Black Designers: Forward in Action (Part I)

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A look at where we’ve been, where we find ourselves in the present moment—and the brilliant Black designers carrying us into the future.

Editor’s Note: In 1987, Cheryl D. Holmes-Miller wrote the seminal “Black Designers: Missing in Action” for PRINT. In 2016, we commissioned her to write a follow-up, “Black Designers: Still Missing in Action?” Now, she completes her trilogy in a four-part final volume exploring the subject from its many angles as she passes the baton to the next generation of designers.

Dedicated to Dorothy E. Hayes

Part I: “Where are the Black Designers?” They Asked

Murders. Protests. Riots. Unrest. Lawdamercy! is my go-to tribal scream when completely overwhelmed with Facebook feeds, unbelievable Instagram posts, assorted Twitter fake news and—let’s not forget—CNN and Fox. Typically, that’s about all I can say online, and my network agrees, reply after reply, with a hardy, AMEN!

In June, the COVID-19 pandemic began dovetailing with worldwide marches following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Overnight, Muriel Bowser, the mayor of the U.S. capital, became the best Black typographic designer I know, commissioning a painting on the D.C corridor runway stating “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” Typography in protest.

Months later, we are all still looking on as family and friends continue to die of the novel coronavirus, protests continue, and buildings burn. The cries of “Black Lives Matter,” “Justice for George,” and “where is the vaccine?” are in all our prayers. The universe has our undivided attention. Full circle, I am right back at the beginning of the Civil Rights Era, living it, feeling it. I can’t believe I am living through this again, and this question is still being asked: “Where are the Black designers?”

One day in June, during my morning coffee routine, I scrolled past a post for a new online conference titled exactly that: “Where are the Black Designers?” My eyes moved across the page, searching for who was asking this same Midcentury question. I continued reading and there the statistics appeared, once again:

“According to the 2019 AIGA Design Census, only 3% of designers across a variety of disciplines are Black.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. From 1970–2020, I am nearly dizzy from the rodeo.

I clicked over to the Instagram account cited in the post: @wherearetheblackdesigners.

One half a century and no retirement gold watch to show for the journey, I couldn’t believe my eyes: Post after post after post of graphics, all illustrating the central question asked by the conference. I began watching carefully as the page swelled with thousands of followers by the hour.

In 2000, I paused my career and graphic design justice advocacy to raise my kids and get them off to college. Now, 20 years later, the broader design world at large was demanding to know: Where are the Black designers?

Well, anyone could begin to find them in that moment! A fierce cadre of Black and Brown designers, educators, scholars and white/non-Black allies had come together to use design as a protest vehicle. Fast Company’s headline about the conference—“Where are all the Black designers? A bold new initiative demands answers”—spoke to the final moments of having to answer this question.

Having raised this query nearly 35 years ago when PRINT published my first article on the subject, the 1987 piece “Black Designers: Missing in Action,” I had to find out who was behind this Instagram takeover. I texted Revision Path’s Maurice Cherry (see below), who held an epic 2015 SXSW talk with the same title: “Where are the Black Designers?

Maurice Cherry

“Maurice, is this you?” I asked.

“Nope, and everyone on Twitter is asking me the same question!” he replied.

After decades of AIGA-inspired Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion taskforce initiatives to move the needle of a very serious problem—with no real industry-wide progress—in one perfect storm, the mission had gone viral.

What in the world? I thought to myself. How could this take flight so quickly? By the time I caught up with Mitzi Okou, the conference’s co-founder, she wasn’t even sure.

“We just made an IG poster challenge to create and use design as protest,” she said. “We were surprised.”

Okou experienced firsthand the lack of accessible information and history about Black designers while in school at Savannah College of Art and Design. After graduating, she imagined the possibility that an industry conference could answer her questions about the lack of Blacks and their presence in design.

Mitzi Okou, visual and interaction designer at HP, San Diego

Social media followers surged past 30,000. It was the phenomena of “the challenge”—the initiative urged the design community at large to make their own imagery posing the question—and using design as revolutionary art that brought so much truth to light. Decades of the cause’s mission in keywords and the Google algorithm had primed the well for this moment. Eureka. Everybody and everyone was finally watching and reacting to the issue.

Well, look no more for Black designers. They are now forward in action, moving to the forefront of the design industry stage.

