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 II: Being Part of the Club
When the Art Directors Club and The One Club (previously The Copy Club) opted to merge in 2016 to create The One Club for Creativity, I knew the old guard of Midcentury–era design organizations would begin to disappear.
Wanting to find out more of the backstory behind the evolution of the groups, I asked Brett McKenzie, creative manager of The One Club for Creativity. McKenzie explained that the times had just changed. His comments about the Young Guns (creatives under 30) program were the most revealing, and though a tad long, I offer them below.
In 2014, when the Young Guns 12 awards got called out for featuring all white winners, the organization dealt with it immediately.
“Young Guns 12 had 31 amazing winners that year, but when we announced who they were, along with headshots, we immediately caught some backlash over the lack of diversity,” he said. “I reached out to a number of the people commenting on Twitter, and created an article entitled ‘The Whitest Winners You Know.’
“The problem … we learned in hindsight, is that when your jury fits a specific mold, your winners tend to follow. And even though Young Guns entrants are judged blindly—the work is seen, not the entrants’ names, bios, headshots, etc.—if a jury member is truly a student of the game, he or she will recognize the entrants and their work, and may judge accordingly. You could call this the ‘White Male Illustrator From Williamsburg’ rule. If you are a white male illustrator from Williamsburg, you’re likely familiar with the work of others like you, which gives entrants like that an edge.
“Over the next few years, our winners became increasingly diverse. I would like to think that creatives of color now seeing faces like their own in the jury helped give them the confidence to enter. They were already good enough to win Young Guns, but as they say, you gotta be in it to win it. A more diverse jury helped them want to be ‘in it.’”
McKenzie smiled broadly at me from the Zoom window. “Tré Seals made the cut.”
Tré calls me “Auntie.” That’s my nephew, a Young Gun.
Back in the day, there were only a few exclusive entities to which a designer could become famed, if you will. There was the Art Director’s Club and AIGA, and their prestigious awards and publications; Communication Arts and PRINT magazines; and U&lc and The Type Directors Club, where type designers gathered for their elitist agendas.
On June 23, Juan Villanueva made waves in the industry when he posted “My Resignation From the Type Directors Club” on Medium, in which he called out the organization as racist. Not long after, the headlines began to make the rounds on social media: “The Type Directors Club is closing.” As the TDC wrote in a post [Editor’s Note: It no longer appears on the site], “… the board has decided to dismantle the organization in its current state and end the lease on the Club’s physical space. The board believes the club should be reconstituted in a new, more inclusive form, under different leadership in the future.”
Some are of the mindset that recognition from organizations like the TDC means everything. When I was younger and in New York, I wanted that same sense of acceptance. We aspired to be included in elite design organizations that represented white supremacy at its best—but we were invisible, and were made to feel as such. Why should we have had to work to earn inclusion in these organizations? Do we really want or need their bragging rights? Some of these legacy organizations are on ventilators; they have excluded everyone but themselves and now can’t pay the rent. Jack Welch put it this way: “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”
Well, Black designers are speaking up and out of these organizations. The plethora of online essays gives voice to plenty of truth. “Dear AIGA, Goodbye.” “The White Supremacist Culture of AIGA.” “Dismantling White Supremacy Culture Within AIGA.” “An Open Letter to the White Graphic Design Community.” Headline after headline dismantling white supremacy with bold, unapologetic charges against the design establishment.
“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist,” Angela Y. Davis contends as she urges action by any means necessary. That’s exactly what Amélie Lamont suggests in her essay, “I’m leaving AIGA behind. You should, too.” Lamont served AIGA in both the New York and National chapters. As she writes, “Organizations like AIGA that are so broken from the inside will eventually destroy themselves through dismantling or ideological self-immolation. … I can’t recommend AIGA in
good faith to Black designers.”
At the end of Lamont’s piece, she doesn’t just leave you with advice, but a bold assertion: “Black designers are tired, and being in AIGA is not a fight worth fighting or an organization worth saving. As I resign from AIGA, I’m self-reflecting. I’m walking towards a future of yearning, wondering: When do we stop waiting for others to include us and find ways to include ourselves? Black designers, we are gifted, talented, and capable of anything. It’d be better to direct our energies into something made by us for us. As Black people, we always find a way to create truly inclusive spaces of belonging for ourselves and others. It’s time to make something new that says, to everyone: You matter. You belong. Welcome home.”
Amélie Lamont, I welcome you to the history books of Black female designers who speak truth to power.
In January, AIGA appointed Bennie F. Johnson, a Black man, to its executive director position. I reached out with an opportunity to respond to the headlines above in the organization’s own words, and they sent the following.
Earnestly, I read their response with hope and faith for our industry at large. I can forgive the past.
Through community engagement as well as executive due diligence, we have also uncovered historic, hard truths about AIGA. While some of the practices and standards we’ve unearthed in the organization’s past were considered standard association practice at the time, they are still undoubtedly failures to the community and profession by current industry standards and our values.
That said, the issues of AIGA's past are no longer given refuge in our structures or systems.
