BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 11 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 178

By Design

Are designers of colour finally getting the recognition they deserve?

BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 11 MAR 16

Emory Douglas, Battle Fatigue, The Black Panther newspaper, 20 December 1969. Courtesy the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles 

‘What Is A Pig?’ is printed above a grotesque image of a pig hobbling on a crutch with tears streaming down its snout, torn clothes, bandaged limbs and mosquitoes buzzing around its wounds. The answer to the question is written below: ‘A low natured beast that has no regard for law, justice, or the rights of people; a creature that bites the hand that feeds it; a foul, depraved traducer, usually found masquerading as the victim of an unprovoked attack.’ 

Battle Fatigue is one of hundreds of drawings created during the US civil-rights struggle of the late-1960s and ’70s by the graphic designer Emory Douglas in his role as Revolutionary Artist and, later, Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party. Depicting the courage of the victims of civil rights abuses and the authorities’ brutality against them, Douglas’s images were published in The Black Panther newspaper and on fly posters pasted around the party’s base in Oakland, California. His distinctive graphic style, combining bold contours and colours in unflinchingly vicious or poignant images, created an instantly recognizable visual identity for the movement. Battle Fatigue, which he drew in December 1967, also popularized a word that became synonymous worldwide with repressive policing: ‘Pig’.

Gifted though he was, Douglas discovered design by chance, after being arrested in his teens and sentenced to 15 months at a Youth Training School in Ontario, California. He was assigned to work in the print shop, which gave him a crash course in typography, layout and illustration. Once released, he studied graphic design at San Francisco City College, which was at the heart of the student-protest movement in the late 1960s. Flinging himself into activism, Douglas joined the newly formed Black Panther Party in 1967 and offered to help out by designing the launch issue of its official newspaper. He worked on The Black Panther until it closed in 1980. 

Douglas, now 73, is not quite as well known as might be expected of so talented and prolific a designer, especially one with an engagingly picaresque life story. Yet, he has not been forgotten: there have been two recent retrospectives of his work at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2007 and New York’s New Museum in 2009. Both shows helped to establish his graphics for the Black Panthers not only as important elements of the party’s ‘radical chic’ visual identity, but as models of smart political branding. Douglas’s work will also be a focus of the inaugural exhibitions at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) when it opens in Washington DC in September.

Even so, Douglas cuts a singular figure among the elite group of designers who have been deemed worthy of museum attention in the US and else­where in the West, for the deeply dispiriting reason that he is black. Design has long been accused of being a ‘man’s world’, but ‘white man’s world’ would be more accurate, because that is what has been portrayed in most books, exhibitions and other orthodox accounts of design history.

Architect’s rendering of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C., designed by David Adjaye Associates. Courtesy Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group

There has been progress, thanks to the success of designers of colour, such as the British architect David Adjaye, who was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, the African-American product designer Stephen Burks and Nigerian-born fashion designer Duro Olowu. Yet, design remains less ethnically diverse than most other creative disciplines, arguably even art, which has its own inclusivity problems. A whopping 86 percent of US graphic designers identify themselves as Caucasian, according to the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), which is far higher than the comparable figure for the general population. The same disparity applies to the student bodies of design schools in the US and Western Europe, although the number of Asian designers and design students has risen steadily on either side of the Atlantic.

The consequences are dire. If design is to fulfil its poten­tial to improve our quality of life, it needs to attract the most talented practitioners and reflect the nuances, complexities and sensitivities of every area of society. How can it do so if it continues to be dominated by a particular demographic, and a privileged one at that? Adjaye’s research into Africa’s architectural heritage has enriched design discourse in general, not just his own projects, which include the NMAAHC and the planned expansion of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Grace Wales Bonner has had a similar impact on fashion by drawing on her mixed-race black British identity in the design of her collections. Why aren’t there more designers of colour to share their perspectives? 

Historically, there was a simple explanation: designers of colour suffered from the same discrimination as their peers in other fields, whether it was institutional, in the form of segregation in the US, or the outcome of individual racism. Norma Merrick Sklarek became one of the first black women to be licensed to practise architecture in the US after graduating in 1950, only to fail to find an architecture firm that was willing to hire her. Eventually, she joined the New York Department of Public Works. Similarly, when Charles Harrison, a star industrial-design student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1950s, applied to join the design team of the retail group Sears Roebuck, he was told that it had an unofficial ban on employing African-Americans. Harrison was taken on by one of his former professors and worked at a succession of Chicago design consultancies, often on projects for Sears, until the company offered him a job in 1961, making him its first African-American executive. He soon became head of the corporate design team and created many of the company’s bestselling products, until he retired in 1993. 

Most other African-American  designers of the 20th century worked within the black community. Some were part of the counter-culture movement, like Douglas, but the majority were employed within the cottage industry of African-American design firms, which were commissioned by African-American clients, which also engaged African-American accountants, lawyers and so on. Sklarek and Harrison were unusual in breaking into mainstream design.

