The day before Juneteenth was commemorated as a national holiday, recognizing for the first time, as a country, the day in June 1865 when the Black folk in Galveston, Texas, were told of their emancipation, I had the honor of sitting down with designers Dr. Cheryl D. Miller, Maurice Cherry, and Mitzi Okou to discuss a question that has been asked for decades.
Okou facilitated a conference this year and last asking the same question. The question originated from a 2013 talk by Cherry. Both Okou and Cherry were influenced by the seminal 1987 PRINT article by Dr. Miller called “Black Designers: Missing in Action.” And here we are still asking it:
“Where are all the Black designers?”
It is in the spirit of emancipation and against the ongoing reckoning of last year with the dialogue sparked by George Floyd’s murder, increased Black visibility, the threat and politicization of Covid-19 (or Covid 1619, as I like to call it), the bungle of the black square, the tenuous progress and continual setbacks around police brutality on Black and Brown bodies and the persistent attack on Black trans lives—where do we find ourselves as Black designers advocating for change? How does this question live today, reflecting the vantage point of multiple generations and lineages advocating for change?
Our roundtable begins with Dr. Miller, who was awarded a 2021 AIGA Medal for “expanding access” for her work to end the marginalization of BIPOC designers, and, in February, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
She is a distinguished and highly sought-after lecturer and author, with PRINT magazine recently publishing the final installment of her trilogy of articles that began with her dire observation in 1987 about the lack of Black designers.
Dr. Miller, as we pick up the mantle that you put down decades ago, how are you sitting with the question of “Where are the Black designers?”
Dr. Cheryl D. Miller: Well, as you said, it starts with me. [laughs]. I’m not expiring and I’m not retiring; I’m just getting started, and, this time, I want to leave some nuggets of importance because tomorrow is not promised. I’ve been around this rodeo before, so I can tell you exactly what’s going to happen.
Part of what I’ve done this last year is to leave footnotes so that you all can finish the work. We have a genealogy. [Holds up a copy of the April 1970 issue of Communication Arts]. Here is the primary history. Dorothy Hayes and Communication Arts document 49 Black graphic designers—I think it’s four or five women, and the rest men. Dorothy Hayes put this exhibition together, and George Olden and Herb Lubalin helped. When we do critical race theory and decolonizing history, [this exhibition] drops right on top of the Civil Rights movement, Pushpin, Milton Glaser. Somebody tell me why [Glaser] gets all the Black work and none of that went to Dorothy? Here is your lineage.
I feel like that is a good segue to Mitzi, who brought this question back into the forefront when she launched a series of virtual conferences under the banner “Where are the Black Designers?”
She has been featured in our most circulated design press: Fast Company, Co.Design, Eye on Design, Adweek, and Paper, to name a few, and was a featured speaker at Omari Souza’s State of Black Design, a guest on numerous podcasts, along with a very active slack that I would argue was and continues to be fire.
So Mitzi, how are you living today with the question, “Where are the Black designers?”
Mitzi Okou: I’ve been trying to grapple with the question because last year was all about awareness. This year, I’ve been thinking that this question is not for Black designers. I think this year is about, “Okay, we brought awareness, but what’s happening after that?” I still have people saying, “I’m still the one and only Black designer at the workplace.” So what’s happening after bringing awareness – not only within the Black community – but what about the ally community?
I agree with Cheryl when she says that as much as things change, they stay the same. Last summer, with the death of an innocent Black individual and the uprisings, all of these panels are extra Black. Then, by fall, everything is just going back to normal.
We need to figure out how to break that cycle. The Black design community, along with initiatives like Design to Divest and Black Ignite Blacks Who Design, we’re coming together and collaborating and pushing, but I haven’t seen anything happening on the ally side. I don’t see anything happening on the side of the people who make up the majority of the industry, which are White people.
“We’re coming together and collaborating and pushing, but I haven’t seen anything happening on the ally side.”
In terms of this question, Maurice, I had the good fortune of hearing your “Where are the Black Designers” talk in the fall of 2015, just a few months after you debuted it at SXSW. You also host Revision Path, a groundbreaking podcast featuring over 400 interviews with Black designers, developers, and digital creatives since 2013. In addition to your other speaker opportunities and scholarship, where do you find yourself with this question?
