautious senior stakeholders. Result? Last-minute changes, and less compelling and effective creative.


So it’s easy to understand why some might play it safe. While researching our report, 'Demystifying D&I', we observed a vast proportion of the world’s most valuable companies defaulting to the same tropes in their D&I comms. Stock imagery, unimaginative charts, well-worn visual metaphors – some of the most innovative and forward-thinking organisations in the world just aren’t applying the creativity for which they’re renowned to this area of their communications.


Understandably, no-one wants to offend, and there’s safety in numbers – if everyone’s using catch-all photography or visual clichés, it can’t be wrong. And it isn’t. It isn’t fundamentally wrong. But it also isn’t memorable. It isn’t convincing. It isn’t authentic. And the one thing your D&I communications have to be in today’s climate is authentic. Whether they work for you today or might do in the future, whether they buy what you sell or invest in helping you sell it, today your audiences need to truly believe you are committed to including, understanding, and respecting them. 


The right creative idea speaks to everyone, engages hearts and minds, and accurately reflects your organisation today, while sharing its realistic aspirations for tomorrow.


Getting there will involve some soul-searching from the company, and it will also require a degree of transparency – possibly more than the organisation has previously been comfortable with. And this applies to every aspect of its communications, whether it’s how it: represents and shows off its workforce; confronts the specific issues it’s facing; shares and analyses its statistics; and communicates the areas in which it needs to up its game. 


Rather than hiding away less-than-ideal figures, today it actually pays to be honest about your challenges as a company – lifting the curtain to reveal an imperfect picture while showing that you’re committed to improving it is far more engaging and belief-building than hiding your figures away at the back of a report. Your audiences will appreciate it. And they’ll be more willing to engage with it, and volunteer their feedback – which in turn will inform the next wave of communications.


To what degree to be brave and transparent will vary from company to company as – fittingly – every organisation is different, coming with its own particular culture and set of challenges. We’ve written a whole report designed to help you navigate away from the safe and predictable towards communicating D&I in a way that truly speaks to your audience, delivers results, and crucially inspires hope and belief in your organisation.


Taking time and making the effort to create imaginative and innovative D&I communications unique to your organisation shows your audiences that you don’t just acknowledge the issues you’re facing –  you’re genuinely committed to resolving them. When they feel that commitment from you, they’ll feel included, understood and respected. And isn’t that what it’s all about?


Fran Payne, Design Director