Dismantling White Supremacy in Design Classrooms: My Conversation With Design Guru Cheryl D. Miller
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which my teaching practices might be reinforcing White supremacy.
In particular, I’ve been thinking about how graphic design advice that I share in my classes — advice that I thought to be “neutral” and “benign” — may serve to exclude and oppress BIPOC students.
These thoughts came to the foreground a few weeks ago. At a webinar organized by Chris Rudd at the IIT Institute of Design (“The Future Must be Different from the Past: Embracing an Anti-Racist Agenda”), graphic designer Cheryl D. Miller was asked to reflect about the elements of contemporary graphic design that she believes symbolize racism and oppression.
The host asked, “What is the rebel flag or Confederate monument of design, to you?” Here is what she said:
“I would like to retire the Paul Rand look. I would like to retire mid-century Helvetica. I want to retire flush left. I want to retire rag right. I want to retire white space. I want to retire the Swiss grid… It is the look of my oppressor… a mid-century era when it wasn’t easy to enter the NY marketplace as a Black designer. When I see that look, the only thing it says to me is, ‘You cannot enter. You don’t belong. You’re not good enough.’”
I recognized in Ms. Miller’s list almost everything that I’ve been telling my students is “good” design. “Use simple fonts like Helvetica,” I often say, “because they are really easy to read.” “Line things up and use a grid, because that will make your slides/posters look organized and not sloppy.” “Make sure to leave plenty of white space on the page, to give your viewers’ eyes a chance to breathe.” As a White design educator, I’m embarrassed to admit that it had never occurred to me just how much this advice can exclude and invalidate the identities of some of my students.
Ms. Miller was kind enough to hop on a Zoom with me to talk more about this problem, and about what design educators like me can do better, in order to dismantle White supremacy in the classroom and create a space for all of our students to flourish.
Here are four of my takeaways from our conversation.
Unless otherwise noted, all block quotes below are from Ms. Miller.
I have to saturate my visual experience with diverse images
Our brains tend to equate the familiar with the good. So if all you see is work by White designers, then that’s what calibrates your taste of what constitutes “good” design. Consider: if your whole life you only listened to music by Mozart and Vivaldi, what would you think the first time you heard a song by Lizzo or Metallica? Your brain might not even code it as “music.”
A great way to make sure I’m not falling into this trap is to intentionally seek out work by BIPOC designers and add it to my mental/visual rolodex. That way, my intuition and my taste can grow and mature, and I can still develop a sense of what’s good and what’s bad, but this sense can become divorced from a White-centric aesthetic.
“Create your own rules for yourself, set your own standards. And that has everything to do with what you really like. So when you see something, and it responds to you, and it doesn’t fit the rules that we’ve been indoctrinated with, give it a chance.”
For some, like artist and designer Purin Phanichphant, this kind of saturation can be literal and physical: he covers his walls with images he loves, and deliberately curates this collection for diversity. Whether or not I build such a wall of inspiration, I know I can do a better job of intentionally seeking out and looking at the work of non-White designers. (And, once I’ve curated a broader visual experience, I can explicitly try to notice the ways in which these objects and images break stereotypes with which I’m familiar, and learn to appreciate the richness of this difference.)
The trouble is that Black designers’ work hasn’t historically been highlighted/credited, so it may be tougher to find.
But there is help. Wonderful resources like this database of BIPOC creatives and this list of Black designers are being compiled and shared. The recent Where Are The Black Designers? conference — organized by Mitzi Okou — and the Slack community that grew out of it, are providing White design educators a kind of access to this community that effectively removes my excuses for keeping my head in the sand, because “examples of Black designers are hard to find.”
“Stop asking ‘Where are the Black designers?’ We’re right here! The question is: Where have you all been?”
I have to learn and teach the history — the whole history
You’re probably familiar with the work and name of Milton Glaser, the iconic mid-century White graphic designer who created the I ❤ NY logo. But you’re probably less familiar with the work and name of Black graphic designer Reynold Ruffins, Glaser’s long-time partner and collaborator, with whom Glaser co-founded Push Pin Studios in 1954. Ruffins’ work was no less far-reaching and prominent than Glaser’s: his clients included IBM, AT&T, Coca-Cola, CBS, Pfizer, The New York Times, Fortune, and the U.S. Postal Service. But White supremacy means erasure of Black voices, so you didn’t learn about him in your classes. It’s not your fault. But you can do better now.
A study of history is important not only because it allows us to avoid repeating past mistakes, but also because it allows us to build on past successes. A failure to recognize, appreciate, and build upon the best work of all designers who came before us is a disservice to humanity, present and future.
And a study of history is not (and can’t be) neutral: it is a series of stories told by people — people with biases and agendas. This means that an anti-racist design classroom has to explicitly embrace an anti-racist historical narrative.
“I studied art history right there with you. I went to RISD. I went to Pratt. I went to MICA. What art history did I learn? Your art history. What design did I learn? Your design. You learned nothing of mine.”