At the subsequent “Where are the Black Designers?” virtual event, a bold cadre of speakers came together with anti-racist themes and action plans for aggressively dismantling the blatant racism in the industry. Speaker after speaker, with authority, spoke powerful truths.

YouTube had 1,500 online streaming viewers; 3,500 filled the newly created “Where are the Black Designers?” Slack channel and nearly 30,000 Instagram followers logged on when the conference’s virtual doors opened. The Zoom room was packed.

Dr. Dori Tunstall of Ontario College of Art & Design University is the first Black dean of a design faculty anywhere. She holds a Ph.D. and MA in anthropology from Stanford University and a BA in anthropology from Bryn Mawr College. // “I have lived up to my duty to use my position to open doors for others … creating critical mass for real structural change,” she says. “This doesn’t mean just hiring diverse faculty but changing the actual criteria for entry so that it accounts for the passion for community and the distinct histories of structural exclusion for Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern and Asian peoples.” // Tunstall has hired professors Angela Bains, Kestin Cornwall, Kathy Moscou, Michael Lee Poy and Marton Robinson to facilitate OCAD U’s academic plan. Photo: Ismil Waterman

The powerhouse lineup of speakers led a new dialog. There were hashtags assigned to every emerging theme: #decolonize #decolonizedesigneducation #decolonizetheacademy #decolonizethecanon #decolonizedesign #redesigningdesign #divest #designtodivest. Among the takeaways: The Confederate statue of the white male Eurocentric design pedagogy, as well as systemically racist white supremacist practices found lodged in the industry, need to come down; Bauhaus Midcentury Modernism, the German and Swiss grid and typographic systems, white professorial hierarchal tendencies and the white male–dominant “Mad Men” design culture are losing their relevance.

Dr. Dori Tunstall of Ontario College of Art & Design University—the first Black dean of a design faculty anywhere—made point after point. Her work is cutting-edge, and you can find many interviews with her online about decolonizing design, ending white supremacy and everything in the works at OCAD U.

As she explains in a “Fresh Squeezed Ideas” piece, “In 1681, the Colony of Virginia established the legal and economic hierarchy of white supremacy. This hierarchy exists in the professional design world. Decolonizing design is about respecting Indigenous-sovereign spaces, such that Indigenous, Black, POC and white students can embrace their differences without hierarchy.”

Tunstall has hired five new tenure-track faculty members as part of OCAD U’s dedication to the implementation of its academic plan and commitment to decolonization, diversity and equity.

On the whole, decolonization of design challenges us to divorce, free and emancipate our indoctrination from patriarchal, Anglocentric, Eurocentric standards that have been foundational to education, design thinking, process and practice (even racist oppressions causing decades of disenfranchisement to the Black design community). The bold new design practitioner empowered by such education soars past an antiquated ethos and nonmodified exclusionary, elitist behaviors.

All around us, we are seeing white and non-Black allies partnering with the Black and Brown design community to help push the practice forward in achieving a new anti-racist culture—and the “Where are the Black Designers?” conference forged new allies and bonded them in not just a moment, but a movement of divestiture.

Aside: Decolonizing Pedagogy: New Voices In Academia

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel

Associate director for Design Thinking for Social Impact and professor of practice at the Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking, Tulane University

Noel creates design tools and methods that challenge hegemony in design and design curriculum, and reimagines how design education can better serve the under-represented. This includes focusing on themes of identity, resilience, agency, self-determination and creating new ways of thinking and doing.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington

Assistant professor of design, College of Computing and Digital Media, DePaul University; director of the Equity and Health Innovations Design Research Lab

Harrington explores participatory design to promote constructs of empowerment and access among the vulnerable and marginalized. Her work focuses on how design can play a role in moving Black communities toward equitable technology solutions.

Visiting Clinical Professor Christopher Rudd

Instructor and lead of community-led design, Chicago Design Lab, Institute of Design

Rudd focuses on co-designing anti-racist and equitable systems with community stakeholders. In the classroom, he teaches the history of racism, and imagining anti-racist futures.

Okou’s “Where are the Black Designers?” co-founder, Garrett Albury, is a graphic and interaction designer living in Brooklyn. Currently, he is a senior UX designer at Capital One. The two were classmates at SCAD. I asked him a tough question: “Why are you an ally to this conference—why are you a co-founder, specifically? As a white man, what’s in this for you?”

