Diversity in Graphic Design
Rodney Ross

There is a deep rooted issue the graphic design industry. The problem is that there are virtually no minorities represented in graphic design; this has a huge impact on the world. For any field to be successful, the issue of diversity will have to be confronted head on and resolved. Graphic designers quickly needs to adjust the problem of diversity if it wants to be taken seriously as a profession and a true art form. If the graphic design industry was more diverse it be extremely beneficial to the entire industry. The lack of opportunity for and spotlight on successful minorities graphic designers has resulted in an overall negative effect because it makes the field less credible, The field misses out a whole new aesthetic, and it increases the chance of stereotypes appearing in graphic design work.

Designers in America have a great responsibility on their shoulders. They must be able to design for a country that is changing at a faster rate then ever before. According to the 2010 census, people of non-white origin are 30 percent of the population. It is predicted by the year 2050, that the minorities will be over 50 percent of the United States population (Census 2010). This means that if you are in the field of graphic design, you are responsible for making designs that cater to the needs of many different types of people with unique cultures, religions, thoughts, and ideas.

The demographics of the United States are changing quickly, and pretty soon the boundaries of who is a minority and who is not will change too. Although this is the case, we still have a long way to become a truly diverse nation. The workplace is an area that is still dragging their feet in this area. Although everyone seems to talk about diversity and push for diversity in the workplace, it still seems to be a problem that hasn’t been fully resolved for some time now.

This case is especially true in the graphic design industry. The lack of minorities in the field is truly stifling. The AIGA is the oldest and largest professional membership organization for design (“AIGA”). They report that among graphic designers in the field, 2 percent are black, 4 percent Hispanic/Latino, 6 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2 percent other. That leaves 86 percent Caucasian American. This a big problem in design. How can the field of graphic design tend to the needs of a country that has one of the most diverse populations of the wold when the field is lacking diversity itself?

To go further into detail on this problem it is important to examine some of the major design firms in the design world. Pentagram, for example, is the worlds largest independent design consultancy (“Pentagram”). They have a firm located in New York City and of its 13 head designers, only one of them is a minority. A black designer from England named Eddie Opara was added in 2009 to staff. This same demographic is true when you look at other leading design firms.

The top ranked graphic design schools in the nation also suffer from a lack of diversity. For example, Rhode Island School of Design is the number one ranked design school in the United States. Although they have a very high population of overseas Korean students (about 30%) the rest of the minorities in the spectrum are highly unrepresented. There are only 2 percent blacks and 4 percent hispanic design students (“College Prowler”). Being a graphic design student at VCU, I notice things in my observations and my studies. For one thing, all of the graphic design professors at VCU, whether they are young, old, male or female, are white. Also, the required reading of graphic design history that showcases the best designers our world has to offer includes almost exclusively white artists and designers.

The role of the graphic designer is becoming more prevalent as our society progresses. Graphic design is seen in our daily lives and has shaped the visual language our culture has become accustomed to. Virtually everything that we see in our lives is graphic design; whether it is a logo on a carton of orange juice, an add in a magazine, or a website, the influence of graphic design is present.

The impact that designers have on society is tremendous. The designer is being asked to design things from websites, to television commercials, and even apps on a cell phone. Just imagine how our life would be if there was no design. Everything would look dull, and the world would lack both vibrancy and creativity. Designers have the power to visually persuade a person to buy one product or another and to also essentially build the face of an entire company.

Businesses and companies are looking to designers more and more to help bring an identity to their company and to help them stand out from the pack. Designers are creating adds for these companies that target people to buy their product or to support their business. This is a powerful tool, as a single design from one individual will potentially reach and influence millions of individuals. Take the late Paul Rand for example, his logo designs have single handedly made companies such as ABC, IBM, and Adobe brands with very familiar logos that we see in everyday life.