Importantly, it’s not only the case that Western education has celebrated the contributions of White designers while ignoring the contributions of Black designers. The systematic theft and erasure of Black labor and Black talent has led to a denial of Black designers ever having made any contributions in the first place. Western graphic design education doesn’t, for example, often remember that the very founders of the field of graphic design were Black:
“The first graphic design was Egyptian hieroglyphics, and last I checked, Egypt was in Africa. So when we talk about the history of graphic design, we’re talking about Black graphic design.”
A lot of the design history that I’ve been taught is actually Black design history — appropriated, misattributed, and rebranded. And I have to acknowledge this explicitly in the classroom.
“Who painted Christ first? And what color was he painted? Have you looked carefully at 12th century Russian Orthodox depictions of Christ? Who saw Jesus, who documented him first, and who taught the Russians how to paint their churches? The Byzantines did. You want to see Black Jesus and Moses and everybody else? Look at the 12th century Orthodox churches. And then, all of a sudden, with the beginning of the Renaissance, Jesus becomes White, and that’s all you want to look at.”
The dominant Western narrative of design history has been constructed by White educators, while Black designers’ work has been hidden away from the spotlight. So how do you find that work if you’re an educator who wants to see it and show it to your students?
“The problem is when you start to Google, you discover that most history is not Googleable. Most archives of Black graphic designers are in card catalogs, pre-2000.”
But there’s some great news. Ms. Miller has begun curating a historical database in collaboration with librarians at Stanford University, called “The History of Black Graphic Design.” 40 Black graphic designers and Ms. Miller’s colleagues are contributors to the collection, as well as the estate of Dorothy E. Hayes. As of the time of this writing, as far as I can tell, Stanford Libraries haven’t yet created a publicly searchable interface for this collection, but we can all look forward to its impending release.
Meanwhile, other resources are being created and shared, like this 134-page (and growing) bibliography called Decentering Whiteness in Design History. The sheer volume of entries cited in the document is clear proof that the resources I need in order to learn and teach a more complete history of design are plentiful and available.
Perhaps most direct and exciting is the fact that Ms. Miller herself has just developed a series of lectures on Black graphic design history, and has offered to deliver these remotely at any college or university interested in hosting them. This gives me an action item that’s almost too easy, and I’m now working on arranging for my college to host Ms. Miller for a lecture.
In conjunction with asking Ms. Miller to speak to my students, I have to explicitly acknowledge the historical erasure and appropriation of Black voices in design. And then I have to keep making sure that the examples of design — both historical and contemporary — that I show in my classes deliberately steer away from the all-too-White lineup that I am guilty of showcasing.
“If you just serve the whole menu, then your students will appreciate it in their own way. There’s no way you can ever sit in our seat, but if you show us the whole world through design, then we will find ourselves in it.”
I have to lean on my students as collaborators in this journey
An important truth that I already know is: my students are not there to be passive recipients of my wisdom and knowledge. I have to make them real collaborators in this effort — I have to make them learn with me, and make them help me (and each other) see better.
Ms. Miller offered this idea for an exercise I can try with my students:
“If I were teaching a visual communications class, here’s what I would have students do.
Take a brand — say, McDonald’s, or Coca-Cola, or Disney — and study what it looks like in four different points on the globe. Look at Coke packaging in Brazil, and in Asia, and in North America, and in Paris. And let’s talk about what we see.
You’ll see that McDonald’s in Croatia looks a whole lot different than McDonald’s in New York City.
And break it down. Have the students analyze all the elements. What are the colors? What’s the typography? What’s in the restaurant? What are the furnishings? What’s in the parking lot? What’s the signage?
I even suggest going to the corner grocery and convenience stores in Black, Latinx or Asian neighborhoods and look at the food packaging. Chips, drinks, canned vegetables and frozen food packaging can reveal a lot about design ethnicities. Colors, shapes and forms in the corner grocery can educate us in new ways. Just visit the corner neighborhood store!
You’ll start to decolonize your students’ point of view — and your own — if you have them do this kind of documentation. Look, you don’t have the answers yourself. So, get them busy!”
Understanding starts with looking, so if I ask my students to look more broadly and more deeply, their understanding of design — and mine — will grow accordingly.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like I’m solely on the hook for showing design examples that can completely convey all the necessary course content and principles, and it’s easy to forget that it might be way more interesting, way more fun, and way more anti-racist, to require my students to contribute to curating our collective visual experience. I should do more of that.
And after students have gotten some practice at this kind of multicultural analysis and appreciation, the next step can be a design exercise. I can assign a prompt along the lines of “Create a [product / brand / poster / etc.] for [insert country here].” I can ask them to design an album cover, or a beer bottle, or a restaurant menu, and to produce several variations of it, for several different points on the globe.
This way, I can give my students an opportunity to practice speaking multiple design languages, and develop a felt sense of how identity can shape design — and an understanding that many different identities can shape many different (equally valid) design expressions.
I have to give my students the opportunity and responsibility of defending their work
A mantra that I picked up at the Stanford d.school — and which I now pass onto my students — is: “Feedback is a gift. Be nice, but be honest.” You’re not doing anyone any favors by failing to point out a critical flaw in their work. This resonated with Ms. Miller’s advice:
“The worst thing you can do is say, ‘Oh, that’s awesome.’ Give the work a crit — a real crit.”
