How Todd Palmer Sees Design as a Tool to Uncover Truths and Rectify Injustices

Todd Palmer is a designer who seems, above all else, driven by story. For him, buildings are not just reflections of taste and feats of engineering. Instead, they are envelopes that house the stories of humans and our history. He has explored these connections extensively throughout his career. Beginning as a planner and researcher at Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and continuing there as a consultant who worked on exhibitions for institutions such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, his early work cemented a dedication to unearthing narratives through design, with a focus on histories and conditions for people of color.

His resume since has included roles such as Associate Director and Curator for the National Public Housing Museum and Executive Director of the Chicago Architectural Biennial, the latter of which he was instrumental in pivoting to a focus on community development and elevating conversations around the socio-political implications of Chicago architecture in a global context.

Recently, Palmer has shifted his energies from architecture and museums to design education and advocacy. He currently serves as Director for the Diversity in Design Collaborative (DID), a start-up purpose-driven organization supported by MillerKnoll. DID collaborates with companies across industry to tackle the prevailing lack of diversity within design roles across its many disciplines. Palmer’s original love of narrative has fueled a passion for purposeful convening, organizational capacity building, and strategy in his current role. He aims with his team to help more Black and brown creatives find their place in the industry and contribute to the evolving story of design.

Diversity in Design Collaborative Director, Todd Palmer (Photo credit: Tricia Koning)

In a recent interview with Palmer (who will also lead the jury team for the Core77 Design Awards’ Built Environment category this season) we discussed his journey within the design world and his vision for how Diversity in Design could lead the way to a more equitable industry. He hopes to help build a culture that evolves beyond mere representation, where people of color can thrive and deliver pivotal changes to an industry in much need of evolution.

Core77: I’d love to hear more of your story—what initially sparked your interest in architecture?

Palmer: My paternal grandparents lived in the Chicago metro region, and I grew up from grade school to high school in Denver. The differences in how those built environments manifest always drew my attention. On our drives from East Chicago into the city, we would always pass the Robert Taylor homes, which were these massive, modernist housing blocks. And in contrast, we would show up for a tourist activity to the world’s tallest building in the 70s, then called the Sears Tower. I would notice other buildings, like workers’ cottages, distinct from project housing, very different places poor people lived. There were these differences in quality and feel of buildings…And I was always just thinking, why? Who decides those differences?

Then in Denver, we lived on the edge of the city near the suburbs and were one of three black families in a subdivision of dozens. There was busing there, so every day over different years, I would get bused. Sometimes to the Chicano neighborhood called Baker, other times to the Black area of Five Points. Again, seeing those disparities and differences, I was always the kid on the bus saying, why, why why? I realized that’s what drives me, that question of “why”.

There was also an eagerness to create my own worlds. My mother collected and saved these imaginary utopian cities I used to draw. I would create a planet and I’d have the monorail system plan—all very driven by sci-fi. But when I would speak to this guidance counselor at school, they would say, “Architecture is not for you, you’re really not good at math.” Given I was interested in planet building, the other option for me was politics. So I was really interested in international relations and went to Princeton, ostensibly to study that. Quickly I discovered I hated this form of study. So I took a studio as a kind of lark because I remembered these imaginary city drawings, but never had been encouraged. And I was not bad at studio!

I told my grandmother about this interest. She happened to be a successful politician, civil rights activist, alderwoman, in Louisville, Kentucky. Politics were very much in the environment where I grew up. So when I said I’m going into architecture versus politics, she responded to the effect of: “they’re just sort of wallpapering the world, not changing the world, what are you doing? I wanted you to be the first black president,” that kind of thing.

So long story short, I persisted. But I think if you look at how I showed up in design and architecture, I’ve been really focused around this question of “why?” and always making sure I didn’t forget about that interest in politics in all the things I do, that my grandmother instilled in me.

You’ve done a fantastic job in your career of threading those things together. How did you go about carving out that space so that you’re able to kind of bring those things into your work? Was there a strategy you had when starting your career to ensure that?

I think maybe the only strategy is just that I try to stay true to an inner guide.

