What Is Wrong With Graphic Design?

Picture from the original Facebook Post.

I ask myself: “Is it my responsibility to make graphic design more inclusive now that I am about to graduate? What does it mean to hold a voice as a black student in this department?”. I definitely feel the pressure any minority in this major would feel. However, I know that I don’t have all the answers to these questions. I am not saying this as an excuse, but it is only the truth to say that I hold a partial experience to the ever-so-complicated-story of race in America. I have only started getting myself well versed in this experience, as soon as I set foot in this country as a black immigrant from Haiti. How can I now have all the answers and also a mean to which through my degree in Graphic design communicating these experiences? How do I find myself in this position as one of the two black girls in a department when my background allows me only a partial depth of the black experience in the USA?

GD Race Cards: Questioning my identity in Graphic Design. (2016)

An experience that I am still learning, every day, one that I try to extend through my work and I am constantly learning, by exposing myself to media and content that represents me by listening to people experiences through podcast, music, films. In fact, I was learning more about that shared experience of being black on campus while watching Dear White People when I was approach about the post on the Graphic Design Facebook group about an exhibition of old war posters in America. These posters had been sitting there for a month had suddenly gained the interest. I have past them and looked at them. I mean it is Graphic Design history, can you change that history? Maybe. Is it surprising that this is part of the GD history? No. Because let’s be real history is like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder.

So I was approach at a quite ironic moment while binge watching the new Netflix series, (no spoilers it is as good as the movie), with a topic that could not be more relevant. I had to process the suggestion that I take unto myself to replace the display with another display of current student work around identity. I first had to ask myself if I was wrong to take offense in the form of tokenism of which I was victim, and then why is it up to me to take on that charge, when I did not start the conversation nor was I invited in any form of meetings, to address the situation. Why was it up to me to pull up a PR move on a conversation that needs to happen in a more effective and real form and that quite frankly at this stage of the semester when everyone are trying to push through finals, no one will be actively listening. This is something that need to be carefully planned and organized not by the students, but a more departmental effort.

Saki Mafundikwa’s Ted Talk: Elegance and Ingenuity In Ancient African Alphabets

But the truth is a the token black girl in our department, I truly don’t have the power nor the confidence to take on the responsibility of making the department feel comfortable when they are not making me feel comfortable by inviting designers that speak to my experience and showing me a wider breadth of what design can be. I had to find that on my own. Show me Faculty members that don’t ascribe to the european-north-american-new-yorker-white-male recipe that is graphic design, stop acting like they don’t exist. They may not exist in the history that we have been shown but that doesn’t mean that they should continue to stay non-existent in the Graphic Design field’s Future, nor the GD’s department future. Because change start from there. In school, in the education that is provided, in making sure that the freshman who wants to be in graphic design can see himself represented and valued in that department. Swiss design or the graphic design as we know it does not have prevail or define the world’s conception of graphic design. In the words of Saki Mafundikwa:

I had never met graphic designers from Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, or Mozambique before, and I had to quickly snap out of the myopia of judging their work by European standards. These were Afrikan-trained designers — unlike me, an Afrikan trained in the west. Soon I realized that force-feeding Afrikans design principles born in Europe, principles that were the product of the European experience, just doesn’t work. Why should the sterile and bloodless corporate “Swiss” style work for a Mozambican designer whose existence and environment will never mimic industrialized Europe?”

No, if you are not inviting these voices in the studies of graphic design how do you expect the world of graphic design to change? How do you expect change or expect me to take on a responsibility that is not mine alone to fill when it is actually just a matter of introspection and self reflection, self revision? There are so many designers of color that can be invited into the conversation, starting with our very own graduates from student of color from RISD, Kelly Walters, Jamar Bromley to name a few. Or inviting more renowned designers such as Saki Mafundikwa well known Zimbabwean graphic designer who left the New York design field to create his own design school in Zimbabwe, Anh Sang-soo a South Korean graphic designer who founded the well established Anh Graphics in Seoul, Olivio Martinez, a renowned Cuban designer that I had the opportunity to meet, Martine Syms is an artist and publicist, founded her own publishing house twice, in Chicago first then LA, and who is currently chair member of Rhizome among other things, Na Kim, a now Korea based graphic designer who got her masters at Werkplaats Typografie and has exhibited in many places, Andrew Kuo, Ekene Ijeoma, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, the list can go on and on we just have to keep looking and making those connection as a department. Saki Mafundikwa poses the right question. What are we doing to change the sensibilities that we have acquired of graphic design through the European lens to ones that are more inclusive and receptive?

I have just been fired up and embolden by the Dear White People Netflix season that I just finished watching after being interrupted by my own version of what these characters are experiencing. The experience of tokenism due to the lack of representation. This an institutional issue that will not be fixed without widening the conversation and taking a hard look at the curriculum being offered. My voice is usually not loud, my work is not any louder, I am quite the quiet and collected, yes sir no sir, yes ma’am no ma’am type of person that I was taught myself to be, I may not be able to say those things out loud, but my keyboard set me free. Obviously I am grateful for the education I have received and the opportunities I have been given and wherever I go i’ll look for ways to opening doors for people that share my experience. But this is not what I signed up for I was deciding between two choices graphic design or fine arts while filling up my application for community college nor when I was filling up my application to RISD. Institutions have to take themselves accountable for the change that have to be made instead of resting on the shoulders of the students. We can only do so much.

Sources:

“Saki Mafundikwa.” African Digital Arts. (2009).

Further Readings:

“Diversity in Graphic Design.” Rodney Ross. Pulse VCU. (2012)

“The Asian Contribution.” History of Graphic Design Website. (2017)

“10 Most Inspiring Graphic Designers in South Korea Today.” Zara Ashad. CreativeBloq (2013)

AIGA Diversity and Inclusion Resources Section.