Phim Her, Marketing Solutions Manager, Washington Post, and Co-Chair National Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, AIGA
Phim Her is a marketing solutions manager at The Washington Post and was previously a senior designer at Politico. She attended Syracuse University, where she studied creative advertising from the Newhouse School and political science and policy from the Maxwell School. At AIGA, the professional association for design, she is the co-chair on the National Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, content lead on the National EMERGE Initiative, and director of partnerships for AIGA DC’s DC Design Week.
The power of diversity-centered design
Phim Her is a Hmong-American refugee who uses art and design to impact sociocultural innovation. Her interests are in helping people from diverse backgrounds become empowered, have a voice, and find a path forward in the design industry. She teaches young designers professional development and the importance of finding mentors, allies and advocates at their workplace. Phim believes “we must move from the talking about the world of design to talking about the design of the world.”
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The power of diversity-centered design
Phim Her, Marketing Solutions Manager, Washington Post, and Co-Chair National Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, AIGA
Jon Mertz: 00:03 Welcome to the Activate World Podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. We’re taking a dive into diversity and design today and joining us is Phim Her. Phim is a marketing solutions manager at The Washington Post, and she’s been involved in a number of industry initiatives to gain greater diversity and inclusion in design. Phim, welcome to Activate World.
Phim Her: 00:37 Thank you so much for having me.
Jon Mertz: 00:39 Tell us about what led you to focus on diversity and design.
Phim Her: 00:43 It starts in a refugee camp in Thailand. That’s where I was born. My family and I, we are Hmong. That’s spelled H-M-O-N-G. We are a nation of people, a stateless nation of people, so we don’t have a state, a country to call our own. That was due to ethnic genocide centuries ago. We originated more where China is and then have since migrated down more south, so we’re technically Southeast Asian. I share all this to give context to who I am because where I come from informs everything else that I’ve ever done in my life and why I’m a designer today and also doing marketing solutions at The Washington Post. How does this story connect to why we’re here? When I was young, my family moved here. We moved here when I was just a baby.
Phim Her: 01:29 But because I kind of had that one foot in one world, one foot in the other, even if I was creative, I couldn’t help but think about, okay, I have to understand that I’m living a life of privilege compared to if I were living in a refugee camp. Even if I was doing art as a kid and being very creative like a lot of designers are when they were kids, I was thinking about political science, politics, policy, power structures, and how the world works, and why is there so much inequality and inequity. Whether it’s in a school district or in a community, whatever it was, it’s like I was that little philosopher even at age five in class and it would scare teachers.
Phim Her: 02:11 I would have a lot of fun with my other classmates, but there are a lot of times where I connected better with older people because I was ready to have those hard conversations even as a kid. I found my way to Syracuse University after graduating high school. I was a Newhouse kid. I studied creative advertising in a very competitive program, but Syracuse University also has a really strong policy school called The Maxwell School. It’s usually a grad school, but you can still take undergrad courses in political science. I minored in that and I was studying those two things, like my love for design, for advertising at the same time that I was studying politics and policy.
Phim Her: 02:48 That’s really allowed me to come to Washington, D.C. where I could use kind of both sides of brain in any of the work projects that I’ve done. It’s really allowed me to think about how do I help unpack what it means to use design and social good and the concepts of grassroots organizing and all those things in one realm or in different conversations.
Jon Mertz: 03:12 When you were in college, was that mix of design and politics a common path for other classmates of yours?
Phim Her: 03:18 I felt like I was very much a unicorn because a lot of people didn’t understand why I was like interning in advertising agency at the same time that I was interning at a nonprofit that served the refugee population inside of Syracuse. There was a heavy expectation of, okay, if you go to Newhouse, all of our alumni network or a lot of our alumni network is inside of New York City. Everybody will go to New York City. You’re going to the big advertising agencies. I just felt like one, my portfolio wasn’t strong enough to go to New York City and I wanted to make sure that it would be strong enough. That was number one.
Phim Her: 03:51 As a designer wearing my hat, I knew, okay, I’m not ready yet. I have to work on my portfolio. I have to learn a lot more. Because Newhouse was really great at teaching strategy, but it taught more about our direction as opposed to the technical design skill. I’m still very self-taught, which is kind of the irony of saying I’m a designer. Anyway, that said, because of the interest in policy and political science and things like that, D.C. was a better fit for me. I was so scared when I started out because I thought, “Hmm, how is this going to work out?” But in the end, I’m really grateful that I trusted my gut because it’s allowed me to get to where I am.
Phim Her: 04:26 I also worked at Politico and I know I would have never gotten that job had I not … I was a senior designer there. Had I not had both the design skillset and the ability to understand politics, policy, how D.C. works, how power structures work out inside of the world and how to really design for influencers, like that would have never happened had I not first gone to Newhouse and Maxwell and done what felt very crazy at the time and then chosen to move to D.C. instead of New York City.