As a White design educator who’s doing their best to respect students’ identities, I have on occasion stumbled into this kind of dilemma: “I don’t think this student’s work is very good. But how do I know that my opinion is not just my White supremacy showing itself? How do I know that my eyes don’t misjudge the student’s work simply because this work does not look and feel like the White-centric design aesthetic with which I’m most familiar? If I tell them their poster doesn’t look very sophisticated, am I just being racist?”
“Sometimes it’s so hard for White instructors when they see work by students of color, and they don’t know what to say. Students put up their work and it has their identity and their culture in it, and White instructors don’t know what to do with it. Something is throwing them off: it’s not on the grid, or there’s something about the imagery, and you say ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ or you just go around it and don’t give it a crit at all.”
The worst thing I can do is dismiss the work and not engage with it. Both skipping over it and simply saying “that’s great” are types of dismissal.
So the best thing I can do is, before providing any feedback — before telling the student what I think of the work I’m looking at — to ask the student to describe what they’ve done: ask them to explain, justify, and defend their design choices. (And, if they can, show feedback that they’ve already received about the work from a diverse group of viewers or stakeholders.) That way, I’ll know whether a text box is not aligned to an image because it’s just sloppy or careless, or if it’s not aligned because of an intentional and well-considered design decision.
“And when it’s just poor design, you’re going to have to call it. But you have to be able to give a good reason. If it’s sloppy, if they can’t get up and defend what they’ve done, then you have to call them out.”
Black designers and Black design students can make mediocre work, too. Treating them justly means giving their work an opportunity to be judged authentically.
As a White design educator, I have to recognize that the way I define “good” design is a product of what I’ve been exposed to, and the way that I’ve been taught — my design sensibility didn’t emerge in a vacuum; it emerged and was honed in a culture of systemic racism, and so it bears the marks of that systemic racism just as everything else in our culture bears the marks of that systemic racism. My understanding, practice, and teaching of design is embedded in a social/cultural context that is shaped by and built upon systemic racism.
So what can I do about it? Two main themes emerged for me from my conversation with Cheryl D. Miller:
- First, I have to re-educate my design sensibilities by broadening my diet of design, and do so in a way that consciously and intentionally seeks out and seeks to overcome the kind of erasure of design by people of color that one would expect in a systemically racist society. This entails both looking through space (finding design from across the world to appreciate and to add to my visual experience), and looking through time (learning and teaching the full history). This is an ongoing, life-long endeavor, because becoming an anti-racist design educator is like becoming a “good person:” it’s not a destination you arrive at; it’s a practice — and you’re only as “good” as your most recent action.
- Second, I have to check my design sensibility (in the “check your privilege” sort of way). How can I be aware of when my design sensibilities are infecting my judgment about a piece of design in a way that might be racist, and how do I deal with that? The main idea here is two sides of the same coin: I have to give the designer space and invite the designer to justify their design choices; and then I have to engage myself in evaluating the work, but do so in a way that requires me to justify the judgments that I’m making (philosophers call this an “exchange of reasons”). Given that I’m working on the ongoing task in the first bullet point above, this is how I can engage with my students’ work right now.
None of it is easy, and all of it is worthwhile. And it’s great to know that I have collaborators in the journey: from my students who are eager to engage in this work, to iconic designers who are willing to show the way.
First and foremost, I am tremendously grateful to Cheryl D. Miller for her generous gift of time and words of wisdom — including both sitting down with me to talk for almost two hours, as well as helping me to edit this write-up to make sure that what I wrote down reflected what she intended to convey.
Huge thanks also to Rafe Steinhauer, who made some majorly helpful edits and suggestions for how to frame this article.
Finally, none of these thoughts would have crystallized into anything resembling coherence if it weren’t for my long series of conversations with Kate Nolfi, who guided me through understanding my own reflections, and massively helped to organize my thinking.
Selected writings by Cheryl D. Miller, plus a few articles that highlight the Black experience in graphic design:
- Ms. Miller’s 1985 masters thesis at Pratt Institute: “Transcending the Problems of the Black Graphic Designer to Success in the Marketplace” (Available through the Stanford University Library).
- Ms. Miller’s 1987 article, “Black Designers: Missing in Action,” Print.
- Ms. Miller’s 2016 follow-up article, “Black Designers: Still Missing in Action?” Print.
- Ms. Miller’s most recent article and her final piece in the trilogy: “Black Designers: Forward in Action,” Print (2020)
- The 1991 AIGA Report “Why is Graphic Design 93% White?” by Brenda Mitchell-Powell.
- The Cheryl D. Miller Collection at Stanford University.
- Dorothy Jackson’s 1968 article, “The Black Experience in Graphic Design,” Print.
- A fabulous 2020 follow-up to that 1968 article, featuring reactions from today’s leading Black designers, edited by Stephen Coles: “The Black Experience in Graphic Design: 1968 and 2020,” Print.
“The best Black graphic designer I know is Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, DC.
She started a movement: painted ‘Black Lives Matter’ right on down the street to the White House.
You go, girl.”
— Cheryl D. Miller