10 Black Designers To Follow This Black History Month
At the beginning of his SXSW presentation, “Where Are The Black Designers”, Maurice Cherry, digital creator and podcaster, poignantly asks, “How many black designers do you know?”
Cherry highlights the disparity of black designers’ representation in design culture and community, including how black designers are generally not seen or heard in podcasts, speaker panels, or blogs.
Through his comedy, Chris Rock suggests not only that February is far too short a month to honor the accomplishments of black Americans, but also that the short celebration of Black History Month runs the risk of glossing over black people’s innumerable and diverse contributions throughout history:
Black history month is in February, the shortest month of the year, and the coldest, just in case we want to have a parade. I’m black so it’s always black history month. It just always is. It’s not like, hey I know we’ve been ignoring black people for the last eleven months, but this month’s we’re gonna black it up!
Given this disparity in (and beyond) the design industry, this Black History Month, we wanted to give a shoutout (in alphabetical order) to 10 awesome designers whose work we love. We hope you’ll feel as inspired as we do by their stories — not only this month, but for the rest of the year, too!
1. Gail Anderson: educator, designer, author, creative director, and typography extraordinaire
You’ll be hard pressed to find a design portfolio as diverse and a creative output as illustrious as that of Gail Anderson, whose career and influence on the design community is immeasurable. Who else can say that they’ve designed U.S. Postal Service stamps, handled art direction for Rolling Stone magazine, and co-authored the text, Outside the Box, about hand-drawn packaging from around the world? Anderson’s design of the postage stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation sold over 50,000,000 copies!
2. Jessica Bellamy: entrepreneur, visual storyteller, and motion infographic designer
As a Design Justice advocate, Jessica Bellamy combines data with visual storytelling and personal narratives in order to help nonprofits and communities enact social change. During this Revision Path podcast interview, Bellamy shares about her trajectory — how a college experience of creating an infographic in lieu of an academic paper sparked her calling to design information graphics as a way to break down complicated social justice issues. And don’t miss Bellamy’s kickass Instagram posts, like this one about which African cultures inspired the costumes in the film, Black Panther, as well as her innovative Youtube series, “Designing From The Margins”.
3. Maurice Cherry: Atlanta-based digital creator, educator, and founder of the award-winning podcast, Revision Path
No doubt, the design industry (and much of this article, in fact!) owes a great deal to Maurice Cherry’s efforts championing black designers. He’s the pioneering creator of the Black Weblog Awards, the web’s longest-running event celebrating black bloggers, video bloggers, and podcasters. He’s also the creator of the award-winning podcast Revision Path, which showcases “some of the best Black graphic designers, web designers, and web developers from all over the world.”
Other projects include 28 Days of the Web and The Year of Tea, a short daily podcast in which Cherry sampled and reviewed a new tea each day of 2015. Most recently, he was selected as one of this year’s “People to Watch” by the Graphic Design USA magazine, a publication for creative professionals since 1963.
4. Qa’id Jacobs: New York-grown product and system designer living in Amsterdam (and an esteemed mentor at Designlab!)
Check out Qa’id Jacob’s candid AlterConf talk, “Honor Your Struggle by Hacking Corporate Culture”, which discusses his experiences of often being the “only black guy” on a team and how we can fix broken, less inclusive systems — including workplace systems — to affect positive change in our workplace cultures. And don’t miss his two-part interview with Maurice Cherry on Revision Path!
When asked about how he sees his role as a mentor in the design community, Qa’id says,
I’m taking a cue from my own years-long search for a mentor, which was fruitless for a long time until I realized that I had too strict a definition of mentor. So I understand that there are designers who are more talented or experienced than me in some areas; at the same time it is true that no other designer has traveled the path I’ve been on or worked on the same projects under the same life/work circumstances. Through stories from my own work or life experiences, I try to connect to the the design challenges or personal challenges of the people I am mentoring.