The graphic design industry is a very tricky business. It is difficult to understand why the field is the way it is. There are definitely some obvious pros and cons that make many people stray away from it as a career path. People tend to become graphic designers because of its autonomous nature, ability to be creative, and work from home. The industry also has a certain cool factor, especially because what the designer makes is going to be on display for the entire world to see. The cons of this working style often lead people of minorities to stray away from going into this field all together. Like other fine arts fields, in the graphic design world it is hard for people to find and keep a steady job. Studies show that minorities often come from families with low income, this makes them tend to pursue jobs with more stability. The army and other military forces are places that minorities tend to seek for job opportunities for minorities. Other reasons minorities tend stay away from the graphic design field is long work hours, low pay, and constant portfolio evaluation. (Akama, and Barnes 35) In order to spread diversity in the field, it needs to be promoted to the younger generation of minorities.

In order to truly understand the the problem of diversity in design and to comprehend the effect that it has on the world, it is important to understand the history of design as it pertains to minorities. The dilemma started a long time ago, when African Americans were first gaining their freedom and trying to find jobs. Most of the issues of the lack of diversity in the field are deep rotted in the hardships of the civil rights movement.

One man by the name of Victor Margolin has been researching African Americans designers. For Victor, finding substantial research on the topic was hard because not a lot of time has been spent thinking about the topic, and there was nothing in publications or books at the time. All of his knowledge came from interviewing black graphic designers and hearing there experience in the field first hand. By growing up in the inner city of Chicago he had the opportunity to work with some very big names in the design world.

In the 1960s, most blacks did not even think about graphic design because it would mean that they would have to work for white business clients. White Americans would refuse to work with an African Americans just based on their skin color. This lead to most people who were of African American decent choosing careers such as porters, factory laborers, or maids (Margolin 3).

Although there were many factors stopping blacks from working in the design field in history, there were cases where there were black designers. They would often work within there community designing for other black companies that cater exclusively to African Americans. These designers never got the recognition that they deserve. Many of their accomplishments remain in the shadows. Margolin explains that “To make the contributions and struggles of black graphic designers in Chicago more visible, we need to tell the story of graphic design in the city as a social history and not just an aesthetic one.” (Margolin 5) This proves that, although very few, there has been minority designers producing good work in the field. The fact that they haven’t been getting the recognition they deserve shows that we are not celebrating the accomplishments of the minorities in Graphic Design. When there is virtually no minority role models, it leads to less minorities becoming interested in the field. The cause and effect of racism and slavery had a huge impact on the social structure of today, and the design world suffered because of it as well. Today, there is a small percentage of minorities in graphic design. Most of these people tend to make design for their specific cultures. In their work we see strong personal aesthetic representing the background that they come from.

It is important for the issue of diversity in graphic design to be solved soon. If the situation does not change in the near future, the field will lose all of its credibility. How can graphic design be taken seriously if only a certain demographic of individuals are behind the work? What the field lacks is a different perspective. One from people of different backgrounds who can relate to the American people.

Employers agree that it is ideal to keep people of different races in their place of business simply because it speaks to the morals and values of the company. Also, it is important to have different kinds of people to serve a community that also has different kinds of people in it. When the world notices this trend of Caucasian Americans dominating the graphic design industry they will stop and think. Where are all the minority designers? Why are they not getting the big time commissions and creative director jobs? This is the issue that could possibly make the industry lose all of its credibility.

It brings a certain life and spark to the workplace when a diverse group of people are working together. This also ultimately brings about a better quality of work. If graphic design was more diverse, than the work itself would rise to another level. When working in a group setting, people are bound to have different ways of solving problems, different skills sets, and life experiences. Diversity will lead to a much richer experience in graphic design in the United States. Better work will lead to United States graphic design becoming more respected worldwide.
Researchers Dr. Yoko Akama and Dr. Carolyn Barnes have studied the lack of diversity in graphic design. They focused on the industry over in Australia. It is shocking how similar the culture in Australia is to the United States. Both of the countries are parallel in the fact that are hosts to a heavy flow of immigration leading to a very diverse and cultural community. They also suffer a lot of the same issues that the Untied States does. Graphic design is controlled by mostly White Australians, and it leads to problems in the industry. Doctor Akama explains that “When diversity is not a visible attribute of graphic design, its potential to make a meaningful contribution to Australian culture and society is questionable.” (Akama, and Barnes 34) The same problem can occur here in the States. Without the diverse range of designers this lively culture has a potential to misrepresent the entire continent to the rest of the world.

