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Examples of Vietnamese diacritical marks in a font.

Spotlight on Implicit Bias in Design

We’re long overdue addressing inclusion and representation in our design industry

For decades, graphic designers from marginalized communities have posed the question “How can we create work that acts as a communication device if our industry centers around a single-narrative?” Design education has conditioned us to perceive the Western world as the gold standard for graphic design, devaluing the work of any outside those regions. This is done through a variety of ways, such as labeling certain visual styles, tropes, history, and terminology as “good design,” putting a homogenous set of designers and Western-centered design ideologies on a pedestal. By defining a status-quo, we’ve made our work irrelevant in the larger world through shaping the dialogue around a narrow set of experiences. As an industry, we must restructure our systems and education to represent identities that are beyond the scope of the West. Examining how we perpetuate Eurocentric ideas and aesthetics will allow us to address our implicit biases and shift our focus towards building more inclusive solutions while amplifying accessible work.

Holding ourselves accountable for creating a meaningful relationship between audience, content, and design will lead us to develop more nuanced and informed work. A large part of that is understanding our audiences and establishing the right set of tools to communicate with them. Recently, as the Vox Media brand design team, we collaborated with Eater, our publication known for reporting on the expansive nature of food culture around the world, to unify their brand identity and content. The editorial team reached out regarding their Vietnamese travel guide that was being held up because the site’s typography didn’t contain Vietnamese diacritics. Eater highlights the diversity of the food landscape, yet their typography was preventing them from creating language-inclusive content. They needed to reexamine their typography to ensure that it was inclusive of a non-Latin language. The project emphasized how important it is for design to bring attention to cultural shifts. As designers, it’s in our job description to educate ourselves and adapt our approach in order to supply our partners with the tools they need to create the best, most thoughtful work. The need for diacritical marks highlighted the fact that Eater had outgrown its type system and needed to adapt its identity to fit the audience.

We approached the need to reframe Eater’s brand through a specific filter, walking a narrow line between several requirements: building multi-language support, maintaining a consistent voice, and complying with the Chorus CMS, our in-house publishing platform that manages the Eater website. The process started by heavily researching Vietnamese typography and how it exists within the world, which opened the door to expanding our language support with a more thoughtful long-term solution.

Throughout its existence, Eater has built a very strong voice—its unique writing and perspective on food culture has set it apart from its peers in the media scene. Eater’s typography reflected their lively, approachable expertise, and we wanted to ensure that essence was at the core of our solutions. We began working with the editorial and product design teams to experiment with options from a wide range of languages that reflected Eater’s insightful and authoritative content. When reviewing iterations against our research and requirements, we ultimately landed on Bold Monday’s Bilo as our display face and Adobe Original’s Garamond Premier for body copy. Bilo emphasized the progressive and sophisticated nature of the brand while having a niche undertone, while Garamond Premier brought legibility and readability to long-form articles and created texture on the page. Both typefaces came with a range of language support, allowing Eater to create more expansive content.

Characters from the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet displayed in the font “Bilo”.
Characters from the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet
Characters from the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet displayed in the font “Bilo” showing diacritical marks.
Vietnamese diacritical marks

Our solutions have been successfully adopted; however, it is important to note that this is just a small step in the right direction. Our updated type system does not account for all the languages in the world. This project jumpstarted our long-term goal to make our practice centered around inclusive outcomes.

As a communication tool, design systems should advance knowledge and circulate information, but in many cases, it can create limitations for marginalized communities. Organizations need to work with BIPOC designers to establish methodologies that ensure that our work communicates with an inclusive audience, both through language and visual tropes. As humans, we are constantly growing and learning, and it’s important that our work reflect that. It’s our responsibility to use design as a mechanism to inform that change by updating our discourse and “best practices” to better address underrepresented audiences. By creating a space filled with diverse voices, we will develop a more inclusive world, amplifying richer, more holistic experiences. This will be done through many avenues—education, hiring and listening to BIPOC employees, decentralizing Western ideologies, and more. We won’t be able to restructure the way our industry works within a day; it will take time, humility, and understanding. As an industry, we’ve created a tunnel-vision approach to design that has set us up for failure. We’ve learned first-hand that design has the power to suppress valuable perspectives, and in this case, it was because of exclusive typography. This project wasn’t just a superficial update to Eater’s appearance, rather its intent was to create a system that overrides the systemic “othering” of languages.

As design organizations, together we can and must start a series of conversations around how our brands and products are complicit in centering Western culture. The design industry is capable and ready to work beyond trends and aesthetics to address a historic practice of implicit bias and lack of accessibility. In doing so, we will be instrumental in helping to unite a disparate world.


Credits:
Vox Media Brand Design Team: Georgia Cowley, Mina Shoaib, Krystal Stevens
Vox Media Product Team: Brandy Porter, Zack Simon
Eater Editorial Team: Brittany Holloway-Brown, Sonia Chopra, Erin Dejesus

Special thanks to Courtney Leonard, Laura Holder, and Alex Medina for your thoughtful feedback.