Representation Is Powerful

This was originally published as an item in Issue 004 of the designspun email newsletter.

When I went to design school in the 1990s, of course, graphic design history was part of the curriculum. I didn’t realize it at the time, but everyone we studied—and therefore worshipped—was a white male. For minorities, representation is so powerful. And as the conversation in our country about race righteously heats up and expands from police brutality to systemic racism, it’s time to look at our own industry and ask ourselves about diversity and representation.

Toronto-based creative director Glenford Laughton compiled a great list of 13 African-American graphic designers we should all know. It includes greats like Georg Olden, who was the first African American to design a postage stamp, and Archie Boston, the designer-provocateur who started and chaired the design program at Cal State Long Beach.

According to the AIGA’s 2019 Design Census, just 3% of designers are black. African Americans make up about 14% of our population. Last year, product designer Wes O’Haire from Dropbox created Blacks Who Design. It’s a directory of black creatives on Twitter, giving them a platform to be seen and found, while simultaneously inspiring young people by showing them successful designers who have their same skin color. Representation is powerful.

Hoping to start a dialogue about changing the design industry, Where are the Black Designers is holding a virtual conversation on June 27, 2020.

Aggie Topkins writes in Eye on Design, “Graphic design, by focusing on its own version of monarchs and dynasties, maintains an outdated approach to history that further entrenches it as a hierarchical society.” In other words, maybe it’s time to teach design students about the societal and social changes happening, rather than the individual geniuses who channeled those influences into some work.