An Interview with Timothy Hykes, Curator of 28 Days of Black Designers
Black History Month is about more than recognizing the history and contributions of African-Americans throughout time; it’s also about celebrating people right now and creating opportunities for people going forward.
That’s exactly what St. Louis-based UX designer Timothy Hykes set out to do with 28 Days of Black Designers, a curated passion project running throughout Black History Month. The project profiles one black designer each day to show the diversity of those who contribute to the design industry as well as the various opportunities that exist for African-Americans interested in design today.
Within two days, the project was pinned at the top of Behance’s Twitter account and Hykes was getting a plethora of support from the design community, not just for it’s relevance to Black History Month, but also for its advocacy of diversity in design. People immediately began tweeting him names of black designers that he could feature in his series and the community appeared thrilled that the work of what continues to be a marginalized group was not only being represented in design, but also celebrated.
So far, the posts have ranged from historical profiles of iconic black designers, including fashion designer Ann Cole Lowe, an ambitious career woman best known for designing Jackie Kennedy’s (then Jacqueline Bouvier) wedding dress, to contemporary architecture students like Earnest (EJ) Maxwell, Jr., UX designers such as Timothy Bardlavens and designers with various other backgrounds.
We chatted with Hykes to find out more about the inspiration behind the project and what can be done to enhance opportunities for the black designers of today.
Adobe: Why do you think you saw success with this project so quickly?
Timothy Hykes: I would say the biggest thing is the time and the position of it. One thing is the AIGA and Google Design Census went out and there was a lot of conversation around it, people were interested to see the various disparities among men and women, and then among ethnic groups. That came out the second week of January and within a few weeks, we have articles and projects such as mine that focus on that area. I think within the black community it’s really hard to find other black designers. You can’t do a Google search of black designers and get 19 million search results on black designers. You have to be creative with any type of keyword you want to use to pull up information on black designers.
Black History Month is a great promotional tool because it focuses on those issues that bring attention to the black community. The nice piece with it is that we are all designers. Towards the end of every story I always say, how can design be more accommodating and most of the time [the people I’m interviewing are] saying by doing more projects like this, or using this model to try to get the word out there that there are people out here that look like you and are doing this and have these great careers.
That’s one thing that stands out about this project. It is positive, yet you’re not afraid to dig into people’s psyche. I wanted to ask you one of your own questions. What do you struggle with as a black designer, especially as a young designer?
As I was first getting into the industry, my biggest struggle was fitting in. Everyday I’m working with other designers and I don’t look like them. A big issue is you never know if you’re truly accepted. Now that I’ve been in the industry, I graduated in 2015, I’d say the biggest struggle is a lot of the time I’m concerned with the caliber of my work. I’m always asking, does my work look the same, am I producing that same type of quality work? I struggle with designing things I feel meet that industry standard of professionalism in design. It’s something I work towards everyday and I continue to look at my work and I think the next piece I work on, how can it meet the level of craftsmanship designers are known for?
So in your mind, is your struggle more with being the best at your craft?
I feel like as a black designer I am overlooked, you know? I feel like we’re taught, in school, white design aesthetics of the western hemisphere. With that, we’re taught a certain culture of design principal that may not truly apply to the way that I think and how I live my life as a designer. I really feel, when I was in school, the type of design I was designing got changed to meet what was in the industry. I really struggle trying to meet that standard to be accepted.
I have to ask you this because you asked everybody this, but what was it that inspired you to pursue in design?
I was very interested in how newspaper articles and magazines created these images. I remember creating flyers for my friends and trying to get them to imitate the way they looked in magazines. At one point in high school, we were introduced to Adobe Photoshop and right there it clicked like oh, this is the program they’re using.
I had no idea photography was a big thing with that. I had no idea typography was pretty huge and there was some thought in how text was laid out. That really got me interested in it. I used to watch a lot of tutorials on how to create these different types of posters to make them look certain ways. I watched thousands of them, and this was before we had smartphones. Everyday I’d be in Photoshop trying to imitate or duplicate them until I created something that was the same. That really sparked my interest, going through magazines and seeing how they were composed. Then, in design school, it wasn’t hard — it was easy. If I got a B it was because I chose that I wanted a B and that I didn’t want to do as much work to get an A.
I’m going to continue with your questions because I think you’ve brought up a number of good points. How do you think that design can be more accommodating to underrepresented populations of people?
Number one, you can’t only represent one group of people and expect others to follow. People are not stupid. They can walk into an organization and at first sight know that that is not a place they are welcome. If they see designers and they’re all from one particular community or one group of people, they know that they are not welcome. Instantly, whether it’s said or not, that is how they’ll feel. I feel as a community of designers we need to start to show, and make sure we allow, people who are representative of different communities to speak and to have those voices heard. They can speak in such a tone that shows people from their communities that if you’re interested in design, there is a place for you here.
Secondly, we need to change the image of design. Parents are still very influential when it comes to what their children are majoring in in college. There have been plenty of designers who didn’t turn into a design major until junior or senior year because they really felt that is what they wanted to do and that went against what their parents wanted. We have to show that design is a career that people can make a true living off of. It is not the whole starving artist mentality.
It’s also very important we continue to communicate how vast design is. We need to do a better job at defining the different areas of design and articulating how they relate to these different jobs and also articulate what kind of money people are making in them. I’m sure that’s what parents truly want to see and know that their children are able to go into a career or field that is very profitable, can be profitable, or has the opportunity to be profitable. That would be the American dream, to have the opportunity to be profitable.
Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about going into design that are maybe a little intimidated because they are African-American or from another marginalized group?
The best thing you can do is to always look forward because looking forward will always bring you hope. The past is only there to give you insight into what you have done and to learn from, but moving forward always brings you to a new day. You can’t move backwards to a new day. I say that because in your heart, you know that this is something you know you want to do. If you follow your heart, you will always be happy.
I read a survey they did on people right before they died and they asked them, what was the one thing you wish you would have done? They all talked about things they wished they would have done, and no one talked about things they did. In that, I say continue move forward and live each day doing the things that you want to do.
If deep down in your heart you feel design is a place you want to explore and be in, and you want to achieve as a professional, I say do it. If you have questions about it, you ask. If you put your best foot forward and you don’t make it, the best thing you can tell yourself is I tried, and I tried my hardest and it didn’t work out. In most cases, you’re going to have to fail and then try again. Most of our people who are very successful, they know that failure is a tool. Failure is not something you get hit with and it destroys all. Failure is a tool that we use to get better. We don’t know what works until it works. It helps you continue to move forward because next time you do it you know this didn’t work out, but I’m going to try this to see if this works out. That type of mind frame would lead you to be a very successful designer.
Thank you greatly for your time Timothy. Is there anything you wanted to add about this project or this topic before we wrap up?
Yes. Just like all the other great designers who have side projects, this easily could have been someone else’s side project. If you have an idea about something that you want to do, especially if it can benefit the community as a whole, do it. Don’t wait until the next day, just do it. This was just about thrown together and everybody loves it even though it’s not the best designed website, and it’s not being publicized as Behance’s best website that was every created, they’re loving it for the content and for the potential it has to change our community. So if anybody has an idea for something in their free time that can change the community, I’m going to tell them to do it. Get out there and be like Nike.
To view more on this project and read the profiles, visit 28blacks.com.
For a similar project that Hykes said was an inspiration, check out 28 Days of the Web, a project that profiles African-Americans working specifically in web.