The Drum Awards for Design chair Natasha Chetiyawardana on challenging design’s status quo

It’s no secret that women and those from minority groups have typically been sidelined by the creative industries. But The Drum Awards for Design chair Natasha Chetiyawardana, creative partner and co-founder at Bow and Arrow, believes an emerging culture of openness among the industry’s modern-day leaders can pave the way for a new generation of designers who’d been conditioned to believe this industry wasn’t for them.

In a candid interview with her mentee Masha Gvozdeva, a senior creative at Bow & Arrow, she displays optimism at the rate the industry is changing and how conversations are becoming more real in the workplace.

Setting precedent is of utmost importance to Chetiyawardana and something she bore in mind when selecting her jury for The Drum Awards for Design 2022.

“There are actually more women than men on the jury,” she says. “Although that’s not representative of the industry, I hope it can drive change and highlight the current inequality. It’s important for me to challenge the industry and not just represent it. Our industry’s leadership is not necessarily what this jury looks like but it should be.”

Are you one of the design industry’s game changers?

The Drum Awards for Design are open for entries now, with a range of categories rewarding the industry’s finest examples of strategic thinking, innovation and execution. To find out more and enter, visit The Drum Awards for Design website.

Chetiyawardana has been impressed at the jurors’ comradery and how patient they have been with one another. It hasn’t been a competition of egos – which she thinks is a lesson that can be translated into business.

“Business has to listen and respond in terms of what needs to change,” she says. “Clients need to continue doing that. Various initiatives around equal parenting, for instance, need to be established for this change to be effective. Until men start taking up parental leave without fear of recrimination or judgment in their workplaces, until they are called first to pick up the kids when they are sick, women won’t be able to entirely progress forward.”

Chetiyawardana believes the fallacy of the 40-hour week doesn’t fit current expectations of work and urges her colleagues, mentees and teams to be realistic about their experiences as a way of quashing perpetuated myths about having it all.

She shares her experience of having a miscarriage and her decision to disclose this news professionally: “People don't talk about [miscarriage] in the workplace. In fact, I had never heard anyone talk about it in the office environment. I felt like I should share because maybe there were people who I was working with who had gone through something similar. So I decided to openly set the precedent for that conversation and create a more open and honest work culture.”

Arriving at this point of confidence and being able to decide what she shares professionally has been a journey for Chetiyawardana and is something she now encourages in the workplace to get others to embrace who they are.

She remembers power dressing to make herself appear more professional: “I used to wear trouser suits to make myself seem more legit, older and experienced. Everyone else around me was a man, so I tried to blend in. I wanted to appease people in the room, particularly those who thought I was young and inexperienced. It took time to learn how to be myself and remove the protective barriers I had built up. I had to unlearn a lot.”

Naturally, learning these lessons was a process of trial and error for Chetiyawardana and she talks about the role that mistake-learning played in her career. “When I was younger, I didn’t have any mentors or women that I could look up to at work. I didn’t have that stuff modeled for me, so when I got into design leadership when I was young In New York, I made a lot of mistakes.”

She admits that she was a micromanager at the start of her career, so entrusting tasks to others was difficult, but her experience of working in bad environments that zapped her of energy taught her about the importance of working smart and not working people into the ground.

Now, she’s determined to put young and talented creative designers in front of clients, rather than squirrel them away in the back room.

“You can tell when people are in a good working environment, not just because they’re producing brilliant work but because they stay in that place for a long time.

“A good working environment creates a culture where people help each other and aren’t competing to do the best work. They’re supporting each other to be strong and that enables better client relationships.

“As employers, we need to work more flexibly with our teams and respond to them individually. Being more humanly and compassionately responsive is the future – not providing free breakfasts at work.”

Though the pandemic has evolved the needs and demands of the industry, Chetiyawardana is grateful for how it has allowed people to talk more openly about injustice and what they need.

“I feel a duty to speak out,” she says. “Having been a minority in so many rooms – as the only woman, the only designer, often the youngest person – I’ve felt the emotional strain and the imposter syndrome that comes with it and I want to help people overcome that.”

Interview by Masha Gvozdeva. Words: Olivia Atkins