Maurice Cherry: This is a question that has persisted for decades and will probably continue to be a question that is asked. I was hesitant about bringing it up again because I don’t feel like I’m the one to answer it. It’s not a question that I think is up to Black designers to answer, honestly. If you want to ask, “Where are the Black designers,” ask the white studio owners. Ask the white ad agency owners, ask the people who are in power and who are hiring. They’re the ones that can answer the question.
Certainly, over the years, it’s been empowering to show that there are more Black designers in the industry than I think anyone really knew. I think that’s great, but it’s not up to me to answer the question anymore. And, actually, I think my hesitancy to discuss this again is a good place to start.
I’ve given my presentation three times in public, one was at SXSW, one was at Hopscotch, and one was at How Design Live in Atlanta. The first time that I gave the presentation was to a very scant audience of people in a room with a capacity of 250. I think there were maybe 15 or so people there. The video that I have on YouTube has been up since March of 2015. It really only started to pick up last year with the protests that were happening because of George Floyd’s murder and people getting out on the streets, and then companies, I guess, were feeling some level of shame or pity and pledged to do better.
One year later, we’re already starting to see update posts that are saying that the needle has not moved in terms of the millions of dollars that companies had pledged. The protest serves as a benchmark for us to revisit every year to see how this will change; but, to answer that question, it is really something that should be turned to the people in power to answer.
“Ask the white studio owners. Ask the white ad agency owners, ask the people who are in power and who are hiring.”
There were two recent announcements: one was the Diversity and Design Collective that Herman Miller made with Two by Four and Wolff Olins, and then Instagram’s @Design account announced the #BlackDesignVisionaries grant program aimed at elevating the work of Black designers. What are your thoughts about these? Is there actual policy change?
Miller: What’s really important is that you understand the history. You cannot do this work without that. You must understand this issue because we are in the same season of reparations that occurred after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Everybody and everything came to help, and the first help that came was from the colleges. There was a reparation in the form of education, and they let us in. So, with that, you have a lot of first-generation college students with parents that told them, “Oh no, you’re not going to art school.”
Now you have the Black MBA Association. Now you’ve got a volume of Black businessmen and women who, over a 50-year cycle, came in and became leaders: Vernon Jordan, Darwin Davis, Frank Savage. And now there’s a cadre [of designers] who can do what the MBAs and the MDs did. We were behind because we did not have the numbers, at that time, for change.
You know who’s doing it now is the Pan African Design Institute. The community includes Saki Mafundikwa and others. They’re moving to gather community in style. They’ve made a protocol and a template to follow and adapt. What they are doing is a mission of professionalizing craft and aesthetic into the dialogue of international design. And they’re moving as a cadre. This is what Pushpin did, the New York school did. I was there. And in those hearts and minds, Jim Crow was right there too.
“We were behind because we did not have the numbers, at that time, for change.”
So, I’m asking the community to grow easily and not resist change because what my generation did was to bring out the attorneys. (I’m thinking about the Black Design Legal Defense Fund.) Mitzi’s answer was action: Design justice. We have moved from equality into equity.
Do you think for one moment that McDonald’s just woke up one morning and said, “We’re going to put Black folks in our ads?” No, Google Tom Burrell. Google Roy Wilkinson, the ad council, NAACP. This is what the other professions did. They brought out the heavy guns. So we can advocate for equity to take it to another level.
Mitzi, you’ve been talking about similar frustrations in your professional world. Do you have ideas about how to build on these significant shifts that Cheryl is talking about?
Okou: I actually want to go back to Maurice’s comment when he said that it’s not up to Black folks to be answering this question. The funny thing is that we know it’s not up to us to be answering the question yet we’re still seeing companies come to all of these existing initiatives and be like, “Tell us what we can do.” They’re asking, “Can you connect us with Black designers?”
When I was visiting a lot of these initiatives, I don’t remember any of us saying that we were going to play the role of unpaid services to help White companies connect to Black communities. That’s all I hear: “Can you connect me to Black Designers?” Last time I checked, they’re called communities for a reason—you’re supposed to go into a community to get to know them, to build relationships, and to diversify your networks. Otherwise, it’s a pretty violent way of being an ally. There has been a lot of action on the Black designer side to solve these issues.
“They’re called communities for a reason—you’re supposed to go into a community to get to know them, to build relationships, and to diversify your networks.”
