“Our individuality is all, all, that we have. There are those who barter it for security, those who repress it for what they believe is the betterment of the whole society, but blessed in the twinkle of the morning star is the one who nurtures it and rides it in, in grace and love and wit, from peculiar station to peculiar station along life’s bittersweet route.”
— Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
When I think of designing for people of color, my thoughts immediately go back to my college years studying architecture in St. Louis and to a project that is known as one of the greatest failures known in modern architecture.
Designed in the post-war era, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing development was utopian in its intention of bringing people together. These buildings combined both tried-and-true, community-focused design alongside some more innovative approaches including grand corridors, public spaces, craft rooms, wooded areas, playgrounds and cleverly-conceived “skip-stop elevators”, which only stopped at select floors, forcing residents to take the stairs and therefore run into their neighbors. On the one hand, I think of an eager and optimistic architect sketching these idealized paths of movement and spaces for communal living while on the other, I think of how far removed from the future inhabitants said architect was in his design process. Suffice it to say, the buildings fell almost immediately into disrepair. Instead of being conduits of community, the open, public spaces became hotbeds for gang-related crime and violence—especially those skip-stop spaces between floors that residents were required to use. The buildings lasted 15 years before being demolished due to what was referred to at the time as “urban blight”.
Pruitt-Igoe has since become iconic in its failure; the development is famous for its approach to designing for community and inclusion while infamous for how those ideals played out in reality. As well-intentioned the design thinking was, these architects failed to take into consideration one essential factor: that intangible concept of OWNERSHIP; the individual’s active participation in the final experience. Sure the government owned the buildings, but the government was also most certainly not living in them. What was really missing was the empowerment and activation of those who were actually living (and dying) in Pruitt-Igoe. Community doesn’t actually work unless those who are in it are actively invested in it.
Fast forward half a century, technology and design today is still largely focused on community, but has perceptibly shifted to being rooted in the individual. Individuality is now baked into the core of almost everything we use and experience. Our fingerprints unlock our communication devices, our retinas allow us to open doors, our gene sequences link us to our respective motherlands. The one-size-fits-all approach is no longer sufficient; the “I” we know today defines the “we” that we have long attempted to build.
My own career trajectory into brand marketing is driven by a similar shift. I grew up in a very one-size-fits-all world of the suburbs of Minnesota. There was not enough minority representation for any other option than the majority preference. All that was white and eurocentric was so unquestionably the norm that I didn’t even see how I had aligned my own preferences and attitudes towards that majority center. I went from being one of four African Americans in my graduating class from a private high school into a majority white greek scene in college to living in San Francisco, which is only 4% black (and still steadily declining). But because I had grown up surrounded by whiteness, I became snow-blind, letting my individuality fall to the wayside while being contented with the majority-defined tastes and ideals.
It was not until a transformative experience in the Afro-Brazilian capital of Brasil that unlocked within me that desire to explore my expression of individuality within the greater whole. I stopped my 15-year practice of chemically straightening my hair and took the leap into wearing my naturally curly hair, just as it grows out of my head without any sort of manipulation. The transformation has proven to be one of the most impactful decisions of my life.
Through this experience, I learned that the power of the individual when building community or building a brand is tantamount to the success of the final product. The more that you are able to speak to people on their own individual level, to deliver them products that align with content that speaks to their own individual experience, the more that individual will take pride in and ownership of being a part of that community. Successful marketing is no longer defined as effectively positioning a brand in front of a select group of people; it is to make individuals within this select group of people owners of that brand’s experience.
At Walker & Company, we exist to make health and beauty simple for people of color by delivering to them solutions to unique issues that arise within this specific community. Our first brand Bevel is a men’s grooming brand that helps those with coarse, curly hair prevent razor bumps. Is there anything more intimate and individual than how a person grooms themselves? The anchor of our brand is to offer an individual experience; what allows our brand to grow is the community we have built around it. Technology allows us to have conversations on the 1-to-1 level, which means that we’re offering up more than just a razor, we’re offering a tangible and meaningful experience of belonging, of connection. One that can be actively participated in and made ownable. Pride is at the core of what we offer, and we do that by creating something that is deeply personal and meaningful at all levels of the brand. We take it one step further to not only design for individuals, but to delight them, to give them confidence in themselves at the same time.
Our individuality is indeed all, all, that we have; I project that our greatest advancements in business will be defined by the creative intersections between most diverse viewpoints and experiences. To repress what makes us unique is to artificially constrain all the potential we have to offer. I know because I have experienced this, I’ve lived this. My greatest steps forward in life have come from hard work, dedication and discipline of course; more foundationally this growth has come from above all else, simply being authentically myself.
Cassidy Blackwell (Twitter: @cassblackSF) is Director of Strategic Projects, Public Affairs at Airbnb. She formerly led Brand Marketing at Walker & Company, a family of brands designing health and beauty solutions for people of color. Named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in 2016, Cassidy is dedicated to empowering and educating men and women of color about their options in health and beauty. Before Walker & Company, she managed social media for StitchFix and served as global editor for TextureMedia, the world’s largest hair care platform. She also founded and edited Natural Selection, a blog that serves as a resource for over 50,000 women on how to wear their hair naturally. A Minneapolis native, she graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in French Literature.