AIGA is under new leadership and on a mission to do our part to eliminate racism and other forms of oppression, phobia, hatred and unprofessional behavior from our communities, professional association and profession. We’re on a mission to stand up for social justice in its many forms by helping educate our robust set of leaders as well as our members on the issues and impacts, empowering and centering the historically disempowered and marginalized, and weeding the bigotry, bias and greed out of the very foundations of our national organization, chapter organizations and individual leaders. In this work, we are doing our part—alongside countless organizations, communities and individuals dedicated to this effort—to course correct the profession and help ensure a more just and equitable future for designers at every stage of their careers and lives. We also stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us, actualizing the change that criticism has long highlighted in design discourse.
Rather than fold at that demand for change from the community as others have, we’ve doubled our efforts for change in a community-centric way. We are providing training, tools, investments, and are partnering with long-overlooked institutions, communities, organizations, corporations and individuals ready to see and be a part of this change. We look forward to demonstrating this change now and moving forward.
All told, the Black designers featured in this series are far from missing in action—they are thriving in action, with bold, authentic and powerful stances on the toxic culture of white supremacy within the industry. They are unapologetic. And they are not waiting for the design industry to get itself together. They are empowering their community of practitioners and training, mentoring and caring for up-and-coming leaders—and they’re banding together to do it like never before.
If you’re still asking the good ol’ question, “Where are the Black designers?” you might be missing them because they are busy moving forward in their own networks, collectives, associations and conventions. The three that follow are my absolute favorite alliances for, by and about Black designers.
African American Graphic Designers
African American Graphic Designers has a primary mission to connect, encourage and employ Black graphic designers and visual communicators. They have two key points of access. Their membership site is the provider of stellar graphic design services for the community at large. It features educational courses; chapters; mentorship and accountability programs; access to paid project work, internal and external; allyship programs; advocacy work; and more. Here we find a collective of members intensively learning, connecting and serving the community.
On the AAGD Facebook group of nearly 3,000, meanwhile, members freely network, pass tips along, post job opportunities and share wisdom.
No matter which access point you prefer, the ultimate goal of African American Graphic Designers is to create an organizational entity solely for African American/Black designers.
Terrence Moline is the founder. He resides at the corner of marketing and art by utilizing his skills to create identities, communities and communication. With 20+ years of industry dedication, his illustration, strategy and design have helped raise the profile of community causes and educational organizations.
At AAGD, he maintains a brilliant resource directory for more leads to organizations, educational venues, conferences, designers and more.
As he says, “With technology, we have access to worldwide connections. With research, we can find each other and support each other’s efforts. With secure aa/blk design spaces, we can foster challenge, empathy and trust.”
Black in Design
The Black in Design Conference, hosted by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design African American Student Union, celebrates the African diaspora’s contributions to design “and promotes discourse around the agency of the design profession to address and dismantle the institutional barriers faced by our communities.”
Launched by Hector Tarrido-Picart, the
inaugural conference in 2015 sought to “broaden our definition of what it means to be a designer. We believe that initial steps towards addressing social injustice through design are to reclaim the histories of underrepresented groups in design pedagogy and to implicate designers as having a role in repairing our broken built environment.”
The HUE Collective
Representing a broad spectrum of design disciplines, the HUE Collective—Tiffany Ricks, Alphonso Jordan, Randall Wilson, Shaw Strothers IV, James Howard, Kyra O'Kelley, Jasmine Kent, Shawn Harris, Michael Grant and Jakia Fuller—plan the signature annual Hue Summit, the most recent installment of which took place virtually in late July.
The team seeks to foster a comfortable environment for creatives to share expertise, with the ultimate goal of making connections, and leaving with new relationships, new insights and a new community of people to design a new future with.
As for tomorrow’s designers—we’re working on that too. The professional Black design community is raising a new brand of its own leadership from within. Youth from underserved, marginalized and minority communities are being trained to pursue new heights in the field of design via community outreach and design school prep programs. Now, admissions officers and college diversity recruitment initiatives do not have to search far for competitive candidates, and they certainly don’t need to ask “Where are the Black student designers?”
These are some of the organizations leading the charge.
Project Osmosis creates programs and initiatives that identify, develop and support young people from minority communities with demonstrated abilities and skills in the applied arts. Through these efforts, the organization intends to increase the influence and presence of art and design professionals from minority communities, fostering artistic expression for all people.
The organization helps more than 400 students each year gain access to and learn about career opportunities in the design disciplines.
designExplorr seeks to address the diversity gap within the profession by expanding access to design education and careers for Black and Latino youth while raising awareness for corporate organizations. This is accomplished through collaborations that develop youth activities, coordinate diversity-building initiatives, and connect stakeholders to resources.
Inneract Project primarily serves middle school and high school youth who identify as Black, Latinx and/or come from low-income backgrounds. The nonprofit empowers these students through design, equipping them with the skills to explore design in college, career and life. A professionally supported organization, Inneract Project offers a pathway of free design classes and initiatives to help students channel their creativity into viable career paths. The goal: Building a national cohort of Black and Brown people in design.
Innovators for Purpose, which “inspires high-potential diverse youth, especially those from under-resourced and underrepresented populations, to discover their passions, develop innovative mindsets and cultivate marketable skills to solve problems they care most about.”
The Black School, which “uses art to propose radical alternatives to the current systems of injustices.”
Stay tuned to PRINT for Part III of “Black Designers: Forward in Action” next Thursday. If you missed Part I, read it here.
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 Dorot
hy 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.