There are cross collaborations across all of these initiatives that are trying to solve for the implications that Cheryl talked about in her first article. One of them is around being financed. A lot of the initiatives make events and resources free because, as Cheryl mentioned in her article, one of the barriers is finances, and the fact that a lot of Black people are not set up financially to compete with their white counterparts to even get access into higher education institutions.
Black designers are currently working with Design to Divest to create a Wiki page or hub web site to gather knowledge so that we can get companies and organizations to meet Black designers where they’re at. This will support unconventional paths to get into the design industry.
We also have initiatives that work with companies to build talent pipelines while also telling them, “Hey, you should build free residencies that can not only teach Black designers but also make them create projects and imagine solutions that can help the Black community.” All of these existing initiatives are tackling this issue in their own way but it just goes back to my question asking where are the creative solutions from predominantly White companies?
Miller: One of the things is to assume the responsibility to help ourselves. We weren’t afraid to help each other. We weren’t afraid to look out for each other. It’s okay to go to your boss and say, “I’ve got a friend,” and to push until the higher-ups hire your friend. Don’t be afraid of that.
I would tell people, “I have four designers, a secretary space, a Mac, come rent a table, do something here.” Andrew Bass came through the office. I had a lot of people come and then come back and produce a portfolio piece. There is a great story with Charles Lily and his Malcolm X illustration. He needed an attorney, and all I could do was say, “Charles, can you come do the Mae Jamison poster for me? You want to work for Ballantine Books? You know, you need an attorney.” And so what I’m sharing with you is some of the resources that we need to not be afraid to share.
I agree with what you’re saying about networks and being supportive. We’re doing it. Black creatives are doing it. Black designers are doing it. I think it’s up to allies now, white businesses, or non-POC folks.
Cherry: There was something that Cheryl had mentioned about us being in the season of reparations. It’s interesting how these conversations that we’re having around diversity in the industry are layered on top of what’s also happening in history and in culture. After I did the 2015 and 2016 talks, my business plummeted. It was not a season of reparations. Business dried up. I had to go find a nine-to-five. Then, last year, so many companies and businesses were like, “Oh, we need to hear from Black voices.” My inbox was blowing up with speaking opportunities. Consult here, do this talk there.
I did give an update in 2020 at the AIGA Design Conference, but I’ll admit it was a reluctant sort of update, because I’m like, the numbers really haven’t changed that much in five years, and granted, I’m looking at it largely from the side of education. I’m not looking at agencies and what those statistics look like. I’m also looking at it through the AIGA Design Census.
What I mentioned in the 2020 update is how hard it is to get a beat on where the industry is going because a lot of the data is simply not there. What we’re largely pulling from is either historical, anecdotal information or we’re looking at data that’s analogous to what’s going on in tech, the design industry itself, and even that data is broad in scope. We’re talking industrial digital products, et cetera. So, it’s hard to really determine if we’re making an impact. I certainly don’t think that, from last year, much has been done. It’s still an ongoing thing.
Miller: Mitzi, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart because you made it viral. You brought thousands to the conversation.
For that, I want to give Mitzi the last word. Mitzi, what will you take away from this conversation, and where can we head next?
Okou: I want to thank Cheryl and Maurice because they were my gateway into doing this work when I felt very isolated. Getting into Maurice’s work is what led me to Cheryl, and what she was saying in her time resonated with me and my time. So I definitely want to thank them because they went through a lot to come in and tell the truth.
The work is very hard but we have to keep pushing, because in this day and age of social media, it’s all about engagement, right? We have to keep that engagement up and it just goes back to my point that we can’t keep falling into this natural cycle of having Black work exist because of another Black body being sacrificed.
I think allies also need to know that we actually can bring so much more to the table than what is taught at school and what is given to our white counterparts that have way more privilege than we do and they need to understand that. They need to validate different, unconventional ways of becoming designers. It’s not just about getting a piece of paper at school.
There are a lot of unconventional ways to become a designer, which a lot of Black initiatives are trying to push because, again, it’s really expensive and a lot of us can’t afford it. I can’t even afford it. I signed my soul away to my college to take three classes that helped me basically become the designer that I am today. I have to thank Cheryl and Maurice for basically being there to allow me to see myself and then bring that forward.