So if I start picking up the story where I decided to not listen to my grandmother and pursue architecture.. I was encouraged to do a Design Masters towards a PhD in History and Theory, which is where I thought I was headed. I was really interested in contemporary questions. Design was for me a strength at the time, but I continued to write research papers and believed I was getting a PhD.

My first reroute was when I was 24 with a Master’s in Architecture. Teaching felt like a practical thing one could do for a short time that allowed me to take a break from the PhD track. I found a public high school program in Miami. They had a class that needed a teacher, they didn’t have a curriculum, so I created the curriculum. But, first day of class? The students hated it!

That’s when I learned that teaching, for me, was learning. I did that for a year, learning from my high school students. And what it taught me was that the PhD was not the path. Effectively the ideas I had they could understand, but the format I had just been through for seven years was really not reaching them. And so I had to go where they were, and put myself back in the mindset of 17 year old Todd who didn’t have all this exposure. I got more interested in the communication side of design, how we reach people and change the world through that. I stumbled then into exhibition design. So anyway, no grand tactic or strategy, but one can connect the dots.

That context around teaching is interesting considering it comes back into your story later! From what I’ve gathered, so much of your work history has intersected civic engagement with built environment. What are some of the stories to be told through the lens of architecture, and why do you feel it’s so important to tell these stories?

It’s partly this inner focus. When I started at Ralph Appelbaum Associates in New York, I was hired to be a researcher for Detroit’s Black History Museum, which is now called the Charles H. Wright. I was unique then at the firm because I was working on content but knowing I was a designer, I had dual reporting to the exhibition designer. Technically, my outputs were writing, but I would research conditions, and then we would shape them conceptually as exhibitions.

I seized on the projects that came my way that had a built environmental component. I gravitated when I could on projects that were not just a three dimensional exhibit telling a story, but an exhibit where the site is the story.

An early project I was lucky to have come my way after Detroit was Montpelier, President James Madison’s home, which is a plantation. So it’s a great place where the exhibition tool of telling a story intersects with the fact that it’s not a black box; it’s a place that’s (historically) charged. I was interested in how the tools of exhibition storytelling intersect with the archaeology versus the decor. The decor becomes a story of the President and Dolly Madison: her hospitality, his writing of the Constitution. And what’s interesting is that the structure, which would otherwise be hidden, was visible because they were doing these archaeological interventions at the time. So we left it exposed, because what’s otherwise hidden is the work of enslaved artisans who are literally structuring the building. So some of the tropes of architecture as just surface, decor, structure get reversed in this exhibition. It reveals the thing that’s hidden at this site is the Black experience. And the Black contributions are holding up the things otherwise seen as beautiful and self evident, like the Constitution, or Dolly Madison being the First Lady famous for hospitality.

Another example is when I landed at the National Public Housing Museum as a curator 10 plus years later. That was a project where I got to own my expertise and bring support to a grassroots community that had saved a building targeted for demolition to be a monument of their presence. The federal policy from the 90s was that public housing was a failure. This community I worked with was mostly Black women, former housing residents, and the experience brought a lot of things together (for me), the attitude that expertise doesn’t always lie in the “experts”. These women are not historians, they’re not sociologists, they’re not political scientists, but their lived experience did so much to inform those working in those fields. They helped tell a different story about where the failures of public housing lie in society, policy and politics.

A view of “Collection, Building, Action, a 2015 exhibition at the National Public Housing Museum, a museum housed within the remains of a 40000 square foot New Deal housing structure saved by its’ Black women residents to be a “monument to say we were here.” This exhibition was opened in alignment with the first Chicago Architecture Biennial. (Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

We really leaned on their stories to unpack broader public themes like the disinvestment in maintenance they saw every day because they became the caretakers of these places. Or the prohibition of commerce by design, because when you think about public housing, there are no shops, no businesses. But there is always a candy lady down the hallway, or someone with some kind of underground hair salon in the living room. There’s a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit that’s never allowed to be realized fully. Instead, from the outside looking in, (the perception centers around) laziness or criminal gangs. But there are no other jobs. So of course gangs are a sort of underground economy.

