Connections, Agency for Designers of Color

This winter has been, at least for some of us, exasperating and seemingly interminable, the extreme cold and lack of sunlight making it difficult to want to venture outdoors, let alone be productive indoors. And though my energy level has nearly bottomed out at times over the course of the past few weeks, there have also been wonderfully bright moments to distract from the monotony of overcast skies, frigid temperatures and winter weather advisories. A few weeks ago, for example, I had the opportunity to talk to a group of regional high school students about design. These kinds of informal presentations are actually pretty fun since I’m able to interact with a range of people beyond the college-aged students I typically work with. I like the challenge of figuring out how to present design in a way that makes it relevant to anyone and everyone, regardless of their backgrounds.

And as I think about how to tailor my words, I am inevitably reminded of why I chose a design profession over some of the others I considered like architecture, psychology and even genetic engineering. But I’m also uncomfortably aware of the fact that I work and teach in a predominantly white sphere.

The students at this most recent talk represented an ethnically and economically diverse crowd of would-be designers and their parents. Though at least a few individuals appeared vaguely dubious about what I had to say at the outset, the participants were respectful, energetic and engaged, willing to hear me make my case. I doubt that my 45-minute talk will ultimately influence the decisions these students make with regard to their career decisions moving forward.

However, I would like to think that I was successful in conveying the breadth of design’s power and presence, locally, nationally and internationally. I would like to think that by the end of the session, students could envision design as a vehicle for shaping their world for the better. Mostly, I appreciated how rare it was for me to be in a room with prospective design students and their families, most of whom were people of color.

In a 2005 essay titled "Searching for a Black Aesthetic in American Graphic Design Education," the late Sylvia Harris penned the following: “What influence have African Americans had on contemporary graphic design? Is there such a thing as an African-American design aesthetic? These are questions that I have been asking designers and art historians for the last 10 years. The answer I am usually given is, 'I don’t know.' The relationship of ethnic minorities to the development of American graphic design is rarely discussed or documented by our profession because of the historic lack of racial diversity in the field.”

Harris goes on to mention the growing interest in reexamining the history of graphic design as a way to include traditions that have previously been overlooked, and addressing the limitations black designers run into when they adopt “mainstream aesthetic traditions in order to feel accepted and be successful.”

Though my contributions to the design world are nothing compared with Harris’, her perspectives—and apparent frustrations—mirror my own. The issue is not about training an army of black designers to make the design world more racially mixed numbers-wise. The issue is about ensuring that a range of experiences and viewpoints are represented within society and, moreover, that budding designers of color feel connected to design from a cultural and historical context.

Why does this even matter? Well, for starters, many of the images we have come to associate with African-Americans and black culture, at least in the mainstream, are harmful distortions, caricatured depictions that call the humanity of black people into question. Helping designers of color exert greater agency when it comes to visual representation and contributing fresh ideas, consequently, is a step toward eradicating the harm that has been done as a result of neglecting the significance of black aesthetics.

I should state unequivocally that I have a deep appreciation for design traditions rooted in European influence. The program at Kent State where I studied for my MFA, known for emphasizing the International Typographic Style, was instrumental in making me a better designer. Without the discipline of that training, I would never have learned how to balance unrestrained, expressive visuals with the beauty of simple, structured typography.

My point is simply that as with most things in life, there should be a balance; just as there is still room for the European-inspired design influences, there is room to expand, creating new traditions that include the voices that continue to be overlooked.