Jon Mertz: 04:55 Going back to your early family life, it seems like your parents set up an environment that allowed you to explore art and philosophy and were very supportive.
Phim Her: 05:03 Yeah. I would say especially in terms of being Asian-American in America, a lot of times culturally you are expected to do what is both an impressive and a safe route, right? Be a doctor. Be a lawyer. My parents are a little bit more free flowing than that. I’m very blessed and grateful because my parents were very encouraging, particularly my dad in terms of just telling me like, “Be strong. Don’t worry if you’re the only person in the room who looks like you.” He had a lot of those experiences too when he was starting out.
Phim Her: 05:34 A lot of Hmong American people when they moved here, the quickest easiest way to get a job and to kind of just help bring money for the family and all those things, a lot of people worked in factories and companies. My dad chose the different route. You can see kind of the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. My dad chose to get his GED through a special high school program that would allow you to do that early even if you’re an older adult. Then he went to school and studied psychology. I believe it was like organizational development and things like that. That’s definitely where I get kind of my org design interest and my psychology background in as well.
Jon Mertz: 06:13 Why is diversity and inclusion so important to the design profession?
Phim Her: 06:17 Oh, yeah. It’s super important. I’ll put it this way, it’s important to design and it’s important to humanity. That’s the Aquarian in me going into like humanitarian mode. It’s important because I don’t want designers to ever think that what they’re designing is just what is an artifact basically, a leave behind, a website. It’s always how is this connected to the greater world? What is the macro lens on this? Yes, you’re doing this today, but what is its impact and why does it matter that you as a person are using your skillsets of strategy and design for this thing? I feel like the world needs so much more than pretty visuals right now.
Phim Her: 06:54 I actually kind of teach the technical side of design, but then I ask how can we apply this to a more nebulous abstract understanding of equity in the world. I may say, “Here’s what org design is like or here’s how a grassroots campaign works from the political side. Now, how is that tied to design practices? How can we basically apply all of these things to something that seems really inequitable inside the community right now?” That may sound really nebulous, but I hope that gives you at least a broad stroke overview of what I mean when I say we just have to tie these things together. They can’t be siloed off because power is not siloed, right? There’s power in being a designer.
Jon Mertz: 07:35 How do you implement diversity or inclusion in design to change humanity?
Phim Her: 07:39 Yeah. To me, it goes back to that concept of until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter. I think this is like a controversial quote at the same time that it isn’t because it creates an us versus them mentality. Right now in a lot of diversity and inclusion conversations, there’s kind of this, “Oh, is it white versus black or is it more than that?” For me, the most powerful thing in understanding diversity and inclusion or equity is the concept of inclusion. I think it’s important to realize that one person’s narrative informs the other person’s narrative. Sometimes there’s this very heavy debate about, oh, within the concept of lion versus hunter, so who’s the hunter in here?
Phim Her: 08:21 Well, what if this isn’t the right context to look through, but I think there’s something really powerful about allowing this new generation of designers from very diverse backgrounds to come through into an industry that has been very white. Not because of the current generation of designers right now, but because of how long it’s taking generations of children to grow up and realize, “Oh, maybe this is the pathway for me. Maybe I can use my creative skillsets and become a designer or a strategist.” It’s just taking a long time for the so called lions to grow up and to be more empowered and to be sitting in important boardrooms across America.
Phim Her: 09:00 All this to say, for the first time at least in my generation, I feel like design has become a very diverse field. To me, my interest in terms of diversity in design and in the industry is more about how do you help people who come from these diverse backgrounds find a way. It’s not just about giving them a chair. It’s about making sure that when they’re at that table, that they have a voice in the conversation, that they’re empowered and that they have a pathway forward.
Jon Mertz: 09:26 There’s obviously huge hurdles with that because according to the stats I’ve read, 86% of professional designers are Caucasian and about 55% are male. How do you address that without getting discouraged?
Phim Her: 09:39 Yeah. Okay. Now, I will go all over the place, but I will try to keep it together. Basically because I have this interest in politics and policy, that’s really the science of power, right, and persuasion. That’s one side already where when I’m mentoring someone, especially a young designer of color who’s a woman … I’m trying to find like the most opposite of what you just described, right? How do you tell that person, “Hey, you have so much talent. I want to see you go far.” That person is going to be so discouraged sometimes because their work environment maybe very toxic. There’s a lot of unconscious biases that they have to deal with.
