Image by Beatrice Sala.

David Jon Walker is an assistant professor of graphic design at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, as well as principal of Rhealistic Design, a small design consultancy that specializes in special events for nonprofits and partners with small minority marketing agencies to help build their portfolios. He’s also one of 12 designers featured in Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race edited by Kelly Walters and forthcoming from Princeton Architectural Press. As Walters notes in her introduction, those included in the book teach across a variety of institutions—from big research universities to small liberal arts schools and community colleges—in different parts of the country. Their conversations with Walters look back to their own education and the paths they took to become designers and educators, as well as their experience inside the institutions where they teach today. Together, they give insight into the ways that race, racial identity, and design education intersect and influence how designers of color may position themselves in the world. In the following interview, excerpted from the book, Walters speaks with Walker about going from an HBCU to a graduate program where he was the sole Black student in the graphic design track, learning to design on the job, and the early influences of album artwork and party flyers. To hear more about the book, sign up for an AIGA virtual book launch event on March 25 where Walters will be speaking with designers Ashley Doughty, Shantanu Suman, and Samuel Romero.

Kelly Walters: Can you share a little bit about where you’re from and how you got into design?

David Jon Walker: I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, and I went to an HBCU for undergrad—Tennessee State University. We didn’t have a traditional design curriculum. Our only design classes were Desktop Publishing, Introduction to Web Design, and Introduction to Photography, all under the studio art degree. I came out of the program in 2004. I had a professor, Dr. Herman Beasley, who gave more lab access and equipment to students who showed the initiative to learn more. At the time, the art department had just bought and installed InDesign, and I’d seen a couple of folks dabbling in Flash, so I decided to learn the software. We were using Photoshop, Illustrator, PageMaker, and Macromedia Flash in the courses. Some of our projects consisted of laying out magazines and creating editorial designs, but there wasn’t any real depth of instruction in terms of constructing how those things should look or feel. We did comparative research to figure out on our own how to produce pieces that actually looked usable.

For me, attending an art program at an HBCU without a specific design track meant a lack of exposure to the design luminaries we currently look up to today. Album artwork and party flyer design were very prevalent and prominent on campus at the time. Publications that I saw at church rounded out the extent of my critical design exposure. Even though as students we were exposed to book covers and magazine ads in design practice, the curriculum in my program did not prepare us to go out and get design jobs.

After graduation, I interned at a larger church here in Nashville with John Girton, a design professional who was an in-house creative and local entrepreneur. He taught me so much more than what I had learned in school, as far as how to utilize design software collaboratively and how to view design critically. As a start, he gave me a strong introduction to typography and how it worked, including the variation of weight within a font and the science behind design decisions. That was basically my creative safe space at the time, so I started producing design work for actual clients under him. Following that opportunity, I landed my first large freelance job at my alma mater, working with the media relations department to produce billboards, magazine ads, and whatever else they needed, or simple stuff like T-shirts. Nothing complex, no real visual system building outside of making sure that everything matched aesthetically if there was a campaign. I kept them as a client for a couple of years and then felt that my portfolio was strong enough to apply to graduate schools. Upon being accepted into and attending graduate school, I learned about AIGA, and this was my first exposure to being around people who had similar interests in design and life pursuits.

Photos of legendary figures of Black history are overlaid with orange and black text.
Flyer for “Say It Plain,” a virtual Black History speech series. Courtesy David Jon Wallace.

Where did you go to graduate school?

I went to graduate school at the University of Memphis. It was free, thankfully. It’s so funny, after you make a choice based on economic circumstances, you say, “Man, I could’ve gone to another school.” I loved my program, but after you get out of school you begin to ask yourself, “What does my design network look like? How does the network function? Who do I become as a designer? Who can judge my work?” I mean, I don’t have buyer’s remorse, but if I had done a little more research, maybe it would have been different. Maybe I would have gone elsewhere.

As I mentioned, graduate school was free for me. I attended the program on an assistantship and was also fortunate enough to be selected for a university fellowship. I thoroughly enjoyed graduate school, especially from the standpoint of feeling like I was finally in the “mix.” I’d never been in an environment where everybody was talking about design and knew what I was talking about. I didn’t have to over explain what I was trying to create or the reasons I was trying to create it. It was this atmosphere of inclusion based on the discipline and not based on race, religion, or creed. However, I was the only person of color in my graduate school design classes. There were seven students enrolled in the graphic design MFA track, including five full-time and two part-time students. Within the entire graduate art program while I was there, there were just three of us Black students: one student of color in photography and one student of color in art history. Since we were all on our own tracks and trajectories, we really didn’t cross paths other than making intentional contact. Because I was the sole Black student on the MFA graphic design track, this reinforced the mentality of, “I’m finally in this place where everybody understands what I’m saying, but nobody looks like me.”

