Black Designers: Missing in Action (1987)

The author of a 30-year-old Print article on diversity, Cheryl D. Holmes-Miller, surveys the industry in our summer 2016 issue to see who is designing the solution to a problem that continues to this day. Here, we share her first Print article—the one that started the conversation. For more, visit

Black Designers: Missing in Action

By: Cheryl D. Miller

The reasons there are so few blacks in the design field are complex and frustrating. But much can be done to change the situation—to the benefit of the field and the society it serves.

In a paper-company advertisement appearing in may graphic design magazines, a group of seven prominent designers are depicted as having reached a verdict. The jury is all-white and all-male. The ad itself announces a design competition, but, however inadvertently. it symbolizes a broader issue.

Graphic design can be considered a select, professional field which only a few may enter owing to its costly educational preparation and subsequent competition in the marketplace. The graphic design industry, which includes clients as well as practitioners, is highly selective in choosing its participants and, as a result, very visible, graphic designers. Indeed, there are few black graphic designers practicing in the profession at all.

Blacks have achieved a great deal in other creative fields because the doors to those fields were opened to them years ago, to society’s benefit. Through their effort, talent and innovation, blacks affect the nation’s economic bottom line every day. This being the case, it is not unnatural to wonder why their participation in the graphic design field is so minimal. A broader question, however, may be, “What is missing in the design profession as a result of so little input from the largest of all American minority groups?”

25th anniversary logo for the New York Mets. Designer: Kirk Brown; client: Michael Aronin/New York Mets

25th anniversary logo for the New York Mets. Designer: Kirk Brown; client: Michael Aronin/New York Mets

Hugh B. Price, a black who is senior vice-president at WNET/Channel 13, New York’s public television station, and is charged with developing and evaluating broadcast programming for WNET and with overseeing production of programs for national distribution to other PBS stations, points out that even those ethnic groups now considered to be among the white majority were at one time or another minorities in American society. “The majority culture here is, in fact, an amalgam of cultures,” he notes. “The energy possessed by people who have come to this country from various parts of the world has lent it vitality, a competitiveness and a drive that has given us our high standard of living. We need, therefore, to express minority values and experiences so that the majority can function harmoniously. It is important to provide outlets for all minorities because their experiences inform and enrich the lives of the majority at large.”

The success of Asian designers—who, interestingly, have been more readily integrated into the mainstream of graphic design in the U.S. than black designers—proves that minority design and a minority perspective can be accepted, respected, even sought after. This is not to say that the black perspective should be accepted simply because the Asian perspective has been, but because it is valuable in its own right. Indeed, a television commercial developed by Foote Cone Belding for Levi’s 501 jeans is an example of how the black perspective is already contributing to graphic communication. A black singer and a gospel format are used to present the product to a general audience, and by using gospel singing—an essential element of black culture—the commercial demonstrates that the black perspective can be an effective means of communicating a message to society as a whole.

Similarly, Uniworld, a New York-based advertising agency serving Fortune 500 companies who want to reach the black and Hispanic markets, has developed a TV campaign for Burger King restaurants in which sophisticated, stylish, individualistic young black adults are shown buying fast food from Burger King. Uniworld president Herb Kemp calls these spots “Fashion Statements.” The ads tell the viewer who is also individualistic and likes things a little bit different that he can “have is his way,” as Burger King prepares burger sandwiches to the customer’s special taste.

“Though the campaign is directed at 12 to 15 per cent of the total population,” Kemp points out, “it must communicate to a larger, broader community as well—it can’t appeal just to blacks. Black music and culture are effective in this way as they are no longer confined to the black community. The success of major black artists who have ‘crossed over’ has exposed large segments of the general population, particularly young, urban whites, to different aspects of contemporary this culture that includes music and fashion is readily adopted by large segments of the population.”

