LGBTQIA+ Pride: How Identity and Diversity Strengthen Design

2022 Pride Month - SmithGroup

Our promise at SmithGroup is to design a better future for clients, communities and ourselves. Part of how we fulfill that promise is by closely examining our culture internally and by being critical of our approach to the design process. As we seek to create a more just and inclusive future, we asked LGBTQIA+ members of our staff to share their thoughts on designing for the complexities inherent in diversity. 

Better starts with us 

Organizations that value diversity and inclusion advocate for bringing the “whole self to work.” Our staff describe what that means for them and why it's imperative that they as designers are able to bring their fullest and best selves to their design work. 

  • “Creating a space in which all people feel welcomed and accepted is critical because it allows individuals to feel heard and seen. When this occurs it creates a safe place for all to share their ideas which improves engagement and knowledge.” - Dallas Mahaney, Architectural Designer 

  • “Knowing that my lived experiences can bring value to the design process. Speaking up about how my own experiences impact the way that different designs or configurations of space [affect me], or that my own experience allows me to see impacts to other diverse or minority populations. I might be able to offer a perspective that might not be otherwise represented.” - Dennis Daisey, Architect 

  • “Being able to show up every day with my team without having to leave a part of me at home means that 100% of my attention, my energy, my creative self can be focused on delivering innovation and design excellence to our work. When I started my engineering career, I worked in an office filled with homophobia. I spent more time trying not to draw attention to myself, being as small and quiet as I possibly could, for fear the hate would be directed at me. When you work somewhere where you are scared to be yourself, your work suffers. Your ability to support your coworkers in an authentic way suffers. Over 20 years later, I cherish the fact that I’ve found a home with SmithGroup where I don’t have to hide, and where my family is welcomed in our entirety.” - Stet Sanborn, Engineer 

  • “Bringing your full and authentic self to the design process is a way to ensure that your voice and perspective is heard. Every individual has a unique identity and life experience which can inform and influence a design solution. If more unique points of view contribute to the final product, then that final product can be more representative to the widest possible audience of end users.” - Joseph Lamb, Architectural Designer 

  • “Outside of the office, I bring my full self to everything that I do with the hope that others accept me for who I am and [will be] open to learning more about the LGBTQIA+ community. I bring that same full self to the design process because I know a project team works better when we can understand each other’s unique viewpoints. Authenticity between team members will always foster a better end product and welcome all possible stakeholders.” - Tim Pranaitis, Architect 

  • “The before times for me as a purportedly male child, student and architect were full of hidden stress, anxiety, fear and self-hatred. I felt constantly judged and profoundly lonely. This limited my ability to contribute to projects and connect with people. Fear, discrimination, family rejection, and violence keep far too many trans and gender-non-conforming people from ever having their potential seen. I’m able to be here, working and giving my best self to our clients and communities because of the help I received to build a better, more honest life, where the view is much clearer. I am out and open as a trans woman architect because I need to show others who are struggling with their identities that change is possible, and to help open up the world to be a better place all of us. I want people to see that being different, that designing differently is okay, that it brings power.” - Helen Bronston, Architect 

Embracing differences 

Each person encounters the built environment from a unique point of view, bringing with them all facets of their identity and all of their lived experiences. This affects how each of us feels in a space and how we choose to inhabit it—or not. Our staff reflect on how we can design to better welcome and support LGBTQIA+ people and communities. 

  • “I think designing alongside all marginalized communities begins with listening and trusting their voices to express their lived experiences. Using our own life experiences and struggles to invoke empathy can allow our designs to truly be built from a place of safety and welcoming.” - Stet Sanborn, Engineer  

  • “Thoughtful design starts with engaging and understanding the perspectives of the users. Designers should acknowledge that creating spaces for LGBTQIA+ members and various cultures goes beyond the physical design. Design strategies like wayfinding, branding, site safety and accessibility may be included with the physical design to collectively promote inclusivity and awareness.” - Dallas Mahaney, Architectural Designer 

  • “By including them in the design process. Representation matters! We can’t design for different cultures and identities if we don’t hear from them.” - Dennis Daisey, Architect 

  • “Being trans means that I see the possibilities to be found in taking apart this old hand-me-down world to see if we can find a better way for all of us to live.  Our built environment has been profoundly structured to support a heterosexual, cisgender patriarchy, based on property rights that are placed above human rights to health, housing and welfare. There’s a bigger, weirder world out there than we are willing to let ourselves create—where things do not make sense in conventional understandings, or that may change when seen from different (literal and metaphorical) viewpoints. In this more open world of opportunities, there may be a way for each of us to find our own best place.” - Helen Bronston, Architect 

  • “We can validate our design by engaging a diverse group of stakeholders and discussing ways design can be more inclusive. A person’s culture or identity may not be visually apparent and overall, as a society, we should move away from visual cues as they perpetuate stereotypes. Inclusive space should not only include flexibility for user modifications and adaptability to different needs of the user, but also invites people to use the space as it feels natural to them.” - Tim Pranaitis, Architect 

Living our values to the fullest 

Authentically inviting and advocating for diversity in the design process requires ongoing commitment to strive for better. We asked our staff how clients, owners and the communities they serve should evaluate whether a design firm is serious about inclusive design. 

  • “Community and client engagement [are] more than just window-dressing on a project. Our clients want their projects to succeed for the people they are and those they serve, so we need to be a step ahead of them in knowing how to create relationships with communities that ensure projects will be welcomed and successful.” - Helen Bronston, Architect 

  • “Listening! And following through in our designs.” - Dennis Daisey, Architect 

  • “Clients and communities should see SmithGroup’s mission to learn and empathize as part of our core values as a company. Creating an open discussion during the design process allows LGBTQIA+ and underrepresented members of the communities we serve to share their ideas in a safe place. Ensuring these new perspectives and ideas are brought back into the workplace will allow for more innovation and creativity for future endeavors.” - Dallas Mahaney, Architectural Designer 

  • “Showing that our design teams are built upon diversity and inclusivity is the first step in breaking down fear and barriers with our clients. Having clients have a hand in shaping our design process, our engagement strategies and ultimately our design work helps form trust that their voices are being heard and are as valid and valued as all others. Having the confidence to show our own vulnerabilities, our own insecurities, paves the way for our collective teams to build trust together.” - Stet Sanborn, Engineer  

  • “I think the best way to communicate that we welcome diverse backgrounds is by showing that we run a firm that is open and honest without calling it out in the category of ‘diversity.’ I look for diversity and unique perspectives in all aspects of interaction, and when I’m told to look for it in a sub-paragraph in a proposal or brochure, for example, it feels less authentic. I [would] rather see diversity shown as we interact with the public than providing statistics as a qualifier to be considered diverse.” - Tim Pranaitis, Architect