By the early 21st century, dynamic black designers, like Adjaye, Wales Bonner, Burks and Olowu, were thriving in the US and other countries, as were Gloria Anderson and Eddie Opara in graphic design, and Joshua Darden in typography. Yet, every designer of colour that I have encountered has experienced racism of some sort, ranging from illegal discrimination to humiliating slights, such as being mistaken for someone in a menial job. Tellingly, some of the men attributed those ‘mistakes’ to their youth, whereas the women were more sensitive to them and often unsure whether they were triggered by their ethnicity, gender or both. Both genders also recounted having felt compelled to prove their merits by working harder than their white contemporaries, especially early in their careers. Again, the women were more susceptible to this, and to feeling the pressure to excel more acutely. 

David Adjaye's research into Africa's architectural heritage has enriched design discourse in general, not just his own projects, such as the Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens in Washington D.C. in September. 

As for design schools, most of them attribute the dearth of black students to the shortage of successful role models, who would give ambitious teenagers the confidence that they could forge productive careers in design. (The sad irony being that the competitive nature of design practice makes it a relatively meritocratic field, in which success tends to be determined by talent, charisma and hard work.) 

Hopefully, these constraints will ease, as more talented designers of colour emerge. The efforts to celebrate black designers from earlier eras – like Douglas with his museum exhibitions and Harrison, who became the first African-American recipient of a Lifetime Achievement National Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum of Design in New York in 2008 – should help too. So should the recent round of debates and symposia on design and diversity, and the work of professional bodies, like the Organization of Black Designers, which has over 9,000 members in the US, and the AIGA’s Diversity and Inclusion initiative.

Design’s diversity problems in Europe and North America may also be assuaged by broader changes in its cultural geopolitics. During the 20th century, the dominant cultural influence on design internationally was European modernism, which was hatched in Eastern and Central Europe during the early 1900s then exported throughout the world in the 1930s and ’40s by émigrés fleeing political persecution.

A defining theme of European modernism was the application of new technologies and rationalist design principles to produce huge quantities of identical objects at consistent quality for affordable prices. This approach to design favoured standardization over diversity and wealthy countries with sophisticated industrial infrastructures over emerging economies. Even when developing countries strove to modernize their design cultures, they tended to ask Western designers for guidance – as the Indian government did when it commissioned a report from the US designers Charles and Ray Eames in 1958. The Eameses recommended that a new Indian design culture should be rooted in the country’s rich artisanal heritage. Both Japan and South Korea deployed similar design strategies with great success in the late 20th century. Yet other developing economies felt impeded by their craft traditions, largely because of their association with rural poverty.

Digital technology is now eroding the economic benefits of standardization by making it faster, cheaper and easier for many aspects of industrial design and architecture to be customized in developed and developing economies alike. This process will accelerate in future as 3D-printing and other advanced digital manufacturing systems make bespoke  production increasingly affordable and efficient, enabling designers to become more expressive in reflecting the subtleties of their cultural identities, including ethnicity.

Grace Wales Bonner, Ebonics collection, autumn-winter 2015. Courtesy the designer; photograph: Rachel Chandler 

Other digital innovations are having a similar impact by helping designers to operate independently on projects, regardless of their geography. Among them are the online platforms that enable crowdfunding, the use of social media to identify collaborators and to promote their work, and to produce it on crowd-manufacturing systems. 

Equally liberating is the redefinition of design from its 20th-century guise as a commercial discipline deployed for a specific purpose, such as the development of mass-manufactured objects or architectural components, to a more fluid process of analysis and ingenuity. As a result, design is now applied to an increasingly eclectic range of problems, from developing sustainable supplies of clean energy to providing healthcare more efficiently. Ambitious though those objectives are, these ‘elastic’ design projects are often less capital-intensive than traditional industrial design programmes, and should help design ingenuity to flourish in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as in traditional European modernist strongholds. 

Developing economies are now at the forefront of innovation in increasingly important areas of design. An example is renewable energy. Costa Rica, Paraguay and Uruguay already generate more than 90 percent of their electricity from wind, solar and hydropower, and Morocco has ambitious plans to construct a colossal solar-power plant in the Sahara desert as part of its policy of generating half of its electricity from renewables by 2020. As well as transforming the economies of these countries, by reducing their reliance on expensive imported fossil-fuel energy, these projects should leave a legacy of design and engineering expertise that can be constructively applied in other fields. 

Similarly, young African designers are pioneering advances in the ‘Internet of Things’, the network of interconnected devices that function by exchanging data with one another. Peek Vision, a group of product designers and doctors in Kenya, has developed Peek Retina, a smart-phone adaptor with which health workers in remote, rural areas can test their patients’ eyes and send the data for diagnosis in well-equipped hospitals hundreds of kilometres away. The specialist staff there can analyze the findings and, if necessary, suggest suitable treatment. The Cameroonian software designer Arthur Zhang has applied a similar principle in the Cardiopad mobile heart-monitoring device. Like Peek Retina, the Cardiopad promises to have a significant impact on the quality of healthcare in a country where more people now have cellular access than clean running water.

These successes should not only encourage other African designers to develop ever-more ingenious and ambitious ideas, but will inspire designers worldwide. Given time, they may also help to open up and invigorate a discipline that has been a monolithic ‘white man’s club’ for far too long.

Alice Rawsthorn is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life (2013) and Design as an Attitude (2018). She lives in London, UK.