Minorities bring something new to the table when they participate in different activities. David Rice is the founder of the Organization of Black Designers (OBD) and also the president of the design firm Design Communications Inc. based in Washington DC. He points out that African Americans have made great impacts in other fields, changing them significantly. His two main examples are the sports an music industry. What baseball would be without moguls such as Jackie Robinson or record breaking Hank Aaron? It is also needless to say that African Americans have totally shaped and defined the glamour and glitz of sports such as football and basketball.
Music has been greatly influenced by blacks as well. Ray Charles, Dizzy, Miles Davis, Little Richard, and the Jacksons are just a few artists that are universally inspiring to our nation (Rice 3). It can be argued that because of African Americans, the US has the richest musical heritage of any other nation. Why can’t the field of graphic design also be influenced by minorities in such a way? Rice believes that if this industry was more like the music industry, then it would be much more rich and exciting (Rice 3). Minority values in experiences need to be shown more in graphic design. To do so, there has to be a stronger presence in the field.

Graphic design does have the potential to evolve on the same level other fields have. There are designers that are working in other countries that show us the type of work that we are missing here in the US. Reza Abedini is an example of a current designer with a unique cultural aesthetic. He is a designer from Iran and has gained world recognition for his use of typography in his native language of Farsi. Because his personal style is one that no one has seen before, he has won various awards and he even appears in Megg’s History of Graphic Design, being one of the few designers mentioned who are not White.

The Minority designers that are working in America today are not making the same kind of influence on the field because they are simply not getting enough recognition. Despite the fact the black population in the design world in very slim (only 3% are African American) there are working designers who are established and capable. These folks have been getting the short end of the stick when it comes to commissions and big time job opportunities. David Rice of the OBD explains that black designers have struggled to gain acknowledgement by the already established design community. How can blacks ever be taken seriously in graphic design if they have never been truly given a chance to do so? Blacks could be given more recognition in the forms of awards, publications, exhibits, and job opportunities (Rice 4). The author stresses that their in fact are black graphic designers that are competent and with adequate experience. Without the assistance of the entire design community true advancement in the diversification in graphic design is not possible.

Another reason why graphic design needs to be more diverse is the problem of stereotyping. It is never alright to pass judgement on a person based on their culture or to make hasty generalizations, but this becomes especially important in the field of graphic design. When working in the field workers are often called upon to design across cultures. Because of the lack of diversity and cultural representation in the workplace, it becomes increasingly harder to steer clear of any broad assumptions that society already has on that particular group of people. People with good intentions can often unknowingly offend large groups of people. Intel, for example, had a campaign in 2007 that compared their new line of core 2 duo processors to fast and powerful sprinters. While it was meant to be a harmless way to showcase the speed of their new product, many African American viewers interpreted it as an insensitive ad that was very offensive. In the ad, there is a white man standing in the middle with a number of black sprinters kneeling down towards him (See figure 1). The black men’s gestures could be seen by viewers as showing adoration to the man in the middle. Nancy Bhagat, the Vice President and Director of Integrated Marketing at Intel made a public statement stating “Unfortunately, our execution did not deliver our intended message and in fact proved to be insensitive and insulting. Upon recognizing this, we attempted to pull the ad from all publications but, unfortunately, we failed on one last media placement. We are sorry and are working hard to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” When graphic design can send such a powerful message to the masses, it is important to be very sensitive of what message is being conveyed.

Just like the Intel ad, there are multiple examples of how designers have unintentionally made ads that used stereotypes and that have seriously offended its audiences. Even big time ads such as Sony have been subjected to this type of mistake. The advertising department at Sony had the task of promoting their new white PSP handheld video game system. They made a series of print ads depicting the contrast of the black version of the PSP and the new white version. Where they went wrong was how it was the way it was executed. In the ads, there was a black female model and a white female model. One particularly disturbing billboard ad shows the white woman grabbing the black woman by the throat, clearly depicting the white woman as dominant over the other (See figure 2). It is hard to debate that these ads are offensive to minorities. This example just goes to show that there are a lot of issues behind the scenes of the making of the particular billboard.

