Bridging Binaries: Reflections on Design Thinking and Race

By Sunjay Armstead |
June 16, 2020
A canvas with colorful textured paint

I drove down a beautiful country road this past week. The warm tones of the setting sun made the farm fields sparkle with wonder. Hay bales dotted horse pasture as the road careened around to display each vantage point of the calm evening.

Colors are what caught my eye the most during that drive. The number of colors I saw is difficult to estimate. But, as a designer, I know that the total number of color combinations is insurmountable. Over 16 million combinations exist for the RGB color space alone. The world is a diverse canvas.

Color preferences and division

It baffles me that, while so many colors exist, color preferences can be deeply divisive. There is quite a selection of labels out there – too gaudy, too girly, not enough “punch,” too light, too dark, too muddy, way too much green, and of course “just right.” People of similar labels drive their flags into the ground, as it were, such that preferred colors divide people into categories.

Color preference is certainly not all bad. It helps distinguish one brand from another and evoke planned consumer behaviors. Yet it is often the dark side of color preference that rears its ugly head.

Bridging the binaries

We’ve seen this recently with police brutality and protests turned into riots. Those events demonstrate that racism—color preference at its greatest negative extremity—is still a battle hard fought. The heroism displayed during the Civil Rights era sadly did not win the war. A person’s skin color still greatly determines much of their fate. And horrific examples of hatred exist on all sides of color preference. 

Human phenotypical characteristics like skin color are not binary in any sense. It’s not simply a black-and-white issue. Bridging these binaries is a vast spectrum of color combinations, very much like the farm fields I saw this week. And beneath this array of pigmentation is an even greater dataset of experiences, culture, and sense-making.

Appreciation over discrimination

There is no logical tolerance for discrimination in view of the diversity inherent in humanity. Instead of discrimination, people from all walks of life should appreciate the many beautiful manifestations of human diversity.

My reflections here are just the start of design thinking around the topic of racism. I find it absolutely essential to think critically about how my work affects my world. If it is true, based on empirical evidence and observation, that diversity is how the world finds its color, then it is essential to appreciate the innumerable nuances that make reality possible.

To “frame” it as “a question,” If a racial binary is too limiting of a social construct, how might we dismantle racial division with positive human interactions?

Reflect and find wonder

As you go about your days this week, I challenge you to reflect on your color preferences and choose to find the wonder displayed in those different than you. I also challenge you to think critically this week about how you might dismantle racial division through positive human interactions.