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The design industry has long felt the impact of Black creatives. From fashion to architecture and beyond, legends in their craft like architect Paul Williams, graphic designer Gail Anderson, fashion designer Ann Lowe, and others have created iconic designs, styles, and products that are with us today. As Black History Month commences, Davina Wolter, assistant professor of design and diversity liaison, talks about the influence of Black designers in her life and reflects on the work still left to do to increase representation, access, and equity moving forward in the industry.
Could you talk about the importance and influence of Black designers and their contributions in the field of design?
The immense influences we see from Black culture and creativity help to shape and lead art and design, music, fashion, architecture, etc...the list goes on and on. For too long we let the majority of our Black colleagues go without acknowledgment and accolades for their contributions in the field of design, or turned a blind eye to the privilege required to take low-paying, entry-level design positions. We also need to acknowledge the work of the Black community that has been appropriated, or stolen by others. We have seen success for the few, rather than celebrated the many Black designers who have contributed to the field of design.
We know the lack of representation and equity for Black designers is an issue at large. Resources like “Where are the Black Designers,” “Black Who Design,” and “Black Designers Ignite” are a fantastic place to start learning about the challenges faced by our Black colleagues in design. To omit their voices, experiences, and creations puts the work of all designers at a larger deficit that any of us can wholly appreciate; especially as we know designing WITH rather than for is the secret sauce of all great solutions.
Given this past year’s events in civil unrest and social justice, we are reconsidering what it means to elevate the work of Black designers and Black culture at large. Actively seeking out Black representation in the fields of architecture, industrial and product design, UX/UI, and graphic design has become more popular, and will hopefully become the norm, rather than the exception, moving forward.
Which Black designers or entrepreneurs have inspired your work?
Kara Walker is a fine artist whom I first became interested in when I started my museum career. Her work is not only intoxicatingly technical and visually fascinating, but it explodes with conversations around race, sexuality and violence. Highly recommend checking out her work if you’re not already familiar, karawalkerstudio.com.
Georg Olden was a TV graphics legend. Loved his work on the Mod Squad, Lassie, and other rerun classics as a little kid, wasn’t until later when I was interested in motion graphics that I became aware of him and his prolific career. Fun fact: Olden was the first African American to design a commemorative postage stamp for the U.S. Post Office in 1963, celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation.
Saata Bangura is a new friend and great inspiration in the work of bringing forward Black designers. Saata not only uses her talents to create stellar graphic solutions for a variety of clients (including The 3% Movement); she actively speaks out within the design community to give space for BIPOC voices to be heard. She is excited to share her story in order to bring awareness and representation to the field of design. Can’t wait to invite her to IYA.
Virgil Abloh, superstar fashion designer, entrepreneur, DJ and trained architect is unavoidable. Abloh was the first American of African descent to be crowned artistic director at a French luxury fashion house, Louis Vuitton. His company Off-White has skyrocketed since its inception in 2013 partnering with the likes of Nike for the perfect blue hue to Ikea and their quest for millennial-specific furniture. Always curious to see what he’ll tackle next.
Cheryl D. Miller is both a designer and entrepreneur. Miller was one of the first women of color to educate her clients on cultural visual iconography. Huge when you think about the impact her work has had since. She established her successful female-owned design firm in New York in the late 80s at 35 years old fresh out of grad school, completely unheard of at the time. She is a true pioneer and inspiration!
Diversity in leadership is needed in all fields, including design. What have been some challenges and what are some ways the industry can be more inclusive, diverse and equitable?
Look at representation in the design field currently. We have a long way to go, not just in design but in the majority of disciplines–if not all. There is a bounty of analytical data sharing how diversity equates to innovation, and innovation leads to business resilience; yet, we’re still trapped in this awkward dance of collecting data, and then seeing a sort of paralysis for what a company/organization/industry can do next. I believe taking action is much harder than assessing what the problem is when it comes to racial inequities. If we were to consider this as phased problem-solving–then hopefully–we are right on track to move into ideation around equitable solutions at a larger scale.
One bright spot I am staying focused on is that folks are talking, momentum around creating racial equity is up, and larger groups of people are learning to take action and practice allyship. More and more people are having brave conversations around racial injustice, lived experience, and lack of representation. Not all, but many miscommunications have the potential to be rectified by doing individual and collective research, practicing our active listening skills, and talking through our tangled biases. Personally, I’m working on finding and keeping space for missing voices, and calling on white people to do our part in allyship. Staying present in the journey, and remembering I’m going to make mistakes are all part of the deal.
2020’s events have given us a platform to address and reimagine what we want to see in the world. Time to seize the opportunity and find our way forward together. Hello 2021!
Are there any up-and-coming Black-led design startups we should know about?
Yes! So many! Please share your own ideas by sending me an email, always looking to learn and know what’s buzzing in our own IYA community. I’ve included some fine artists here as they have been hugely inspiring as well.
Jade Purple Brown
Our very own IYA The Just Us App
Antoinette Caroll and the team at Creative Reaction Lab
Healthy Roots Dolls
Dawn W. Dickson
The Loveland Foundation
Annkelle Kelle Boyd / Ann Kelle
Bloom and Plume Coffee
Red Bay Coffee
Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen
The Hidden Genius Project
Phenomenal by Meena Harris
Shonibare Studio - Yinka Shonibare
Coily and Cute - Sharee Miller
Paola “Pao Pao” Mathé - Finding Paola
Spoonful of Faith Studio - Jena Holliday
Residency Art Gallery
The Back$tage Capital team and Arlan Hamilton
BLK MKT Vintage
Thank you, Professor Wolter!