It is becoming important for the designer to be more and more familiar of what is going on around him or her. Being aware of different cultures and digging deeper than stereotypes are going are vital to keeping the integrity of the profession in tact. In order to do so, designers from different ethnicities need to gather together to put a stop to these vital mistakes.

Audra Buck-Coleman, an Assistant Professor of Design at the University of Maryland and also a active professional and researcher in the field, grouped up with other designers to educate students on the issue of stereotyping in graphic design. The initiative is called Sticks and Stones, a reoccurring interactive project that takes on the issue head on. The students were challenged with the task of getting to know each other and themselves better and understanding each persons unique differences. The article explains that the better the designers know about each other the better they can shape responsible expressions for increasingly diverse populations. Interacting with diverse peers lead to discussions on complex social issues, human rights, equality, and other hot topics. Being exposed to such things are necessary and build more complex thinking and social development. In addition to peers, the project educates the students on how design can address social needs in communities and really make a difference in the world.

The students were taken to the Museum of Tolerance and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The articles says the museums offered exhibits on Nazi propaganda, and that these works gave students added perspective for the potential negative effects of their chosen profession. They were also taken to Berlin, Germany to explore the Berlin Wall, the Reichstag, and the Jewish Museum to get a further understanding on how the Nazis abused propaganda to instill fear into those around them. They took what they learned from their travel experience and created stereotype-awareness raising works for the communities that they serve. Some of the best designs even got into an exhibit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama (Buck-Colman 1-5).

The Sticks and Stones project proved to be an awakening for these young design students. One of the best cure for preventing stereotyping in the media is awareness of the problem at hand. If society is blind to the fact that an issue exist, then it is bound to repeat itself. It was also key that the target audience in this project was the younger crowd. This way the problem is tackled head on, before designers head out into the real world and make these critical mistakes.

Another problem the media often faces is trying too hard not to appear racist to its audience. Doing this often leads them to unintentionally offend different cultures. Yes, making sure you are not placing stereotypes on other cultures is a very important thing to be conscious of, however, it is only the beginning of making a successful cross culture design.

Refraining from offending others when given the task of designing across cultures does not always have to be a difficult task. For many, all it takes is a little bit of recognition and respect. People from minority backgrounds enjoy seeing the faces of their race represented in the media (Lipton 17). There needs to be more of a presence of people of different backgrounds doing everyday things in mediums such as print, web, and on television.
We do often times see ads in magazines or television commercials that try to seem diverse by carelessly throwing in every race on the spectrum together into one big melting pot. Researcher Terry Lee Stone describes “The notion of ‘color-blindness’, so present in the design community, often allows people to ignore each other’s racial identity.” (Stone 3) Designs that represent with a wide variety of cultures represented can be successful if done correctly.
Unfortunately, many designers fall into a mind set where they believe that just by including every possible type of person in one ad that they are making something that is cultured. For example, many businesses try to promote diversity by using the symbol of hands (See figure 3). The diversity handshake is an overused cliche that is is used in logos, ads, and other promotions. It shows no real in-depth knowledge or understanding of the differences in cultures. Truly understanding the culture and the subject matter that you are designing for is critical to taking the work to the next level.

There have been some gradual steps taken to help with the diversity issue lately. The AIGA Task Force on Professional Diversity has started an initiative called “Design Journeys” to bring attention to the contributions of under-represented designers and honoring their accomplishments. The AIGA realizes that in order to remedy the issue, recognition must go to the hard working and deserving minority designers working in the field today. Once this happens, an amazing cause and effect will take place. When young minorities have role models of color to look up to in the arts and design, it will inspire them to want to get involved in the arts and to express themselves creatively. AIGA also has a scholarship program called the Worldstudio AIGA Scholarship that grants minority and economically disadvantaged students with funding to go to an arts/design school (“AIGA”).

