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Interview: Kelly Mackenzie, White Bear Studio on diversity in design

Interview: Kelly Mackenzie, White Bear Studio on diversity in design

24 September 2018

Kelly Mackenzie is the Founder and Director of White Bear Studio, a multi-discipline branding agency with offices in London and Dublin, established in 2014. A firm believer in design and its power to communicate and ability to do good, Kelly has taken the time out of her busy schedule to share her thoughts on diversity in design.

Why do you think the design industry is unfairly balanced?

There are a number of factors in my experience: low awareness of design opportunities, lack of education and support, pay gaps, and accessibility.

When it comes to awareness of opportunities, visual communications could be considered a new area of occupation. When I worked in Australia, for example, many of the university courses were still in their infancy and agencies there were crying out for experienced designers in studios. As with everything in its early stage, a lack of awareness can lead to design falling off the radar and it is important therefore that creative courses are introduced as a viable option at a young age. This brings me to my second reason, education. With the introduction of the EBacc in 2012 making a minimum of seven and maximum of nine GCSEs compulsory (none of which include art or design subjects), little room is left for creative, technical or vocational subjects. Finally, the gender imbalance is one which I have personal experience with and I believe there are a number of contributing factors for this: pay gaps, confidence, flexibility and biological clocks to name a few. 

63% of all students studying creative arts and design courses at university are women, why do you think fewer women than men work in the design industry?

When I set up White Bear Studio I discovered that being a female creative director and business owner was actually not that common and that I was in the minority. I didn’t have a pool of peers to discuss being a female in a male-driven industry with, never mind sharing mummy guilt stories or how-to's for balancing baby, bedtime and boardroom. This could have become an all-encompassing anxiety had I not felt passionate about combating it – there were many easier and tempting options I could have turned to and I’m sure many others in the past have. Once I’d made this observation I thought quite a lot about why this might be when over 50% of my class in university had been female. I came to the conclusion that it was a combination of challenges, from flexibility, pay gaps and confidence to ticking biological clocks that got in the way. Equality is now not only a problem for women, it’s actually an industry drawback and it’s keeping design from diversifying. We need to remedy it.

One of the findings from the Design Economy 2018 is that the design industry employs younger staff, this presents an interesting challenge with older workforces, as an ageing workforce retires and is not replaced. What do you think can be done to keep staff in the design industry until they retire? 

This question reminds me of a conversation I had with a recruiter very early in my design career. I came to her in search of new opportunities and advice, still very green and having just moved to Sydney. She said, “You’ll need to become a Creative Director or have your own business by the time you’re 30 or by the time you're 35 you may as well become a bus driver as you won’t progress”. Scary words, not 100% true but still on the accurate side, it put things into perspective to me. Flash forward five years and broaching the ripe ‘old’ age of 29 (still young in the majority of careers, but alas not in design), I left my current job to set up White Bear. To be fair, White Bear was always my goal but the recruiter certainly pushed me to do it earlier than I may have.

Why is the design workforce young in my opinion? Again, a number of factors: constant digital innovation, a thirst for fresh ideas, work/life balance, and pay rates. Young designers are enthusiastic, full of innovative ideas, happy to work long hours and available at competitive rates. I personally think this trend is very unfair on the more mature designer. The more experienced designer can take any brief and you know they will nearly always nail it – they’ll present you a few easy wins in terms of design routes; have the skill to complete the job quickly paired with attention to detail, foresight and future proofing. They will require less supervision which is a saving in itself. There’s room in the studio for both design levels, however when the salary doesn’t grow at the same rate as skill and experience we lose these valuable ‘safety nets’ to the bright and shiny world of freelance with their alluring day rates and flexible work hours. 

In my opinion, you can’t put a price on trust and studio loyalty, in White Bear we support and encourage career development and I would personally love my team to stay forever. We have a dynamic that works but I know I need to support them personally in order to do this. This is something that I feel helps keep experienced designers in the industry. Recognising the need for financial progression and offering flexible hours in the workplace for senior designers who may want to have more of a work/life balance can also be some ways of keeping designers in studio employment.

According to the Design Economy 2018 report, women are less likely than men to be in senior roles, why do you think that is? 

I hate this fact but it is a reality. Again there isn’t just one factor dictating this, it’s a blend of scenarios; Flexibility, pay gaps, confidence, biological clocks and support. 


Many women, me included suffer from a 'What if I’m found out as being a fake' syndrome, and we try to combat that by not being ourselves. Trying to be someone else, particularly someone of the male species, is totally transparent and will lead to far more nerves, sleepless nights and anxiety. Showing up as ‘you’ allows you to be present. When you don’t have to concentrate on wearing your mask you can think faster on the spot and when you’re in flow, creativity flourishes. I believe anxiety is the emotion for growth and once you harness it in a positive way, it can be a very powerful tool.

Pay gap

Women need to ask for more money more often and from the very start of their careers. If you don't ask, you don’t get, and so the pay gap begins. When starting a family, in many cases, the person with the larger salary continues to work, while the other takes time out. This, in many instances, is the man. With design being a fairly underpaid industry the amount you need to earn to make it worth returning to work with childcare comes into question. We can’t let starting a family become a ‘choice’.

Biological clock

It's a fact of life, us women have a clock. A small window in the grand scheme of things to have a family. This time in our lives seems to, almost on purpose, appear just when we are at a very important in our careers. Unfair? I think so! However, fear not. Since becoming a mother, I feel it has made me a better businesswoman and creative director. I have never been as efficient or focused since having a baby. This I see as a huge strength and a positive to being a working mum and a benefit to changing my approach.


I believe the way design studios work is archaic. We could learn a lot from tech companies and start-ups about flexible working. I didn’t believe it was possible to run a studio and have a newborn, especially combined with face-to-face meetings with clients in the UK and putting your baby to bed in Ireland.

How did you come up with the campaign ‘Women in Design’ and what do you wish to accomplish with this campaign?

The ‘Women in Design’ piece came from a very personal place. I was just back from maternity leave a little earlier than I would have liked and feeling the stress of balancing a newborn, a studio and an inner niggle that I wasn’t able to do it anymore. The Women in Design piece was kind of cathartic. Openly saying I had found it difficult to manage and that I hadn’t found peer support actually gave me strength, so it was a bit selfish, but I felt if I could share my experiences perhaps I could add to the conversation. Being a majority female run studio means that discussions about women in design happen often and we thought it would be interesting to try and distil our thoughts down to some actionable insights that could encourage women to stand up for themselves. The response has been overwhelming and something that came from quite a lonely place has opened me up to a wealth of support from both male and female counterparts. I always have to caveat our thoughts with it being the responsibility of both women and men to make the workplace balanced and supportive, we need to work together and not silo ourselves, we’re all just people at the end of the day.

If designers are considered to be part of a higher socio-economic class, how do you think the design economy can attract designers from more diverse socio-economic classes? 

In a climate of funding cuts and changes to education, it’s a tough time for creative subjects, both for the tutors who teach them and the students who desperately need them. I believe design needs to be more accessible and it is imperative that more students study creative subjects at GCSE and A Level. The Cultural Learning Alliance found that students from low-income families were three times more likely to get a degree when they participated in arts activities at school. Students can be deterred by the initial investment it takes to study design, they should be supported and in an ideal world offered more government financial support from their colleges and universities. Ideally, universities would have better facilities to enable students to engage in their courses without the need for personal laptops and materials. Studios could offer more placements to students still in secondary education to allow them to see what the world of professional practice is like. Currently, the majority of placements are offered to graduates.

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