Logo for Kirk Brown. Designer: Kirk Brown

Logo for Kirk Brown. Designer: Kirk Brown

With the success of ads like these, the question of why the design field hasn’t made better use of the talents of blacks who have already contributed so much to graphic communication despite their token presence in the profession takes on added import.One answer may be that there are only a few blacks with the right training and qualifications to be graphic designers. Roz Goldfarb, president and owner of Roz Goldfarb Associates, a leading placement agency specializing in recruiting and employment in the graphic design field, says that, though she would “send anyone out on an interview who’s qualified for a particular job,” she is often hard-pressed to find qualified blacks to fill positions. “I may actually get a request for a person from a minority background from a company that needs to prove that it has fair hiring practices,” Goldfarb states. “But here’s the Catch 22: If XYZ Corporation called me up tomorrow and said it was desperate to hire a qualified black designer, I would find it very difficult to fill that job. It’s very sad thing. I can tell you that if someone walked into this office with a good portfolio, the fact that they happened to be black would [not be a handicap to their prospects]. In fact, I think it would probably be an advantage.”

Though qualified black designers do exist, getting a larger number of blacks qualified would seem to be the simple solution to the problem Goldfarb describes. In practice, of course, it’s not so simple. A host of difficulties present themselves. In order to become qualified, blacks have to overcome a gamut of obstacles ranging from family hostility to their career choice, to limited financial resources for acquiring an adequate education, to the dearth of mentors able to provide guidance and employment opportunities once the education has been acquired, and to ever-present prejudice.

The first of these obstacles is perhaps the most poignant: lack of emotional support from parents. Like parents of every color, black parents want to see their children become successful, and like most parents, they see education as the key to that success. To many black parents, however, studying art is a luxury. The average black parent is not aware of “art” as being a field in which one can make a living. In his doctoral thesis at the University of Michigan, “A Study of the Attitudes of Black Parents Toward Vocational and Non-Vocational Education,” Joseph William Sims examined the opinions held by black parents toward professions open to their children. His figures revealed that 60 per cent of the black parents he questioned wanted their children to enter more traditional professions, while only 5 per cent of the parents said they would like their children to enter some artistic field.

Eli Kince

Eli Kince

Just how much of an obstacle this parental disapproval can be is dramatically illustrated by the experiences of Eli Kince, an independent designer in New York, who acquired an M.A. in Design from Yale University. Kince studied under Paul Rand, has worked with top firms such as Landor Associates and Anspach Grossman Portugal, and has published a book, Visual Puns in Design (Watson Guptill); yet his distress is evident when he recalls his family’s reaction to his choice of profession. “There was no family support,” he says. “I was the only one in my family to complete college; they didn’t understand what I wanted to do and they weren’t that interested. I was in school for nine years without a visit from any of them.”

Though her experience was not as harsh, Carol Porter, a graphic designer with the Washington Post, recalls similar family lack of understanding about her choice of career. “I personally broke family and black middle-class tradition by pursuing a career in design,” she says. “I decided that teaching or government work was not the direction for me, even though these are certainly honorable positions. My interest lay in the field of applied art and I had to argue my case for breaking the pattern of employment many times with the educators in my family.”

When examined from the parents’ perspective, their attitudes are a little easier to understand. In many instances, extreme financial sacrifices are made by black parents to meet the educational needs of their children. With the investment substantial and the sacrifice intense, parents feel justified in insisting upon the desired result: assurance of success and security in their children’s futures. They therefore prefer educations that lead toward “safe” mainstream professions.

Book cover for Doubleday. Designer: Kirk Brown; art director: Alex Gotfryd

Book cover for Doubleday. Designer: Kirk Brown; art director: Alex Gotfryd

Since studying art as a career is generally not acceptable to black parents, the black student who is educationally motivated and is academically successful is encourage to pursue one of the traditional professions and is not exposed to, or may simply not be attracted to, a career in design. It is the type of student who gravitates towards vocational training who is more likely to become exposed to the graphic arts. At best, however, this exposure is more production- than design-oriented; as a result, the typical vocational training student is not suited to graphic design as profession. Thus, one finds more blacks in the production side of the business than in the professional design side.

For students who do become interested and motivated to pursue a career in design, other issues come to the fore. For instance, a professional art school education at an accredited institution is expensive and most black students need financial assistance to pay for their educations. Given the costs involved, the typical black student is not financially prepared to compete with other applicants to these institutions.


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