“I’m finally in this place where everybody understands what I’m saying, but nobody looks like me.”

Coming from an HBCU, where people did look like you, what came to light with that realization—in comparing your undergraduate to your graduate experience from a cultural perspective?

A lot of people’s futures are dictated by their primary existence. What I mean by that is that both of my parents were college educated. Both of them had advanced degrees. One was a college professor and administrator, while the other was a city school system administrator. The schools they chose for my sister and me to attend growing up were predominantly White. They were public schools, but they were predominantly White. A friend of mine I had gone to elementary school with recently sent me a class picture on Facebook. We had attended kindergarten through 12th grade together. In that picture from sixth grade, there are about 20 kids, and out of the whole group five are Black. I still have great relationships with them to this day; some of them are out-of-state and some of them are still here in town. But all that is to say that I was prepared early on to be one of the few persons of color. Based on the math, it wasn’t altogether strange for me to be the only Black person, of seven, in a graduate program. To be honest, going to the HBCU after my primary and secondary schooling was a culture shock.

That’s funny because your background sounds similar to mine. I think the reason I didn’t choose an HBCU was that I was worried about that culture shock—the reverse culture shock, in a way. I had been in an environment where I was around mostly White people for school. Then I went to a PWI (predominantly White institution) for undergrad.

Yeah. l went from an HBCU, an all-Black school, to a state PWI for graduate school. I’m teaching at a state PWI, and I’ve only taught at state PWIs. It is the culmination of learning and growing up in a life of doublespeak or code-switching. That’s a very real thing, code-switching. I talk to my own children about being able to transition between our communities without losing their sense of self, but I’ve always wondered, “What is my level of authenticity?” We live in this duality. I guess the authenticity just comes from knowing who you are, and what you are, and the possibilities of navigating almost any space. Clearly, as Black professors, we are ambassadors for all sides. We are ambassadors for people who grew up having had a Black experience, but we also are representatives of those people whom they don’t see. That bears a lot of weight.

I talk to my own children about being able to transition between our communities without losing their sense of self, but I’ve always wondered, “What is my level of authenticity?”

What do the demographics look like in your current institution?

My school is five miles from the third-largest military base in the country. We’ve got a mostly military-connected or military veteran student population. Within this group, we have what would be called nontraditional students, which includes students who have just completed active duty or who are just older students. This presents a few challenges because everybody’s coming to school for different reasons. Some folks just come and get a degree because they joined the army or the military for their education, while others are first-generation attendees. My institution is predominantly White, and within the arts space I would say it might be a one-percent minority. I am the only African American on faculty. We just hired a sculpture professor who is of Asian descent, so the diversity of the department is slowly evolving.

With this population, what are the aspirations beyond school? When your students are learning about graphic design, where do you see them aspiring to work? Do they stay local, or do they go to other cities? Do they continue to do design, or do they switch gears? What have you found?

Design overall is trending toward more women becoming designers. In the design classes, the ratio of women to men is probably 60/40. With this population, depending on what their relationships are, if they’re ex-military or they’re married to an active-duty service member, they just may not get a job. They could come in, take the class, get the skills, and ultimately may or may not work. We’re producing designers with BFAs who are capable of being designers and who can go get jobs if they want to work. Nashville has a growing design scene. We have a healthy number of agencies and small firms here, and there are a fair number of in-house design jobs as well. My school isn’t in Nashville, though; it’s 40 miles northwest. There are four major graphic design programs in the Nashville area: Austin Peay State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Belmont University, and David Lipscomb University, and all of them are preparatory universities. One of the other programs is a great deal larger. They’ve got six full-time design professors. They teach a wider variety of classes because they’ve got the faculty to handle it, and their enrollment is higher. It’s almost double what my institution has, which means they can offer multiple levels of digital learning, digital illustration classes, and interactive design. We’ve only got three full-time professors in design. We’re working very hard to make sure that they can compete with the larger programs as well as the smaller programs that have more intimate settings.

This excerpt was taken from Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race edited by Kelly Walters to be published on March 30, and is reprinted with permission from Princeton Architectural Press.