Phim Her: 10:11 That will send them out the door before it’s even, “Oh, hey, you don’t have the hard skills to do this.” There’s a lack of EQ, right, in helping this young talented person want to stay. All this to say, what I do is I do a lot of mentoring in the community and a lot of what I do is helping people realize like, “This is what power looks like and feels like. You are also just as powerful and you need to stay empowered. You have to learn how to use the system and how to beat the system and how to create a new system. That means you have to have enough power and you have to think about social currency and all these other things.”
Phim Her: 10:46 I do a lot of teaching the soft skills, teaching power, but then at the same time, there’s a lot to do with still technical development in all the other things. A lot of what I do is a mix at the same time. I will teach someone all the design skills they need in terms of yes, the technical. How do you use Photoshop? How do you use whatever? How do you enter UX if you’ve never done UX before?
Phim Her: 11:07 But as I’m teaching some of these skills, I’m also asking them all the questions about, “Well, do you have a work mentor? Who are your advocates and your allies at work? How do you create a network of allies if there’s no one there? Can you become a champion? How are you going to do this for the next generation after I leave you or after we stop having these conversations?”
Jon Mertz: 11:24 How do you view starting diversity in design earlier in the process as far as in schools versus the workplace?
Phim Her: 11:31 I’ll give myself as an example. When I was in high school, because I was already in two things like community organizing and leadership development, I was … Can’t remember how, but basically I became involved in a campaign for my school district where we became interns at Clear Channel in Syracuse. My school district was Syracuse City School District. I think it’s come a long way, but when I was growing up, it was basically known as … These are probably not the most PC words, but to communicate very clearly, it was a ghetto inner city school district, full of minority students, underfunded, a lot of dropout rates.
Phim Her: 12:08 It was basically what you think of as those schools that you always see wrongly stereotypes in the media. We were involved as students in a campaign to basically change the narrative and to say, “Hey, we want to make you realize that there’s so much more to our school district. We have grit. We have students who are doing amazing work and and who will change this world.” Instead of having this top down approach of having adults tell the story, we the students were involved and encouraged to tell that story firsthand. We were taught the skills of how to do comms, PR. We didn’t do direct design, but we sat down with the designer and saw how the designer designed.
Phim Her: 12:49 Because I did sound production, I was the one who helped cut up the audio that we used to tell these stories in short little radio clips. Just being able to give students or young people the opportunity to have firsthand experiences of learning how to do the craft, whether that is sound production, video production, photography or design earlier on, I think it’s all about exposure and having them realize that this is a career opportunity that could be for them. It’s not just that I can do this and I can design for a big brand. There’s nothing wrong with that, but where I’m going with this is or I can also use my creative skills to solve equity problems inside the industry.
Phim Her: 13:31 I can work for a nonprofit or I can volunteer and use my skills for good so that I can feed my skills back into the community in a very productive and helpful way. I can empower myself to do this and I can help empower others through my skills. To me, it’s always also so that they can succeed for that next generation, to see them succeed so that they can also become mentors, so that the system feeds itself in a positive loop as opposed to a negative feedback loop. That’s really where I’m focused on. I definitely learned a lot of that in my high school days. I guess even talking to you now, I realized how much that informed who I am today.
Jon Mertz: 14:08 It seems that feeds into some of the work you’re doing with EMERGE, correct?
Phim Her: 14:13 At a high level for anyone who doesn’t know, AIGA is the longest running largest organization for professional designers in America. AIGA has a bunch of different initiatives. I’m involved in two at a national level. One is the Diversity & Inclusion Task Force. I serve with Douglas Davis as my co-chair through that task force. Then I am also very involved with EMERGE, which is a national initiative to support young emerging designers across America. To be clear, when I say emerging, I said young designers, but also this can be someone who’s older who switched into the industry later on.
Phim Her: 14:48 Someone who’s always worked let’s say as a manager in retail and now they realized, “Oh, I want to go and take like a tech bootcamp and become a UXer.” The important thing with EMERGE is that its whole mission is realizing that a lot of times industry is focused on saying things like, “Isn’t this type face beautiful,” but that’s not very helpful for something who’s starting out and who’s like, “I’m very lost. I just went through this bootcamp where I self-taught myself or I just graduated from a program where I have like 10 professors I could go to and now I have no one.” Particularly for designers also who don’t live in major cities like L.A. or New York, right?
Phim Her: 15:23 Designs who are in Middle America or they’re the sole designer in house at a company that’s very small or at a nonprofit where there’s not a lot of professional development opportunities for them. EMERGE is a program that basically seeks to use local AIGA chapters as kind of a theater in a good way for professional development. Hey, come here. We’re going to host a portfolio night for you so that you can have your portfolio and your resume reviewed to let’s just tell those stories about what it’s like to be a designer from a diverse background doing design at XYZ company.