I offer his reply in full, which sheds light on the movement of allies around the event and the issue at large:

At my core, and I believe everyone’s core, we just want to belong. To be included. I care so deeply about Black lives and the representation of Black people in the design industry because discrimination is thriving in every aspect of our lives—and has been. I will never fully understand the pain and suffering of what it means to experience racism, and there is no anecdote I have which could ever parallel the awful experiences and microaggressions BIPOC designers endure every day of their existence.

Part of recognizing my complacency in this system is speaking out against the system itself. I am where I am today because of my privilege, and learning about and dismantling that is an ongoing, lifelong activity.

White people need to listen and recognize the pain and burden of educating. The burden needs to shift from people of color to people who look like me. I hope that my involvement in helping Mitzi realize “Where are the Black Designers?” can set an example for other white designers who recognize the deep-seated problems within our industry. Moving forward I will continue to ask myself if my engagement serves the movement best, and I will continue to check my privilege.”

OK, I thought, I’ll work with that! In the church, we say, “Well, let’s put some time on it!”

Continuing on the subject of allyship, meet @fiveboi, Vanessa Newman. Newman is a self-taught graphic designer, and her critical thinking shows her to be a scholar in the making. At the event she took to the virtual stage to challenge white and non-Black people of color to become true and effective allies and to discard the “white savior complex.” She developed Design to Divest, a task force of creatives who use design toward the divestment of capitalism and white supremacist structures.

A definite game-changer, Design to Divest hosts design challenges, curated reading lists, community design crits, workshops and more. One of my favorite posts from the subsequent #designtodivest hashtag on Instagram is the “Reparations Pledge.” It charges non-Black allies to take a pledge to commit to taking action and to make long-term plans for racial jus
tice in the design field. “Don’t just talk about it,
be about it!

The “Where are the Black Designers?” conference is over—and the question finally should be, too. So in this article and the subsequent installments to come, we’re going to answer it.

To that end, here are seven Black designers you should know (starting with the brilliant Maurice Cherry, who you very likely already do). Stay tuned for many more in the second volume of this series next Thursday.

Maurice Cherry

Cherry is a designer, podcaster and pioneering digital creator based in Atlanta, known for his AIGA article and SXSW talk, “Where Are The Black Designers?”

Awards, Accolades and Milestones

January 2018—GDUSA’s People to Watch

April 2018—Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary

2018—The Root 100

July 2019—Revision Path selected as the first podcast in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture collection

June 2020—Revision Path celebrates 350 episodes

Cherry offers important critical perspective on the “Where are the Black Designers?” virtual gathering: “I silently watched the entire event; I thought about chiming in, but decided to just observe the conversations and take in the enthusiasm from the fervent crowd of attendees on Slack. If I separate the technical logistics of the event from the content presented, then I think ‘Where are the Black Designers?’ was a rousing success. I welcome the arrival of a future event which does a better job of an
swering the title question without conflating the unique historical struggles of Black designers in this industry into a BIPOC-flavored punch for white consumption.”

Shani Sandy

As an executive at IBM, Sandy works at the intersection of design, technology and business. Her mission is business transformation through design practice and leadership, with a relentless focus on superior client experiences. Sandy is also the founder of Milele Design, a studio embracing experimentation and artistry to create original works. She has an MBA from the Berlin School of Creative Leadership at Steinbeis University, and a bachelor’s in art history and fine arts, painting and computer art from Tufts University.

“Is designing with the same colors yielding the same old design?” she asks. “Black designer, you are primed to go beyond the status quo. Though you may not see yourself reflected in the canons of history, the lineups of celebrity designers or the styles considered masterful, you are there. … Reflect the mirror on yourself and each other and continue forward.”

Osmond Tshuma

Tshuma is an award-winning Zimbabwean artist, designer, art director, typographer and curator who specializes in African-inspired themes. He developed the visual language for the Obama Foundation Africa Leaders program. A graduate of the University of Johannesburg, Tshuma is inspired by Saki Mafundikwa and his Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts.

“In all of my work, I’m trying to lift up the beauty of African design by expressing it in new and innovative ways,” he says.

Debbie Sun

A graphic designer and visual artist based in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sun is constantly inspired by the natural beauty of the islands. Her distinctive style captures an effervescent spirit and unique vibrancy, a sure reflection of her Caribbean upbringing. Sun was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, raised on St. Croix, and lived stateside during her undergraduate architectural studies at the University of California, at Berkeley. She is designing a new madras for the U.S. Virgin Islands, thanks to a cultural grant awarded to the St. Croix Heritage Dancers.

