This essay is excerpted from The Black Experience in Design.
Graphic design is the catalyst between meaning, communication, and image. I am defining graphic design as a professional practice through the lens of and through “traditional design objects” i.e. branding, logo design, typography, poster making, book making, web design—in other words, visual design that serves a commercial function. Historically, in the design canon, Queer design objects and their modes of production have been rooted in and limited to protest, activism, and survival. Images of ACT UP poster campaigns, the reclaimed pink triangle, (white) power fist, lapel buttons, etc. come to mind.
Often the surviving artifacts, messages, photographs, and images prioritize white voices and are predominantly male (not unlike the design industry as a whole). This has prompted me to ask: What is the role of the modern Queer graphic designer of color? Is there a rejection of identity-centered responsibility in order to thrive in this capitalist-motivated economy? Or is there a desire to push forward the vulnerability of the self, revealing work that addresses the tension, anxiety, and love—the range of emotions and moods—of present-day representation and language of modern QTPOC life?
“What is the role of the modern Queer graphic designer of color?”
In an industry where Black and Brown folks are often under-hired, undervalued, and completely ignored, what community is there to comment on? Even more specifically, a Queer POC community? I have personally made it my mission to connect with as many designers of color and Queer designers throughout my years of working. We always discuss how they got into design? How many Black people were in their university program? What most excites them about design today? And every time the conversations always end with, “I’m so happy we met! You know there are not a lot of us. We have to stick together.” These interactions renew my spirit and belief in the work I do. Also, these conversations serve as a reminder that there are more QTPOC designers working than are immediately apparent. With social media, technology, and larger institutional archives developing, my own personal tete-a-tetes are indeed critical interpersonal starting points for my own investigation, but I am also beginning to realize the vast contributions and interpretations of queerness—as our narratives are being shared with the larger world.
In early 2020 (pre-pandemic), my graphic design studio Morcos Key, which I run with my husband Wael Morcos, shared our work in a lunch-style lecture series to Yale MFA students. Our practice, as a whole, focuses on art and cultural branding and editorial work with an emphasis on multicultural typography and amplifying underserved communities. Many of the projects we shared emphasized our role as a graphic design studio creating work authentic to the communities we represent. We shared a selection of editorial projects from the Tenth Magazine, a Black Queer fashion and lifestyle magazine, to a season campaign series for Heartbeat Opera’s annual Queer drag extravaganza. In the end, Matthew Carter, a prominent and well-awarded white male type designer and professor at Yale, congratulated me on the studio and our work and offered, “but the work doesn’t look very Queer to me.”
I laughed and responded with a smile, “The context of the work is Queer. The narrative and the story being shared is what makes it Queer. I can’t define the spectrum of queerness in a singular pattern or typeface…”
He smiled and added, “I guess that would be too stereotypical and on the nose anyways.”
What makes graphic design Queer? How do these objects pass into art/institutional and gallery spaces? What are the codes, symbols, and messages that “outs” a designer’s hand? My childhood in Alabama established my unbreakable relationship with art and self-expression. My mother Linda would transform the kitchen table with a repurposed wax plastic Christmas tablecloth. Covered in faded green leaves and red holly berries with a worn felt underside, the tablecloth turned the table into a craft zone for my twin and me.
“The context of the work is Queer. The narrative and the story being shared is what makes it Queer. I can’t define the spectrum of queerness in a singular pattern or typeface.”
Encouraged by my mom and this space for play, I began a lifelong pursuit of art and making. From recorder classes to piano and trumpet performances, theater plays, and pageants, my time in grade school reinforced the power of art to be not just a tool of creativity but a catalyst for community and friendship-building. The pursuit of art and learning did not stop in elementary school. I continued my art education at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for undergrad. There, in my design history lectures and critiques, I did not learn any stories that reflected my experience as a Queer Black designer. A gap existed in the curriculum—devoid of anyone who looked like me.
When I arrived at RISD in Providence, I was suddenly surrounded exclusively by artists—creative people who I thought would universally understand me and my work. I quickly realized this wasn’t the case. Writing became a retreat from this dissonance, a tool to question why my work was misunderstood. Why were my white and Korean classmates silent when I presented graphic design projects that centered my personal identities? What did it mean to be a graphic designer? What did it mean to be a Black graphic designer? A Queer graphic designer? Someone from the South? Could my personal narratives be communicated through a poster or a book?
Through my writing reflections at RISD, I deconstructed my identity to reveal intersecting and legible fields for myself. Southernness, Blackness, Queerness, and Family emerged as my personal framework for navigating the world—to articulate, and therefore define who I am. These four pillars ground all of my work across disciplines and lay the foundation for my research and writing practice. This rubric helps me understand who I am and how I perform in the world.
“Southernness, Blackness, Queerness, and Family emerged as my personal framework for navigating the world.”
I realized I had created survival mechanisms not only to grasp and take control of my performance in the world but also to dictate how my work was discussed and perceived.
In Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, José Esteban Muñoz articulates this strategy as Disidentification: Disidentification is the tool or “strategy” with which minoritarian, namely Queer people of color, navigate heteronormative society. Through legislative systems, the status quo, and/or outright violence, the public sphere excludes those who do not conform. And though the public sphere, or the majoritarian in most cases, is synonymized with white supremacy, in the case of queerness, communities of color become majoritarian themselves, within which queerness is prohibited as a natural trait—seen as the fringe. A body with multiple identities struggles within the interior and exterior, within the public and private, within performance when interacting and intersecting within a shared community.
The minoritarian includes people of color, Queer people, disabled people, women, and folks who inhabit multiple axes of these identities—Black women, women of color, Queer people of color, etc. Specifically Muñoz references Kimberlé Crenshaw’s coining of “intersectionality,” a term she introduced into legislation as a specific argument for the complex identities of Black women in the corporate and judiciary space. Through clarification, the term revolutionized the complexity of Black women’s lived experience. Intersectionality is a convincing tool to think about the multiple identities comprised in my body, a Black Queer body as well.
Intersectionality insists that fragmented identities can be connected, shared, and transformed into a powerful defense for defining your place in the public. Experiences of disidentification and intersectionality can be shared between Queer people through history and time. And as a Black, Queer artist and designer, I mold these shared experiences into visual codes and messages.
All of my adult life working as an artist, designer, educator, and writer, I have been searching for objects, stories, examples of Black, Queer narratives—containers that reflect me. Now, I live in New York City and I use my design and art making skills learned at that kitchen table to share with the world who I am—to build communities around individuals sharing their personal narratives through their work.