The Diversity Question All Graphic Designers Must Answer

Does this material match our target client base?

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Jan 6 · 6 min read
Photo credit: Craig Adderley/Pexels

When I looked through the marketing business proposal, I knew something was off. I remembered the photoshoots with our marketing staff. I knew who had been in which photograph — and I quickly realized who had been cropped.

Our graphic designer had cropped out the only African-American woman in several group shots, including one image of just hands. She kept lighter-skinned Hispanic employees and plenty of 20-something white people — one in particular. The most commonly used image was of a 22-year-old, blue-eyed and blonde-haired co-worker on the front cover, back cover, and middle pages too.

Give or take one dark-skinned African American woman, two fair-skinned Latinas, and one brown-skinned African-American male, you would’ve thought our entire company was all white — and those images were at the back of the proposal.

It was cheaper to photograph in-house staff than hire models, and our actual employees reflected what the marketing company’s client base (a college campus) actually looked like. The marketing proposal did not.

If you work in the marketing industry, particularly if you’re responsible for visual material, that might become a huge problem. The question all graphic designers must ask is: “Does this material mirror the client base of who it’s for?”

Know What the Client Base Is Before Choosing Images

For an undergraduate university, photographs of 20-somethings make sense. But our client was a school that was well-known for returning students of various races. Approximately one-quarter were African-American, around 16 percent were Hispanic/Latino, and a little more than 6 percent were Asian, along with about 40 percent of white students. The average age of a student here was 33 years old.

I’d been on the campus before and in the classrooms as a staff writer, so I knew what the “average” class looked like. And it definitely was not this marketing proposal. When this marketing company created a marketing proposal for the school, it should’ve reflected prospective and current students. While there were a handful of photographs of women and men in their 30s and 40s, almost all of the images looked like the graphic designer and her own social circle — in her early 20s and all white.


Before Hiring, Pay Attention to What Your Graphic Designer’s Portfolio Looks Like

No one wants to go into a job interview and be asked, “Do you have black/Asian/Latino/white friends?” Not only is that inappropriate, but it is just a weird question to ask.

But what you should do is take a deeper look into the portfolio. If all of the images are only one age or one race, ask questions related to “diverse” photography or “diverse” imagery. While there is nothing wrong with the graphic designer wanting to see images of herself within the work, this may become an issue for marketing companies with multicultural clientele. If this person simply cannot understand why images that don’t look like her are worth choosing, the marketing company will have a larger problem on their hands.


Use the Photograph That Makes Sense — Without Getting Caught Up in Controversy

There was a feature story I wrote on school shootings — both as a news story and to market the school’s Forensic Psychology graduate program. While there are some common characteristics of what a school shooter looks like, I did not want a person to be the cover story image. The goal of the post was to point out a larger issue that needed to be studied, not to point out a shooter profile.

This photo stance is generally the rule of thumb for news publications, too. Be careful about which photos you choose and what they’re saying. The graphic designer created a photograph of a school desk and left out students altogether. From a marketing perspective, especially when it comes to controversial issues, being very careful about which images are chosen can make or break the relationship with your client.


Be Able to Explain to Your Client Why Their Marketing Material Should Reflect a Realistic View of Their Base

I’m fully aware that when I see recommended reads on Medium, the algorithms are looking at my reading history. I know when I log into Netflix, the suggestions are going to relate to my past movie-viewing history. I don’t mind. If I want to see new recommendations, I’m purposely going to click on different posts. In marketing, similar rules apply.

But when clients want a new client base, the marketing company has to figure out ways to reach that new base. For example, if the client wants to expand the demographics of their client base, the marketing company should be on board, too. But this can be tough on a marketing company when the client’s business culture does not mirror the marketing material.

Here’s an example of how this “diversity” goal can flop. My first undergraduate university went out of its way to send marketing brochures and material to African-American students. Considering there were less than 100 of us on a campus of 8,000 students, prospective students already knew the school wasn’t even slightly diverse. The marketing staff for this school had an odd job to complete. Their task was to promote the Gateway Academic Program, which was a student program focused on minority students. I received droves of GAP marketing material.

While the school’s admission staff was vocal about expanding its diversity program, the school made no move to broaden their classes or on-campus amenities. (In other words, there were minimal-to-no minority literature courses, or history courses, or even BET. There weren’t even any POC features in the school’s newspaper — only GAP’s 4–8-page booklet. They only had one black staff member, who was not an instructor.) But from the GAP images, this school may as well have been an average day in my Chicago hometown. Once I arrived, I was in for a rude awakening and transferred after two years. GAP could not save this school, no matter how much the marketing company tried.


Be Careful With the Pattern of Your Featured Images

I was a freelance writer for a transcription company. I wrote exactly 40 articles regarding transcription culture — signing nondisclosure agreements before transcribing surveillance recordings, using transcriptions to help people with expressive aphasia, how to format magazine Q&A interviews, transcriptions for jurors, mastering medical terms for medical transcriptions, etc. For all 40 images on the transcription blog, almost all featured images were of white people. However, any time I wrote about stay-at-home parents, unemployment, or teachers, the images were of black people. Every. Single. Time. While stock photograph sites have a lot to do with what images can be chosen, be careful with your own selective bias when choosing images. Can the stay-at-home parent be a white guy? Can the medical transcription post show a black female as a doctor? Aren’t Asians selected for jury duty, too?


Finding the right photographs for client marketing material has to have balance. While the client should preferably want to be honest and reflect the company’s base, the marketing company should also be willing to do the same. And while “marketing” and “graphic designer/artist” may not work hand-in-hand, it is up to marketing management to make sure that the company’s goals reflect the artwork that’s chosen.


Photo credit: The Jopwell Collection

Are you interested in more diversity tips for marketing and sales? Check out this four-part series “Adiversity” by Shamontiel.


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Better Marketing

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Shamontiel L. Vaughn

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15-year vegetarian journalist/editor; part-time dog walker and dog sitter; Toastmasters member and 5x officer; WERQ dance and yoga enthusiast; Shamontiel.com

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