Elevating Design Voices: Lawrence Ly RGD
As we expand our Elevating Design Voices series, 2SLGBTQIA+ Members share their work, experiences and insight on building an inclusive and diverse design community. Up next, Lawrence Ly RGD, Knowledge Mobilization and Design Specialist at CanAge.
Lawrence is a multi-disciplinary designer and budding researcher with a decade’s worth of experience designing for government, not-for-profit and research organizations, both in-house and as a freelancer. Since graduating from OCAD with a MDes in Design for Health, he’s focused on reframing social and healthcare challenges through the lens of design and combining visual communication with a systems approach to shape the future for a better world. At CanAge, a national seniors advocacy organization, he is involved in shaping policy and outreach initiatives that advance towards an age-inclusive Canada. Nothing gets his heart pumping faster than a well-executed wayfinding system or vintage signs decked out in neon lights.
While some social progress has been made in regards to the representation and inclusion of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, we still have a long way to go. What role does design play in creating a more inclusive world?
On the surface, design can take the form of images, selecting which people and stories to represent and creating focus on specific issues. Design allows us to tell stories that state our values and shine lights on human experiences. If we dig deeper, I feel design allows us to frame and reframe issues that affect people who are not us, so we can better understand others and build bridges between the present and a future where all people are included.
As a member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, I’m intrigued with the idea of visibility and invisibility and how design facilitates the tension between those two states. There may be visual cues in how we dress or the way we behave in specific contexts or the way we communicate with others, which reflects how comfortably queer we want to be in society. We yearn to be seen, understood and validated for our existence and experiences. Design is a constant undercurrent for how we interact with people and the world around us.
But how visible do I want to be and what does it say about me? I constantly struggle with how much I want to remain invisible and fit into the dominant culture; would you know I was queer by looking at me? Or have I carefully designed my life to tuck my queer identity away behind closed doors? This becomes a personal challenge of self-expression and perceived safety. Hell, I struggled with whether I wanted to out myself professionally to 24,000+ designers by participating in this series! At the end of the day, being more visible was the right decision for me, if it means I can support other designers who may be going through similar challenges.
How have your experiences inspired your work and activities within the community?
As a gay Asian man, it’s impossible to talk about my queer experiences without considering my racialized experiences. Intersectionality is key to how I live and experience the world. Occupying both identities gives me the strength to see many privileges and injustices in the world. The burden of discrimination against myself and other underrepresented groups (women, non-binary/genderfluid people, sexual minorities, Indigenous peoples, people of colour, etc.) has profoundly shaped my perspective and the work I do.
My personal experiences have made me keenly aware of nuances in human experiences and the blind spots we may have when working with other people (myself included). It’s too easy to put groups of people into predetermined boxes, confined by stereotypes and represented by personas which are only surface-level deep. Conventional design processes have quite a way to go to capture the full spectrum of who they’re designing for.
Awareness and recognition of diverse experiences is crucial to my work in designing a better world for all seniors. Seniors come from all walks of life and backgrounds; if we’re fortunate, we’ll grow to become seniors, too. Systems designed to support seniors may only benefit specific types of people, while the rest encounter barriers and challenges that negatively impact their quality of life. With my background, I’m hoping to especially support 2SLGBTQIA+ seniors and seniors who are ethnic and/or language minorities through my work, using design to leverage and improve health and social systems to support better living in their later years.
That said, I have a lot of learn from queer communities. I’ve only started working to integrate my diverse identities together recently, no longer wanting to compartmentalize different parts of life away from each other. I’m hoping this translates into my professional work through fostering relationships with people and designing better life experiences in the world.
What are the steps an organization should take to build an 2SLGBTQIA+ inclusive workplace?
Easy, slap a rainbow on everything for Pride Month (just kidding).
Creating a safe environment where people are welcome to express themselves and have their identities affirmed is key. Getting there can be done, but will involve a lot of moving pieces. Organizations shouldn’t only signal to their employees or their stakeholders with the right words for the moment; instead organizations must follow through with hard work and concrete actions every day. Live the values they preach and provide a positive affirming space, wherever the work environment is (in person and/or remote). Given the pandemic, our personal and professional lives have become more intertwined and maintaining our mental health is now more important than ever. Acknowledge that your workers are, in fact, human and may need personal time and space to cope with stressors.
Small gestures count and as designers, who are great at creating and critiquing systems, we should have the opportunity to ensure inclusivity is built in at the ground level. For example, identify your pronouns in an email signature or profile name during a Zoom call, even if you think your gender identity is obvious to others. It’s not about you. It’s about creating a safe space where others can express themselves and feel affirmed that they’ll be acknowledged properly and authentically. Put yourself in another's shoes (or their footwear of choice) and start building empathy for their lived experiences. That’s one way to be more inclusive.
On the flip side, don’t put the onus on underrepresented groups to lead Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives without proper allyship and support. And don’t tokenize others. There must be space for all of us; this isn’t a zero sum game. We must actively work to change that mindset where they can only be one of each “type”. Think of it as expanding your organization’s brand palette. Having one person that occupies a certain identity (or two or sometimes even three) isn’t enough to be inclusive. Grow your team and people to become the full Pantone book!
A message you’d like to share with the next generation of designers.
The design world is vast. Find your people within the community. You won’t like everyone or everything that is done, but you’ll eventually find your people. Don’t always chase the trendiest or next best thing. Sometimes standing still and being at peace with where you are in your career and life will help you grow deeper as a person.
It’s important to recognize and accept there are many ways of being and living. Sometimes, practicing design isn’t about making the next big change. It can be about changing how existing things are seen.
The world is more complex than any case study can tell you (but they sure look polished in a portfolio!). You can put out marketing and feedback surveys to assess the impact of your work, gather subjects for user testing or facilitate a design thinking workshop. All of these are contextual to the moment, but never forget to stay curious and learn about the world by experiencing it firsthand with your own eyes and body.
Finally, listen with an open mind, know where you stand and love yourself with all of your heart. I know it’s hard sometimes - I struggle with it a lot - but deep down, I know I can do this. And I believe you can, too. Always learn and always love.