Designing a Diverse Culture

Diversity sometimes has trouble entering a workplace, becoming something talked about but paid much attention. When it becomes a quota or source of contention, it could feel potentially forced. Especially in creative fields like architecture, a diversity of viewpoints can be a precious resource.

Architectural and design firm Carrier Johnson added + Culture to its name as a way to highlight its values. The diversity there was never particularly heavy-handed, but as they started recruiting talent from various corners of the world, more diverse talent became interested in working for them.

In turn, the multiculturality not only became a reason to celebrate, but also an adaptable source of assets in designing interiors and buildings for clients of all walks of life.

Gordon Carrier, design principal at Carrier Johnson + Culture and member of the Board of Directors and executive committee of the San Diego Economic Development Corp., walks Diversity Executive through the atmosphere of emergent culture and diversity at the firm. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Scott Page’s research about the power of diversity influenced you. How did it change your views?

In some ways, it clarified what perhaps I didn’t even realize we were doing. And it strengthens the intention thereafter. Sometimes things are going on around you and you don’t even understand and you enjoy being in a process you’re not always even certain why. I think Scott’s notion that diversity catalyzes innovation was a light bulb moment, where you say ‘that’s precisely what’s going on. We should pay attention to it at a higher level,’ and realize the more of this we can create the stronger we’ll be.

Our evidence is that innovation that we can provide is about points of view, and diversity by definition is point of view. For us, because it’s creative enterprise, the fact that multiple voices are weighing in on design problems, which is what we’re about, gives us an innate advantage that we approach problems for the clientele. Not to mention just the sheer interest that’s created by having multiple points of view weighing in a potential solution in any case.

Gordon Carrier, design principal at Carrier Johnson + Culture
Gordon Carrier, design principal at Carrier Johnson + Culture

Please tell us about the composition of your workforce and the diversity at Carrier Johnson + Culture.

To be honest, it started out completely innocently. We’re seeking people who are talented, communicative, who are interesting to be around, and what we realized, those people were coming in from all over the world. That was our first quest; it wasn’t really a diversity quest. And then we began to look around the studio and realize, after I don’t know how many years, as we’ve been in business 37 years, I realized about 65 percent of our staff is from somewhere else.

It dawned on me the quality of conversation we were having is perhaps directly related to the fact that we have these multiple perspectives looking at problems from their point of view, from their historic cultural point of view and simply weighing in from things their life has brought to them that they can share in a particular problem. Not only is the dialogue more interesting, but the results are more telling. And everything for us is a collaboration. We don’t have any “singular stars” who are trying to shine their own light. The collaborative dialogue we’re having is much, much richer by the virtue of the quiver of diversity that we bring to both our internal discussions and certainly discussions we have with clients.

It’s amazing coming here every day, and we have 19 different languages spoken at any different time, and it’s just an interesting composition of talent. That’s to me what a studio in architecture and design ought to be about.

A lot of our process is what’s called distinguishing diversity. Meaning, we bring our diverse staff to every problem, and then what we try to do is distinguish the pieces of that diversity that are the most helpful to the cultural application that we’re dealing with for the particular client. We simply never know where the best notion may come from, which may come from a resource from Portugal, or Mexico, Italy, or France, or United States, which is still a majority of our staff.

What are some ways that has impacted the culture at the company? Are there any special customs?

We have something called Third Thursday, it’s every month. It’s a wine and cheese kind of thing, but the idea is that somebody presents themselves and their history, where they came from, and their passion. In most cases, it has nothing to do with architecture and design. We have people show up who are painters, flamenco guitarists, jewelers, professional musicians. It’s sort of the secret life of Henry Phyfe.

I cannot tell you how differently you look at a person when you have discovered who they are outside the office’s agenda. If that’s the diversity, that for us means something. We actually are working on getting to know each other better because of it, and it’s a lot of fun, of course. It’s done on their terms, not ours. In many ways, it’s about telling us who you are, not telling us what you can do in architecture. That’s the diversity piece we think is most valuable to the culture of the place.

How has this diversity and culture impacted the company’s creative work?

It creates an absolute awareness that you perhaps overlook, unless you actually seek the diversity of your people. There could be 30 countries represented here, but it doesn’t mean you would know necessarily know anything about them unless you invited somebody to tell you about them. Part of it is a seeking event where we’re seeking to understand better what the real resource of our players are.

The other day, it was associated with a little district in San Diego called Little Italy. And of course Massimo [company employee] is Italian and a very talented guy, and I brought him with me to bring flavor to the conversation about what it really means to be Italian. That’s a bit literal in that case, but in most cases it’s about being able to invite all of these talented voices inside the dialogue that begins to germinate notions every time, not sometimes, but every time. It’s an open invitation to be part of the solution, not to be an employee who sits at your desk and needs to be told what to do.

I think what it does is helps to incite a proactive response from each of the staff members who want to say, “I’m a viable participant in this dialogue, I need to be there.” And we invite that, we encourage it, because we think all voices are good voices whether you’re the receptionist or you’re a trained architect or interior designer. You bring a perspective. That perspective of diversity is color, it’s ethnicity, it’s religion, it’s all of those things, and it’s also your personal, diverse attitude about your participation in the design field. Some people are more technically inclined, some are more design-inclined, some are more managerial-inclined, and all of those different aspects, both personal, ethnicity, language, cultural intent, personal hobbies, all of those things come into the dialogue as part of trying to enrich the conversation on a given project.

How did you go about finding such diverse talent?

It didn’t start out with an intention, frankly, it started as hiring the best people we can hire. And because we’re in San Diego we have an added advantage that we always had a strong Hispanic population that was a prevalent part of the community. So in some ways that diversity had already been inside the organization, but I think part of it was we found people attracted to us because they heard about the culture.

When I see a résumé, I don’t see a country  — I see talent or I don’t see talent. What I’m looking for is people to be part of the institution. There isn’t necessarily a picture of somebody or a moniker on which country they came from, but it’s a portfolio, so we’re looking for portfolio people. Now, if somebody says to me they have language skills, I think that’s interesting, because we do work all over the world, from here to China to Korea to Singapore to Costa Rica to Mexico, etc. So the fact that you have people who have a large worldview is to compliment the kind of work we do.

I think diversity should be pursued. What I mean by that is not necessarily overtly going to the market and asking for diverse people. But I think the internal organization, probably any institution, has so much more diversity available to its sponsor than perhaps is even known. And what I’ve discovered, because I’ve done it the right way and the wrong way, I’ve discovered the more I pursue it internally, the richer our conversation becomes. It’s not likely that the diverse players inside my organization, at least, will necessarily run to my desk, tell me about their diversity. But if I can setup mechanisms like the Third Thursday event, where they actually have the capacity to come to us, because we ask them to tell us who they are and what they love and what are their passions, that unfolds an amazing capacity for dialogue that you might not otherwise have.