The Organization of Black Designers also has a great program that have made great strides to remedy this issue. Unlike AIGA, they are a group of individuals that are composed mainly of minorities trying to better the situation for themselves. David Rice is the founder of the OBD. He has been in the industry for a very long time, and he believes that graphic design is the way it is because of cultural bias. He defines this as our society branding industries such as design as one that consisting of only snobby elitists. “Many of us, with immaculate credentials, have struggled long and hard for far too little opportunity, acknowledgement and engagement by the established design community”. (Rice 4) Minorities stray away from it because they feel as though they were not good enough to sit at the table with the exclusive, well-established group of people.

They have done many ground breaking accomplishments to help the cause such as the first multicultural design conference series entitled DesigNation, establishment of regional and national educational grants and scholarships, and networking opportunities for its members (“OBD”). They often have connections with major design firms to get their members interviews and other opportunities for work.

Even more initiatives need to be made such as scholarships and award programs for minorities. It is important to target these people while they are young so that the next generation of designers can redefine what it means to be a designer. The United States is truly progressing as a nation, and it is up to the young generation to take things to the next level. When we see this progression in the arts and in design, our world will develop a whole new visual language.

Also, Graphic design needs to be promoted in primary school. The possibility of design as a profession and way of working needs to be talked about in beginning level arts classes. Personally, I was not even aware of the Graphic Design profession until I was an upperclassmen applying for colleges. The problem for most young minorities is that they do not know that the field exists.
Diversity also needs to be talked about in art schools. The issue is important enough that it should have its own class dedicated toward it. It is important for students to be aware of current events in the design culture. One way this can happen is by minority designers working in the field coming to different campuses showing their work and talking about the problem to the students first hand. Building awareness and understanding the issue is going to be critical in truly making a change in the problem.

The future of the field has the potential to be very promising. The level of work output has the potential to rise to new heights, raising the standards of the field entirely. A new movement needs to occur within the art and design community. One that truly embraces diversity and the power that it can bring to the creative disciplines. If this issue is not confronted and soon graphic design will never see this type of progression.

The pressure falls on the new generation of designers about to unleash themselves to the field in the near future. Pupils of design need actively make the diversity issue aware to the public and the inner design community. They have the power to start a clean slate and break away entirely from the normal way of thinking in the industry. With all of the progression the United States has made, including the election of an African American president, American design can move toward a brighter future.


Works Cited

“About.” Pentagram. N.p., 2011. Web. 20 Apr 2011.
Akama, Yoko, and Carolyn Barnes. “Where is our diversity?: Questions of visibility and representation in Australian graphic design.” Australian Graphic Design Association. 4.1 (2009): 29-40. Print.
Buck-Colman, Audra, Ann McDonald, and Mark Biddle. “Bridging Diversity: Ethical Considerations in Design Education.” Icograd Education Network Conference (2009): 1-10. Web. 9 Feb 2011.
Hagmann, Sibylle. “Non-existent Design: Women and the Creation of Type.” Visual Communication 2005. 4.6 (2005): 5-29. Print.
Kirkham, Pat. WOMEN DESIGNERS In The USA 1900-200. New York: Yale University Press, 2001. 49-84. Print.
Kirkham, Pat and Shauna Stallworth. THREE STRIKES AGAINST ME African American Women Designers. New York: Yale University Press, 2001. 123-144. Print.
Lipton, Ronnie. Designing Across Cultures. 1st ed. Cincinatti, OH: HOW Design Books, 2002. 15-63. Print.
Lipton, Ronnie. Designing Across Cultures. 1st ed. Cincinatti, OH: HOW Design Books, 2002. 64-112. Print.
Margolin, V. 2001a. African American Designers: The Chicago Experience Then andNow.Looking Closer: AIGA Conference on History and Criticism.
Margolin, V. 2001b. ‘Needed: An Inclusive History of Chicago Graphic Design’, inForm, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 1-5.
“Rhode Island School of Design- Diversity.” College Prowler. N.p., 2011. Web. 5 Apr 2011. <http://collegeprowler.com/rhode-island-school-of-design/diversity/>.
Rice, David. “What Color is Design?.” Orginization of Black Designers, 1995. Web. 21 Mar 2011. <http://www.core77.com/obd/what_col.html> Stone, Terry Lee. “White Space: Examining racial Diversity in the Design Industry.” AIGA. (2006): 1-5. Print.

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