I could talk at length about that, but I think those two examples from different parts of my career get at how, for me, history, storytelling, design, architecture, community building, and education all have always kind of been tangled up together.

Going more into how you took a sabbatical during quarantine, I’m curious what that time gave you. And in terms of being able to take time away from the industry, how you made the decision to move away from what you were doing into design education.

So to talk about the Chicago Architecture Biennial, I’m really proud of the work I did over the two editions in 2017 and 2019, which was built out from a proof of concept of 2015. But I think the underside of this is that there’s an “innovation complex” in the cultural sector and the design sector. The challenge of completing a biennial is that the press and stakeholders then say, “well, what’s new and next?” And with the socio-political topics of 2019, the things that connect to my trajectory with the public housing museum, there is no next…that’s kind of it! Those are the big things.

Palmer leading a press event for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial “And Other Such Stories” (Photo credit: Cory Dewald)

I think my internal compass was saying, what I do next needs to be on one hand smaller and focused on pieces of those big things, but also more systemic. But I wasn’t sure how one does that. So I had to step back, and then it was just an accident. We parted amicably, and my last day (at CAB) was set for end of March. And then on March 15, two weeks before I was done, it was the pandemic. So I originally imagined, oh, I’m going to have time to reflect and I have a partner that lives overseas so I’ll travel… And then suddenly, none of that.

I was stuck in Chicago, overlooking the city from my high-rise studio, thinking about my next step. The idea was to find something more focused and systemic—how do I manifest that?

During this quarantined sabbatical I was reflecting on my time spent teaching and considering leaving to take the job at Ralph Applebaum. I realized I was motivated partly by the idea of scale. I was thinking at that time, I can influence 20, 30, 40 students a year (as a teacher), or I can be an exhibition designer, and there’ll be 10s of 1000s, or hundreds of 1000s, visiting. Later, at the biennial, half a million people go through. When I compared impacting half a million people versus 15, and half a million sounded good at that younger time.

“Sometimes to be the leader is to be the last one to speak, not the first one. And to make space for lots of perspectives.”

So this gets me to DID—when I was interviewing, I saw they were grappling with trying to change something at a systemic scale. The challenge was that in the industry, across architecture, UX, graphics, industrial product, there are less than 5% of Black creatives in all of our sectors and industries put together. That’s a six figure number of Black folks missing. But there’s no way to change that with a magic wand. So you really do have to start at this tangible scale, maybe a little bigger than the size of a classroom. In our case, our first action was with 200 Detroit Public School students. But how do you get from impact for 200 to impacting hundreds of thousands? That was the kind of scaling challenge that felt perfect for me.

Listed, an installation by Keleketla! Library at the National Public Housing Museum commissioned for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial (photo credit: Tom Harris)

The last thing is, while I am a designer and creative, that’s not the primary outcome in my current context. (The work is) really a lot about administration, coordination, facilitation and empowering others as creatives and innovators, and being at the table as such. But also comparing this to my experience as a teacher in that first classroom, knowing that sometimes to be the leader is to be the last one to speak, not the first one. And to make space for lots of perspectives.

When it comes to DID and what your team is working on, what is the overarching mission?

The Diversity in Design Collaborative is more than 55 organizations in the business of design now, grown from 19 companies that came together in the wake of the racial reckoning of 2020, and launched in June 2021. DID formed with an attitude to set aside the competition and the disciplinary silos. So we are comprehensive including all kinds of design, bringing both studio-sized and corporate-based organizations together to address that dismal statistical representation of black creatives. So really, the collaboration is around the actions and insights that the participating individuals in these organizations bring (to addressing DEI).

So I lead this effort, but I have a paid team supported by Miller Knoll to bring our values in alignment to create the conditions for us to collaborate. We’ve developed collective methods of sharing insights and prioritizing all the many actions that we could take. Our job is to ask, how do we decide which actions to take, learn from them, and then scale?

