Rocket Science: Rebecca Brooker, Part 1
On creating community, design baggage, rainbow-washing, and supporting people who have been left out.
Rebecca Brooker is a queer Trinidadian designer, currently based in Buenos Aires. She is the co-founder of Queer Design Club and runs her own freelance practice, Planthouse Studio. She also works as a Senior Designer at MediaMonks.
After studying design at St. John’s University in Queens, she went on to work with clients like Compass, Thinkful, Bloomberg QuickTake, Gloveworx, Axios, and several small businesses focused on growth. Rebecca enjoys building communities of creatives—bringing them together to form connections and spark new opportunities.
What’s been your COVID deep dive?
This is going to sound bad, but work? In addition to my agency work, I’ve been building my freelance studio with clients that I want to work with, mostly small businesses that are trying to grow a great idea or do something socially conscious.
My work in QDC has driven me to feel like I don’t want to just make a paycheck anymore. I want to spend the time, the 40 hours a week that I devote to work, on something impactful and dedicated to changing people’s lives.
So, my deep dive has been working on my studio, and my day job, and QDC, and generally trying to feel better about the way I contribute to the world. Really assessing what that means for me, for my communities, for the place that I live.
I think the pandemic has pushed us inside and forced us to understand the value of community. I’m trying to understand my role in building a community, being part of a community, and contributing to a community that impacts the greater good. It has made me reconsider my role, not just as a designer but as a citizen of the world.
What’s a common cliché you see companies use when they’re trying to nod to diversity?
Diversity is a huge topic, but I’ll narrow it down to something like Pride or LGBTQ month. Something that really grinds my gears is when companies, on June 1st, automatically put a rainbow in their logo. Or they just turned the rainbow into a logo and they’re like, “Pride!”
Many of these companies have not been truly accountable, living only on the surface level. They are not actively contributing to anything. They are simply jumping on the bandwagon saying, “Oh, it’s gay month, let’s make ourselves gay. Let’s put a rainbow on our logo and be like, ‘We love gays’.”
Meanwhile, they’re not actively contributing funds to any queer organizations, they don’t provide any support for their queer employees, they don’t have HR policies that benefit queer employees, they are possibly working with anti-LGBTQ clients.
There’s a lot of ways that you can show your support for the queer community that doesn’t mean changing your logo and making only outward-facing statements. When, inside the house, the house is burning down because you don’t actually support LGBTQ people.
That idea can be extrapolated into almost every aspect of diversity, right? It’s the same thing that happened when we look at all these companies that made Black Lives Matter statements. You put out a statement saying, “We support Black lives,” and then two minutes later, employees in your company are like, “Uh, no, you don’t. You have never supported us for a second. Not even a minute. I am constantly racially discriminated against here.”
When you’re not listening to the actual experiences of your employees, you’re not contributing to diversity or inclusion. You’re hiring some brown people, you’re hiring some Asian people, but what are you doing outside of that to make those people feel welcome in a white-dominated space?
What was the biggest learning curve for you during the early days of QDC?
I’d say it was understanding how to organically foster communication in this community.
When we started we were growing quickly, people were joining our Slack, and there would be days when no one would talk. We’re like, “I don’t know if people like this space. What’s going on?”
It required being patient and finding ways to keep users engaged and keep people coming back. The community had to organically find its stride. We have enough people now where people can jump into a conversation and jump out; it’s not always the same people responding.
Also, just understanding how much work it takes to maintain a community. When you have 1,500 people in a Slack space that all have different needs, it’s really about understanding how they’re feeling, what they’re feeling, why things are the way they are.
Classic HR question: When you envision Queer Design Club 10 years from now, what do you see?
So that’s actually what I’m planning right now … what QDC looks like in five, ten years. I want to create a modern design organization that fits the needs of designers today.
Some of the design groups out there are super old, built on traditional values of design a hundred years ago, not where design is today. Design organizations built a hundred years ago can’t just flip a switch and become diverse and inclusive and fix all the problems that they’ve been having for years.
I think QDC is uniquely positioned to become a different kind of design organization because we’re founded on inclusion and in support for people who have been left out. We have this unique positioning where we can come into the design industry and say, “Hey, we know what queer people are feeling, we know what queer people are experiencing in the workplace, and we know how to solve for it.”
So in 10 years, I would hope that we are a full-fledged organization with more than one person at the helm. And that we are working with designers, but also working with companies to help them craft a more “inclusive-by-default” structure for their workplace.
Do you feel like the design community can be a prisoner of its past?
Yes, because the majority of design history and design education has been centered around whiteness, so, naturally, the organizations that have popped up to support that would be white-centered, right?
Because there’s all this history, there’s also all this baggage. Designers often feel like they have to honor that history, which I’m not saying we don’t have to. They were historic, for sure.
But, I think that we have to also evaluate that graphic design is not for a subset, it’s for everyone. We have to change how we think about graphic design as an industry to be for the people. And where we are today, starting from the most basic design textbooks and education, is centered around Eurocentric design principles like Bauhaus and Swiss-type, Swiss-design structure.
I’m not negating the importance of that work, but that latter-day Eurocentric mindset completely ignores what graphic design was in other parts of the world. When we think about the timeline of the Bauhaus Euro, I want to know more about what was happening in African graphic design at that point, or in Asian graphic design. And that’s not a worldview that we’re educated on.
I’m from Trinidad and Tobago, and I could tell you that nothing we make in Trinidad is like European design ideals. We have a totally different style that is unique to us, unique to the Caribbean, unique to our history, unique to our culture. But that’s not what you’re going to get taught in design school.
Design has existed long before the European take on it, and it’s existed in every continent of the world in a different way, shape, or form. I think that’s something as an industry we need to be more focused on uplifting, rather than presenting Bauhaus 2.0.