Let’s do a quick exercise. Think about the word “Designer”. What image comes to mind? Is it the image you see here? If so, you wouldn’t be far off.
To clarify, I don’t necessarily mean Designers in terms of Fashion. Platforms such as Instagram, Shopify, Printful and Big Cartel have done a great job allowing people to publish their designs and start mini clothing lines. When I talk about Designers in this scope, I’m referring mainly to the graphic arts.
I’m a Graphic Designer — both in a corporate setting as well as in my own freelance practice. Before I moved into Design in school, my path was Computer Science and Engineering. Though the arts and engineering may seem to exist on different ends of the spectrum, they have one thing in common:
Both areas are very, very white.
As a Designer myself, I spend quite a bit of time talking to, looking at, and searching for other designers, especially other designers of color. While there are others of us out there, the fact remains that design is still overwhelmingly White. It’s lonely out here. According to the 2016 Design Census by AIGA ( The Professional Association of Design), 74% of respondents identified as White and 8% identified as Black. The results also showed 55% male identified designers, but that’s outside of the scope of my article.
Another piece frequently brought up is an article by AIGA called simply “Why is graphic design 93% white?” Originally published in 1991, this article attempts to address the lack of color in the Graphic Design field. While the numbers have shifted some since then, they hasn’t shifted much in favor of Black identifying individuals. I was unable to find the percentage of Black Designers that were around at the time of the original AIGA article, but the fact that in 2017 we’re still only at 8% is troubling.
Nigerian-American Artist Ekene Ijeoma created a web project called the “Ethnic Filter” which uses visitor’s webcams to blur their face based on how represented they are in the industry.
So the big question is, why? Are Black people intentionally being kept out of the design field? Maybe. Fortune Magazine did a piece on how “Culture Fit” can lead to discrimination in the hiring process, and this was mentioned as well in the AIGA article as a potential reason to why there was such a lack of diversity in Graphic Design.
Another reason mentioned and what I think is more likely is more straightforward: Lack of access. In one of my projects in school, I phrased a question at the end of my research portion: how can Jerome or Keisha consider a career in the arts, when they may have to help their family put food on the table?
Clearly this was a hypothetical question, but not an extreme example. With the wealth gap between Blacks and Whites only getting wider, and the median wealth of Black families set to potentially hit zero by 2053, a lot of times if there IS an ability to go to college (ballooning costs of an education and student debt are also other topics we won’t go into here), a degree in the arts isn’t immediately the most desirable. A lot of times there is a perceived lack of value in attaining a degree in the liberal arts — either that it won’t pay off in the long run, or that it’s something that only appeals to flakes and wishy-washy folks.
Poverty, while not unique to Black people and inner cities, is insidious, and one of the powers that it has is the ability to rob people of career exploration and risk taking. If you come from an environment where every decision has to be made out of necessity, you may not have the opportunity to even see people who had the chance to successfully take those risks.
So how can we fix it? Well, diversity scholarships and outreach are options of course, but where else? Can we help our children into these opportunities? Of course! If we see our children have an interest in the arts and design, we need to encourage it and do our best to get them involved in any extracurricular art activities that we can. Even if it doesn’t pan out, we still need to show them that they have a place in the world.
Design is shaped by the people that practice it, and the people that practice it are shaped by their surroundings, experiences and voices. We owe it to our children to allow their voices to shape their world, and tell their own stories visually.
Now it would be very irresponsible of me to not point out how criminally underfunded our schools are, and how arts programs usually suffer because of this. Of course that’s true. However, this is a great opportunity for Designers — especially Designers of Color — to take a hands on approach to this issue. Mentoring, starting mini programs for children that fall into these gaps, speaking to classrooms where you can — outreach, outreach, outreach. We owe it to our babies.