And then continued implementation is really important. So not to pilot an experiment and drop it but really then attend with urgency and continuity to what works and hopefully become an example that scales beyond the companies within DID, and the companies in the industry. We hope to exemplify better practices that can escalate as they are diffused through the sector.

And what are you working toward over the next year?

We have an access program called “Designed By” that we’ve now done twice in Detroit, will repeat in April, and each one reaches about 200 Black and brown high schoolers in mostly the public school system there. We also have a mid-career to leader-level networking program called “Beats, Bites and Backgrounds” that was piloted in Detroit that is showing up in alignment with SXSW in Austin in March.

We focus on three critical moments in the life cycle of a designer that have shown up as gaps and obstacles for Black creatives. Starting with how you access and understand that design is a career and sometimes demystifying it, while also realizing the myths like my grandmother believed are rooted realities we have to grapple with. Because it is in far too many cases elitist, and for many it can be financially unsustainable, especially when you look at it against the investment in college. So how do we raise awareness while we’re also changing the system we’re welcoming you to enter is one of our biggest focuses.

A panel of design mentors at Diversity in Design’s March 2022 “Designed By” event, a teen focused Design Fest (photo credit: DID, Paul Taylor films)

This summer, we’ll have an internship program that has some unique attributes. We’re focused on the ways in which the informal connections between workforce and higher ed are influential. We’re also looking at mentorships. Sometimes the way this support is defined is really paternalistic. So we’re wondering how to reinvent what can look very top down and not appealing to a Gen Z person of color. Rethinking that also means making sure we’re diversifying who our leaders are. So it’s not always this kind of paternal and racialized construct of like, the white man who will show you all the ropes.

Portfolios are this other critical connection point that you make in college. When it’s reviewed, there are potentially all kinds of cultural biases.

So it begs the question, who are the hiring managers and their cultural frameworks? What is their cultural competency in looking at what a Gen Z person is learning today and recognizing what is excellence? So there’s lots of leveling and learning that we can do today as design leaders. Those are future state things we’re having conversations about now.

Events like “Designed by Youth” stand out for me because you’re focusing on high school students. My question pertains to the realities of how you actually enter the industry as seamlessly as possible. Is educating as early as possible something that you’ve discovered as a key to a more equitable industry?

I think we’ve been less focused on the “when” than the “how”. We’re really focused across the whole lifecycle because design for some either doesn’t show up at all as an option, or the community members who would represent it for you—like my grandmother or church leaders for example—would be discouraging (toward pursuing that path). We’re finding that it’s really important in terms of attaining the outcome of a more diverse sector is to look really broadly at who might have gotten missed, or who might have been discouraged from practicing design.

If you don’t see design within your daily life, the impression you might get is it’s a privileged star system and there’s like one Virgil Abloh, so to speak. Lots of people play basketball, but there’s one Michael Jordan—I think design can look like that to a lot of folks. Someone might start to think, “well, I’m not Michael Jordan, so why would I make that a career? That’s a hobby.” So it’s about more exposure of the multiple ways design can manifest; there’s strategy, there’s UX, it’s not just shoes and fashion and starchitects. And how do we represent mentors and others who can speak to how they did it, showing it can be done and that success can come in many forms?

“(When it comes to building a more equitable design industry), there’s creativity already there that just needs to be unlocked.”

There’s also the impact piece. Like, I might be able to see more clearly how medicine will treat the sick, or lawyers will change the laws. If it just looks like design can make you famous, and a lot of money—but only if you’re lucky—am I delivering real benefits to your home community in the way other professions can? So we’re focused on spreading the message too, how is it meaningful? How is it potentially a resource draw to a community versus a drain of talent out of a community?

So, we’re not focusing our strategy on education too early, because in a way, there’s lots of fixing of the industry that has to happen to make that appeal in the outreach true. We don’t want to do outreach, and then you enter into an industry where you think, “Okay, well, that was just some marketing.” It just can’t look like that, it can’t be that.

To add to that, there’s a lot of discussion going on around diversity, equity and inclusion, but there are still obviously huge hills to climb. Is there any advice you would give, first, to educators out there who want to nurture talent and make sure that young people of color do find success in their career, and then to leaders within companies trying to put genuine investment into equity in creative fields?

