Diversity Spotlight: Sabine Zetteler on how ‘Design Can’ be more inclusive

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In this Diversity Spotlight, we talk to Sabine Zetteler, director of communications agency Zetteler and founder of Design Can, a campaign, community and active resource platform calling for inclusivity and representation in the creative industries.


Can you tell us why you started Design Can and talk us through the manifesto?

Sabine: The manifesto was a plea to the design sector and everyone who works within it. It was a call out to those who don’t perhaps realise how influential they can be and needed they are to effect change. There are thousands of people within this sprawling sector who make decisions that could literally transform people’s lives and they’re not using their skills, network and positions for good.

What I witnessed after joining the design sector 10 years ago was that I kept going to these international design and architecture festivals and it was the same people speaking on every panel, in every city about every issue known to humankind. It wasn’t obvious to me for the first few years as I was the newest kid on the block, but after a few seasons, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

It wasn’t just the boring repetition of seeing these people again and again, winning every award, hosting every panel talk, being commissioned to do all the special things, it’s also dangerous. Everything we use and experience has been designed by someone and it’s been and continues to be designed by a very small slice of our society. If a multitude of different voices aren’t being brought into the design and discussion and research processes then we’re not designing a world that is inclusive, welcoming, safe or interesting – all of which is terrible. That’s how Design Can was born.

The steering committee for Design Can came together to make sure that it had the right people discussing what was vital from the word go. It includes brilliant, creative people like curator Priya Khanchandani, artist Yinka Ilori, furniture designer Mac Collins, V&A curator Meneesha Kellay and co-founder of Intoart, Ella Ritchie – and many other brilliant people (who you can find at design-can.com if you’d like to find out more).

Why do you think it’s so important for initiatives like this to exist right now?

Sabine: Lots of people talk about these issues, but as ever, there’s been so little action. Design Can is an active platform, aiming to bridge divides, educate those who have knowledge gaps, provide inspiration, networks, connections and opportunities for anyone who may need them. It’s demanding change and asking those who have the power to do it. As with the environmental crisis, we know what we need to do, and now we must get on with it.


Why is greater equality and inclusion in the design industry so important to you?

Sabine: Our transport systems, the fabric of our cities, our urban spaces, our schools, our homes, our clothes, our fundamental tools for living are being designed by people who have possibly (probably) little genuine understanding of what it’s like to have a serious disability or to have grown up in an environment lacking in privilege. That’s frightening. I believe things are starting to change, but it isn’t changing anywhere near fast enough.

What steps do you think need to be taken next to make the design industry more inclusive? 

Sabine: There many serious structural changes needed, like many more people being able to study subjects such as engineering and architecture in order to make it less exclusive. I also think our wider education system needs to communicate that the creative sector is one of the most valuable sectors in the UK, and there are hundreds and thousands of jobs within it. Every person has a place in the creative sector, whether you’re science-led or art-led or you’re not remotely academic at all. If you like people and you understand how to make events welcoming, or you know how to organise things, or you’re good with tangible materials, there is a job for you. I wish more young people knew that so they felt they had a place if they aren’t just brilliant at art or music or drama. It’s far broader.


What has been your greatest achievement so far with Design Can?

Sabine: There are two, the first would be our first mentoring day at the V&A during the London Design Festival in September 2021. We had nine phenomenal mentors; architects, curators, graphic designers, furniture designers, jewellery design. The London Design Festival is a wonderful moment in the year but it’s not set up to support the next generation. It celebrates brands and people who can afford to celebrate themselves, but not those designing for a better world (without a serious profit-based incentive). Lots of young people that came to the V&A to take part in speed mentoring sessions inside that spectacular museum. It was such a beautiful experience.

Secondly, we hired our first part time member of staff called Bisila Noha in June 2021 who is the most incredible ceramicist, activist and project manager. She has taken Design Can into a new age of efficiency and action which has been a game-changer in terms of what we’re able to achieve.


How can people get involved with or support the initiative themselves?

Sabine: We’re due to be launching a Patron scheme really soon, which means people will be able to support us financially in whatever way they can to fund graphic design, research, events and other activities. Everything that takes Design Can off the screen and into bringing people together.

But I suppose the best way to support Design Can is to use it. We spend so much time painstakingly researching hundreds of amazing resources that you can access for free. Design Can is a free library of phenomenal resources, available to all.

Other ways to support that don’t include giving us money are to sign up to the newsletter and of course, follow the socials and share our posts. The bigger we build the platform, the more good we can do and the more people we can engage with.


What plans do you have in the pipeline for 2022?

Sabine: We’re launching our Patron scheme and a jobs board that will help make us financially independent. We’ve got an update to the identity and website emerging in spring and we also have a handful of mentoring days coming up, more amazing editors of our newsletters, new events and all sorts over the coming months. Our newsletter will tell all, so sign up!



Author: Stephanie Whalley


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