“My work plays with the dynamics between organic flow of nature and the geometry of forms and shapes that come through in architecture,” she says. “Many of my textile designs originate from a hand-painted silk piece, which is then reinterpreted digitally. The fluidity of the silks finds structure in a way of a pattern or design, often playing with layers and transparency. I am fascinated with construction and deconstruction, from natural elements to architectural designs.”

Mike Nicholls

Nicholls translates ideas into visionary creative solutions utilizing his more than 20 years of design experience and natural talent. As Umber Magazine’s creative director, he designs and illustrates the perspectives of each release’s contributors, from curation of content to final publication. As founder, Nicholls is also responsible for community engagement and managing an amazingly talented team.

He surrounds himself with vintage iconic design solutions; Emigre, Pixação: São Paulo Signature, VIBE, JET, EBONY and more inspire him.

Umber was never created to address diversity and inclusion—it was created from the community we’ve been a part of, a way to highlight and archive our narrative.”

Traer Price

After completing her undergraduate work at Harvard, Price began her design career at Cheryl D. Miller Design Inc. New York as an art director and graphic designer. (She helped craft the visual style of our studio, which I fondly call “the Black Grid and Typographic System—The Swiss Chocolate Grid!”) Price left the firm for Stanford University, where she earned a degree in visual design. Upon graduating, she furthered her career as a fountain choreographer for WET, and traveled the world to wo
rk on the company’s legendary features at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and The Dubai Fountain at the base of the Burj Khalifa. She’s possibly the only Black female fountain choreographer to date, and is especially proud of a show at The Dubai Fountain that features Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” which became a de facto memorial after the singer’s passing. Price currently designs jewelry in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“I have a small studio where I am surrounded by extraordinary wildlife, tropical foliage and mother ocean,” she says. “I make pilgrimages to the desert when I can, where the land literally knows my name. I feed myself with work by Art Smith, Alexander Calder, Martin Puryear, Osamu Noguchi, Nick Cave, Romare Bearden, Henri Matisse … and new brilliance I discover nearly daily. I drop into the well of ancient tribal jewelry. My desire for self-connection led me to offer that same self-resonance to aesthetic kindred souls in the form of my line of ‘earthy-sexy’ jewelry in the tradition of Midcentury studio jewelry.”


Tré Seals

In 2016, Seals founded Vocal Type Co.—the third Black-owned foundry in America, and the last in operation today.

Seals designs protest fonts—he specializes in making typefaces inspired by minority cultures, and particularly by social justice movements. Meticulous historical research goes into each of his fonts, which are given names like “Martin” and “Marsha” to honor icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and gay liberation activist Marsha P. Johnson.

All told, Seals has worked with over 250 partners, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses. He’s been recognized as an Ascender by the Type Directors Club, a Young Gun by the Art Directors Club, and has been featured in Fast Company, Eye On Design and other outlets.

“On a micro level,” he says, “when you learn that there have only been three Black-owned font foundries in America, you can see just how serious the lack of diversity in design is on a macro-level.”

Stay tuned to PRINT for Part II of “Black Designers: Forward in Action” next Thursday.

Cheryl D. Holmes-Miller holds a master of science in communications design from the Pratt Institute, and a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, with foundational studies held at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her former business, Cheryl D. Miller Design Inc., serviced corporate communications to a Fortune 500 clientele. She has won countless awards from institutions and organizations including AIGA, The Art Directors Club, Desi Awards, Peabody Awards, Crystal Awards, the CEBA Award and more.

She further holds a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary, and attributes her design systematic liberation theology to being exposed to the liberation theories of Cornel West, James H. Cone, James Washington, Delores S. Williams and Katie Cannon.

For a guided tour of her portfolio, click here.

Holmes-Miller says she didn’t start working with PRINT 35 years ago when her first article was published—she started five decades ago as PRINT published Dorothy Jackson’s piece “The Black Experience in Graphic Design” featuring Dorothy E. Hayes in 1968. For a look at how PRINT became the first industry magazine to approach design and critical real-world issues in its editorial coverage, read Steven Heller’s piece “The Politics of PRINT,” published on the occasion of the magazine’s 75th anniversary.