One thing we’re learning, and leaning in on that “how,” is really emphasizing and recognizing that there’s creativity already there that just needs to be unlocked. And part of the approach is not coming in authoritatively like, “Oh, let me tell you (the right way to go about this).” Rather, let’s look at what TikTok influencers are doing as a form of design, or back in my day in the 90s, what my graffiti artists in class were doing. I would tell my students, “Oh, that is design! Let me learn about what you’re doing.” Because I don’t know all the rules and logistics of tagging and the commentary you’re making within your art about property values. It became much more of a dialogue, and once I built that dialogue, students were really interested in hearing more about Corbusier, which is where I kind of would start because that was how I was educated.

I think it requires decentering design and realizing there are lots of other ways to look at it. I’m going to give a concrete example.

Students discuss a design prompt at DID’s “Designed By” festival event (Photo credit: DID, Paul Taylor films)

We gave a great prompt in Detroit at our last “Designed By” event. In the second iteration, we did a kind of rapid charette around the question of, how can you team up with other students you just met to come up with some ideas for addressing the climate crisis at the scale of your neighborhood? They took that prompt and started recognizing that the lack of investment in their community that results in so many people incarcerated is the same as the lack of investment in infrastructure that should protect us from flooding. And their idea was to connect those two things. That’s their lived experience! And that inherent connective brilliance, that’s design. So starting with recognizing there’s so much brilliance out there is the first step.

Yes, it seems we have to start taking seriously the reciprocal value of learning from people of different generations. It reminds me of something I read recently, speculations about how in the future, older employees will likely be trained by younger employees about new technologies on the job. So we have to embrace that perspective.

The future state of DID mentorship is truly reciprocal. Because of course, that old guy serving as mentor may know some tricks and tips that are essential to climb the ladder. But the non-tutored person who never touched design before has so much to offer everyone that’s already gone through a design education. Let’s make these experiences much more open, much more two-way.

“Whether it’s African culture or indigenous cultures, there are long standing cultural beliefs that define words like “beauty and aesthetics” as indistinguishable from “virtues and values.” So we can’t close our eyes to the fact that things look a certain way for a reason, that there’s some connection point there to these more systemic questions.

You’ll be judging the Built Environment category of the 2023 Core77 Design Awards alongside esteemed colleagues. What are you hoping to see within these selections, and what to you defines architecture + built environment in the year 2023?

I think one thing I’m attuned to is some discussion about how we think about the physical outcomes of design—things like aesthetics, and form, even the word beauty, and how they touch really on deeper values and virtues concerning us. Things such as issues of equity and care, maintenance, longevity, and sustainability. Whether it’s African culture or indigenous cultures, there are long standing cultural beliefs that define concepts like “beauty and aesthetics” as indistinguishable from “virtues and values.” So we can’t close our eyes to the fact that things look a certain way for a reason, that there’s some connection point there to these more systemic questions. That’s just a starting point.

And then digging into that more, I think when it comes to collaboration, transformative projects don’t tackle it as a checkbox, but instead integrate that deeply in myriad ways. It could be about, how are things financed? Who’s at the table? Who’s making decisions? Who are the designers? Who’s building? And again, I’m interested in lastingness, sustainability, materials, resource constraints because resources aren’t infinite on this planet. Designers have this unique ability to take what otherwise would seem like constraints and really, deftly navigate to create some experiential whole that’s holistic and wonderful.

And I should mention diversity—how can we understand diversity as a power of design, and again, not as a checkbox? There are some powerful planetary issues that face us. And if design is to lead in addressing them, then diversity is a crucial component. We’re focused at DID on black creatives, but there’s the question of neurodivergence, gender representation, there are many instances of diversity that need to be at the table to really powerfully address these concerns. So I look at diversity as empowering design, as an essential to design. For me, it’s not, “oh, it’s a great design, if only it was more diverse.” If the input wasn’t diverse in the first place, perhaps it wasn’t the best solution.

This interview has been edited down for further brevity and clarity.

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