5. Eunice W. Johnson: Director of Ebony, pioneer for fashion and black designers
Eunice W. Johnson was the creator of the Ebony Fashion Fair, a tour showcasing haute couture and ready-to-wear fashion for a mostly African-American audience for more than 50 years. Her entrepreneurial legacy has nurtured the careers of notable black models, hair stylists, makeup artist, and designers — such as Tracy Reese — and has raised more than $55 million for civil rights groups, hospitals, community centers and scholarships. Read more about the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s “Black Fashion Designers” exhibition that featured pieces by Johnson and over 60 designers.
6. Hendrika Makilya: California-based multidisciplinary creative with an emphasis on design as storytelling, product design, and art direction (and an esteemed mentor at Designlab!)
A savvy designer from Atlanta who now works in the Bay Area, Hendrika Makilya has designed solutions for clients including Apple, IBM, and Salesforce. When we asked her what she thinks the design industry could do to foster a more inclusive environment, Hendrika said that she feels that “organizations like Designlab are making an impact in that regard”. She also recommends that designers approach companies with explicit commitments to diversity and — to better understand and learn from what they’re doing right — ask them, “what are you doing to change the numbers in design?”
Hendrika also shared more about why she loves mentoring and helping aspiring designers — especially folks from less privileged backgrounds because, as she says, “I can connect to the urgency and challenges [for that person], and for me, that’s kind of special to be able, through Designlab, to help this person I may not have known otherwise.”
7. Cheryl D. Miller: designer and activist
Published over 30 years ago, Miller’s article, “Black Designers: Missing in Action”, still offers relevant insights about the systemic barriers that negatively impact diversity and inclusivity in the design community. According to Miller, prohibitive factors impacting black designers in the industry included a lack of family support, the cost of art school, not enough financial aid, lack of mentorship, and so on. Her courage sparked an important conversation about diversity and inclusivity in the design industry that resonates today.
8. Clem Onojeghuo: 2017 editorial photographer of the year on Unsplash
Clem Onojeghuo is a digital graphic designer and photographer, as well as a prolific contributor to the public-domain photo community Unsplash. The quality of his Saul Leiter-inspired street photography earned him Unsplash’s #1 badge for editorial photography last year.
Based in Letchworth, UK (40 miles north of London), Onojeghuo shares his talents by hosting photo walks around London districts like Shoreditch, Southbank and Soho. You can read more about his story and inspiration in this profile piece over on Medium.
9. Maya Penn: entrepreneur, philanthropist, author, and animator
At the age of eight, Maya Penn founded Maya’s Ideas, a fashion company that focuses on handcrafted sustainable clothing and donates 10–20% of its profits to charities and environmental organizations. Her 2013 talk is ranked as one of top 15 TEDWomen talks of all time, and she has received the Black Enterprise Teenpreneur of the Year Award, a commendation from President Barack Obama, and the US EPA for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship. Her creative output and altruistic focus are awe-inspiring!
10. Rafael Smith: design lead at IDEO.org
As the design lead at IDEO.org, Smith uses his skills in product design and industrial design to improve the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities worldwide. He also founded and created Uber Shelter, a company that designed emergency shelters for disaster relief in Haiti, Venezuela, and Japan. Check out his talk for about the Design + Diversity Conference about how we can apply design and technology to mitigate unconscious bias.
See also: 28 Days of the Web
In conjunction with and celebration of Black History Month, 28 Days of the Web features a different web designer, graphic designer, or web developer every day for the month of February!
Through these profiles and resources, we hope that your response to the question, “How many black designers do you know?” will steadily increase in the year ahead.
With that in mind, here are some ways that we might better embrace the talents and insights of black designers today, and foster the black designers of tomorrow:
And last but not least, let’s consider this poignant point by Maurice Cherry from his article, “Models of Possibility”, in which he responds about the visibility gap of black designers and their contributions:
You can’t be what you can’t see. How different would my life path have been if I knew, at 18, that this was an option? With projects like Revision Path and 28 Days of the Web, it’s important for me to give the next generation that platform, so young people know this is something they can do.