Design as an industry has never been more visible. Visual literacy is a bedrock skill in the digital age—across industries, design is recognized as an essential part of succeeding in business, and design thinking is helping companies innovate. As we come to note the importance of design in our everyday lives, it’s imperative that the industry recognizes its diversity problem.
Designers who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOCs) have long been excluded from design. As the designer Cheryl D. Miller explained in her now-celebrated 1987 article in Print magazine, “Black Designers: Missing in Action,” there have always been many systemic barriers preventing marginalized communities in the U.S. from entering into the inaccessible field of graphic design. “Graphic design can be considered a select, professional field which only a few may enter owing to its costly educational preparation and subsequent competition in the marketplace,” she wrote. “The graphic design industry, which includes clients as well as practitioners, is highly selective in choosing its participants.”
Many of these same educational, cultural, and economic barriers—and the racial biases that uphold them—are just as entrenched today as they were over 30 years ago. The proof is in the numbers: of the 9,429 designers who filled out AIGA’s 2019 Design Survey, 71% of respondents were white, an overrepresentation in a country that’s only 60.4% white. Why, if diversity has been a concern and priority for designers in the industry for so many decades, is design still so white?
The Black Lives Matter uprisings that took place this June invited a moment of reckoning across industries—including in design, architecture, and advertising. And in response, many organizations have made efforts to try to address issues of diversity—to address underrepresentation of Black designers, in particular. They’re also responding to the calls across the industry to put more effort into combating racial injustice, empowering marginalized communities, and dismantling white supremacy—but these efforts aren’t always successful.
Here’s how underrepresented BIPOC designers are in the industry, and how they’re calling for the design world to change.
Diversity by the numbers
Here’s a breakdown of the designers who took part in AIGA’s Design Survey and identified as non-white:
Interested in diving deeper into the numbers? Check out this interactive infographic that illustrates design’s diversity problem in a few simple charts.
Where are the BIPOC designers?
In a 2015 presentation at SXSW Interactive, Maurice Cherry tried to answer a simple question—where are the Black designers? He explained that one reason that BIPOC designers are hard to find is that they aren’t equally represented by design media. “We don’t hear them in podcasts,” he said. “We definitely don’t see them on blogs. We don’t read about them in magazines. And unfortunately that’s just what the design industry looks like. It’s a big monoculture.”
Cherry’s argument points to the same problem that Miller’s writing highlighted over 30 years before: The gatekeepers of the design world aren’t just the hiring managers, they’re the culture at large. In other words, BIPOC designers are out there—however small their numbers—but they aren’t being invited into the industry in the same way that white designers, particularly those that are wealthy and cis-gendered, are.
Dori Tunstall, the dean of design at the Ontario College of Art & Design University, recently spoke to this discrepancy of representation during the 2020 Where are the Black Designers? Conference in June. Tunstall explained Black designers have often found ways to work outside of higher education because design institutions have historically been exclusionary. She used hip-hop as an example. “You cannot say hip-hop culture and aesthetics have not been driving design for the last 20 years,” she said. “And yet all those people didn’t go to OCAD, didn’t go to Parsons, didn’t go to any of these schools. Yet, they are leading what we’re doing in terms of design innovation and connectivity.”
Tunstall argues that in order to bring in BIPOC designers, design has to be willing to redesign itself. “Part of ‘dismantling’ is understanding that design is happening, it just isn’t happening on your campus,” she said.
This lack of diversity is by design
One of the challenges that the industry faces in becoming more inclusive is figuring out not only how to address the racial inequities in the workplace, but in the practice of design itself. In the same panel about design education for Black designers, Tunstall explained that one of the fundamental barriers that keeps BIPOCs out of the design industry is that design has historically been a tool used to harm and oppress marginalized communities. “If you start excavating—from the advertisements that you’ve seen, to the objects that you have, to all of the tools that were used to extract labor from Black people—those were by design.”
This means that in order to make a more inclusive educational experience, design institutions have to be willing to abandon the Eurocentric narratives that the design field is built upon, and make space to recognize Black, Indigenous, and non-Western cultural contributions in design without appropriating them. “We have to say, ‘These are the tools which you can begin to use, which are not the Master’s tools, to dismantle this practice,’” Tunstall said, “So that you can take that idea of making and make something your own, that empowers our communities.”
The call for dismantling and decolonization
Part of the reason that workplace efforts to build diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have failed is because underlying systemic issues—of access and support—remain unaddressed. Hiring discrimination against Black applicants, for example, has remained stagnant for 25 years.
In the U.S., equity and inclusion involve grappling with the historical context for the lack of diversity that exists here, including the genocide of Indigenous peoples and slavery. The legacies of those actions are still felt across the country, inscribed in prominent American institutions from statues to sports teams. This is ultimately why DEI efforts can’t be limited to thinking about hiring a diverse team or redesigning educational coursework—they also have to consider repair and finding ways to center the many different Black and Indigenous experiences within design.
Designers are calling to dismantle and decolonize design, terms which target the very structures of racism and Western ideology which continue to silence BIPOC designers. And they’re designing alternate solutions. They’ve started initiatives based on mutual aid and education, to try to create systems of support for BIPOC designers and businesses. They’re encouraging organizations and agencies to take anti-racist action, to use design as protest, to put money behind causes, to listen and give power to BIPOC designers.
Design to Divest, founded by Vanessa Newman, is one such initiative, whose mission is to dismantle the design industry’s white supremacist structures by offering free services to BIPOC organizations. One of the founding partners, Annika Hansteen-Izora, recently told AIGA that Design to Divest “was about freeing ourselves from a design industry that doesn’t take into account Black voices,” she said. “That translates to divesting from the Eurocentric historical design cannon. That means divesting from platforms, brands, and agencies that do not center Black voices. It’s centering and making space for the Black designers that have always been here.”
Interested in future stories on this subject, like a closer look at how designers and agencies can reorient themselves towards these greater goals of equity and inclusion? Sign up for the Ceros Inspire newsletter to have these stories delivered to your inbox!