This week we have an interview with Brynn Day and Victoria Mantha-Blythe about their recently launched project, Vector Vault. The goal of the project is to increase representation of marginalized identities in architectural drawings by providing free vector drawings (available as both DWG and AI files!) of a diverse range of underrepresented groups. Over 140 original figures intended for student use are available under a creative commons license. The hope is that by making these figures available, students will challenge themselves to design more inclusively, and think beyond limited stereotypes surrounding underrepresented groups.
What incited you to start this project? Was there a specific moment which catalyzed the idea?
“We recognize underrepresentation as one of the ways in which the larger system of inequities shows itself.”
Throughout my undergrad degree I was aware that, as a queer woman, I didn’t see myself represented in architecture drawings. I also found that there were limited options of available vectors online. All of the ‘good ones’ made you pay for them, and even those didn’t include people that looked like me or my community. So I began drawing my own vectors to populate my school design projects. What resulted over a couple of years was a handful of vectors and I decided that I wanted to share them with others.
My partner has a background in public health from a social justice lens and we started having discussions about the impacts of representation on both community wellness and the built environment. We recognize underrepresentation as one of the ways in which the larger system of inequities shows itself. Once we began considering the larger picture of who is left out of most architecture drawings, it felt like a can of worms. So that’s how it became a larger project: when we moved from trying to diversify individual drawings to wanting to create an easily accessible library that could help address this issue on a larger scale.
When we started assembling the collection, we were conscious that we wanted to avoid tokenistic representation. Providing a single vector to represent a whole demographic would be simply reproducing some of the issues that we are trying to address. Therefore we didn’t want to launch the project until we had a large enough library to allow for more intersectionality. For example, if a design student came to the site looking to include a queer couple in their drawing, we wanted them to encouter vectors that held more intersections of underrepresented identities that they may not have originally thought to look for. Rather than setting out to including ‘a black person’, ‘an old person’, and ‘a plus size person’ in your drawing, you can come to the site and find an elderly black couple using a wheelchair or a plus size queer couple - and how does this spark you to think more creatively and more inclusively about your original design?
We began to realize that the collection would never feel complete enough - as two individuals we are never going to fill this gap on our own - but we went ahead and launched the website anyway when we decided that what was most important was to engage the community and grow the project with the help of others. To date, the Vector_Vault library has over 140 vectors and it still feels like we’ve only scratched the surface.
What is your process for making the figures? This project must have been an incredible amount of work!
When we talk about diversity, we are talking about accurately representing the people living in our own vibrant communities. We draw the vectors based off of existing images, editing them to make sure they will fit well into orthographic drawings. Some demographics are much harder to find (especially positive and non-stereotypical representations of them). When we encounter this, although challenging, it is a motivating reminder of how important increasing this representation is.
Honestly, one of the hardest parts has been developing the system for naming and tagging the vectors. We spent a long time considering the pitfalls of both over-tagging and under-tagging. The risk becomes that site visitors will not be able to find what they are looking for, but we also want to avoid labelling someone incorrectly or erasing an aspect of the vectors’ visible identities. To explain this using an example: if a vector is tagged as ‘Ethiopian woman’, it becomes less searchable because visitors are less likely to use ‘Ethiopia’ or ‘Ethiopian’ as a search term. If it gets tagged as only “woman”, then an architecture student specifically trying to increase the representation of people of colour in their drawings will have to manually sift through the visibly white vectors. For now, we have settled on using a wide range of tags for each vector (that are invisible to the site users) and one visible title for each vector that is based on the area of underrepresentation that is being specifically addressed by that collection.
If we have the opportunity to work in-person with individuals modeling for us, we look forward to them being able to decide their own tags - whatever they feel best describes themselves. We would also love to hear from the community using the website about what demographics of identities that they find underrepresented. Who are they looking to add to their drawings and who is missing on Vector_Vault?
What are your plans for the future of the project?
"Ultimately, we hope that this resource inspires student designers to think differently to design more inclusive and accessible spaces."
Our first goal is to continue growing the library. We are also looking to get more people involved in the project. The idea of community ownership of the project is really important to us. In the past there have been other projects which I thought were really interesting and important, but they felt exclusive - I didn’t feel welcomed to get involved. We want to resist against that sense of exclusiveness and individual project ownership.
There are small and large ways for folks to get involved: from reaching out with feedback or donating vectors to be included in the library, to taking a more collaborative role in building content. People can also donate - we received funding to create the website, but to keep it up for longer than a year we rely on monetary donations.
Our dream would be to receive enough donations (or further grant money) to be able to pay real individuals to model for us to draw them as a vector in a variety of poses, activities, and orthographic views. We see this as a way to humanize the vectors by creating a narrative which we believe will help prevent the use of the vectors as stereotypes. We want to help build empathy towards more inclusive designs.
Most of all, we hope that the website gets used. We hope that people feel that this project gives them the tools (in an easy, accessible way) to represent more diversity in their drawings. We hope that this helps people start to feel more seen or represented in architecture drawings. And, ultimately, we hope that this resource inspires student designers to think differently to design more inclusive and accessible spaces.