Phim Her: 15:57 That representation is there so that you feel like you’re being seen, so that your story isn’t just such a lonely story in a way, so that you don’t feel like what I do in house in this small company, in this small town … That it’s disconnected from the bigger narrative and thread of the design industry at large. We’re basically in a way … I look at it as workforce correcting and just adding to the narrative. I worked on a video campaign for EMERGE that really helped tell those stories through video, but then also through blog interviews and articles as well just to kind of tell a lot of stories about emerging designers and their experiences, their fears, their hopes, and just the work that they’re doing.
Phim Her: 16:37 Just to make it so that when you think about a designer, it isn’t just about that celebrated designer who’s six year old. It’s really about what is this new generation doing? What do they care about? What are their needs? How can we help them professionally, and then also how can we also capture their stories in real time?
Jon Mertz: 16:57 To wrap up, can you explain what human-centered design means to you?
Phim Her: 16:58 Antionette Carroll, who is one of the former chairs of the diversity and inclusion task force as well, has this beautiful way of thinking about this. I’m going to use her words here because it’s more powerful. She said, “Why are we talking about human-centered design? Why not talk about equity-centered design?” That’s to me the power of everything and why I’d much rather be a people’s designer because I think it’s more about …
Phim Her: 17:20 Yes, you can use these practices in the workplace to redesign whatever app you’re working on, but I think it’s much more powerful to go into a community and to be a member of that community already and to teach these skills so that it becomes more about how we can make this neighborhood safer and things like that. That’s really where I think the true lift of what human-centered design is really about in the heart of it or redesigning a cancer research center so that it is also going to be a much more human friendly kind of space for people who are going through very highly sensitive experiences, whether you are a patient or a loved one or the caretaker.
Jon Mertz: 17:59 For others that want to pursue being more of a human-centered designer, what’s your best advice for them, whether they’re starting out or already in an organization?
Phim Her: 18:08 I’ll put it this way, whether you are a designer or a non-designer, the first thing I’ll say is … I’m actually going to give the definition of what kerning is because I mentioned it earlier and I realized for anyone listening in who’s like, “What is this? I’m not a designer,” this will work into everything else. Kerning is just basically understanding the space between two letters inside of anything that you’re doing. Sometimes you’ll look at like an ad or like a billboard and you realized like, “Wow. How can that A is so far away from that N,” or whatever those two letters are. Normally you don’t care about these things, right? Design is invisible. You kind of walk pass it.
Phim Her: 18:42 But sometimes you see really ugly and and design, right, and you’re like, “Why did that have to happen? Why is that so ugly? Even if I’m not a designer, I noticed that,” right? But kerning is something that’s really taught to designers early on to realize like your typography skills have to be strong. Going back to my whole concept of thinking about kerning for life, what I mean by that is to say we look for gaps and we look for opportunities, right? If the kerning metaphorically is often live or inside of the industry, how do you change that and how do you challenge that? How do you fix that by using your design skills, as well as every other skill that you have to offer?
Phim Her: 19:14 Don’t think of it as just a toolkit of, “Well, I know how to like draw in 3D.” It’s more about how can you use whatever skill that you have or how can you learn and acquire new skills to do whatever it is that you need to do to address the issue at hand, to address the kerning that needs to be fixed. Whatever gap it is that needs to be closed, whether it’s a soft skills gap, a professional development gap, an equity gap, just fix it. Fill it. Do the thing that you need to do. If it makes you angry, if it hurts you, if it makes you fiery and passionate, just simply focus on that as opposed to looking the other way.
Phim Her: 19:48 That goes back to empathizing deeply, being curious about the world, and asking what does the world need from me? How might I help this universe and leave it a better softer place, right? It’s in a funny way and I’m purposely kind of using a design analogy just to keep it within the context of our conversation about design and the power of diversity and inclusion and equity in design, but that’s really what it is is how can we take the concept of kerning and use it for life really. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a designer or not because everybody can see gaps, everybody can see opportunities, and everybody can see when they’re too wide of gaps or not enough or whatever.
Phim Her: 20:24 Fix that. If you can do that, even chipping away day by day, then I think you’ve already done your deed as a human.
Jon Mertz: 20:32 I think that’s wise advice and a great way to wrap up our conversation. Phim, thank you so much for your time. Your energy is contagious. I have no doubt you’ll continue to change the world of design.
Phim Her: 20:42 Thank you. Honestly, thank you to you and all the other guests who you featured who are talking about this and doing the work. By you even having this podcast and this series within your podcast, it tells me that you too are doing the work. Thank you for inspiring others, for informing others and just fighting the good fight. We all have our part to play, so thank you.
Jon Mertz: 21:07 Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.
Do you notice when diversity is embraced in design? What does it look like?
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Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World I’m Jon Mertz.