I have attended many design shows and exhibits in the past several years; shows sponsored byindustry leaders in design and manufacturing. I have attended with great anticipation, but constantly my enthusiasm was transformed into dismay, and not a little indignation. Why was there not one black designer represented in these shows?
Many of the shows were national and even international in scope. Did they not discover one black designer or architect worthy of being in the show? Was there not one black architect of designer qualified to be a juror? I know better!
There is a tremendously rich heritage of design which flows from African roots. Modern architecture can be traced back to African origins. The greatest architectural wonders of the world -- the Great Pyramids -- still rest there. Africans were casting bronze and smelting iron thousands of years before Europeans. African fabric design is some of the most creative and vibrant in the world. The first furniture ever created came from Africa. Shona sculpture from Zimbabwe is highly acclaimed internationally, and rivals any "modernist" works. Then why this great lack of representation of black designers in the design profession?
Design is considered, by many to be a select, professional field which only a few may enter owing to its costly educational preparation and subsequent competition in the marketplace. This is an elitist attitude. I have encountered it in design school and as a practicing designer. Alone, it is an understandable attitude. But, when it becomes cultural bias, and not just professional snobbery, it is damaging to the general society. Because our society has not really confronted the issue of cultural bias, it has been prevented from fully evaluating all the qualified individuals that our society encompasses. Cultural biases compromise one's ability to make objective evaluations. Hiring decisions are made, therefore, without considering all the possibly qualified candidates and the end result is to the disadvantage of all the parties involved.
Obviously, design is directly related to culture, and a subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle discrimination results from biases against certain cultural differences exhibited by blacks and other cultural or racial populations. The general intolerance toward these differences makes it difficult for blacks, and others to acquire an effective education and gainful employment.
The Education & Employment Barrier
Without employment, there can be no mentors. This can be a devastating obstacle to young black students entering the design arena. Feelings of isolation and rejection can lead to a sense of inadequacy. And, this scarcity of established black design professionals has not only meant few role models for young black designers, but fewer job opportunities. It's a vicious circle.
A professional design education at an accredited school is very expensive and most black students need significant financial assistance to help pay for their educations. Given the costs involved, the typical black student is not financially prepared to compete with other applicants to these schools. Commonly, black students come from working-class families with incomes ranging from $13,000 to $25,000 per year. These students generally end up spending most of their money on tuition and fees, which leaves very little for supplies. The result is that few of these students have the money needed to execute design projects to an acceptable level.
As the recent AIGA conference and workshop in New York (Why is Graphic Design 97% White?) indicated, the number of people of color in the various design professions is woefully small, especially African Americans. According to a recent article, out of 44,470 regular members of the American Institute of Architects, only 380 are black (Architecture, April, 1991 p. 52). There are roughly 30 million black people in America, so why is thisnumber so ridiculously low? There are no figures for design practices as none of the other design organizations has done a study.
This is a truly sad and shocking state of affairs. In a globally competitive world, America cannot afford to lose the wonderful contributions that can be made by a creative and vital segment of its population. African Americans have, against great odds, made tremendous contributions to the fine and performing arts and we can and are doing the same in the applied arts fields of design.
But, there still needs to be greater opportunity. The number of us in the design disciplines is minuscule, and the design professions in America are missing the richness that cultural diversity and unique ethnic perspective brings to our greater society.
What is missing in the design professions as a result of so little input from the largest of all American ethnic populations? Well, let us take a look at some other areas of professional endeavor in our society, many of which were formerly closed to participation by African Americans. What would baseball be if it had not been graced by the magic of Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, or Hank Aaron? What of football without Jim Brown, OJ Simpson, or Doug Williams? Or, basketball without Kareem, or Doctor J or Magic Johnson? Painting without Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Charles White, or Hermon Futrell? How much poorer would we be if there had been no Dizzy, Miles, Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, Motown, Little Richard, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald or Leontyne Price? No DuBois, Carver, Gwendolyn Brooks, Halley, Angelou, Baldwin, Walker, or Toni Morrison?
Lack of Diversity = Design Sterility
In many ways, design in America is sterile and dead -- lacking in valid context and cultural relevance. Frankly, it is too inbred with the ideas and values of primarily White American males. The world and the country are more diverse than that.
For example, America has the richest musical heritage of any nation of Earth. Through it, we influence virtually every other culture there is. And, it is due purely to the wonderful diversity that our music industry encompasses.
What if our design industry reflected the same kind of creative fervor and diversity as our music industry? Instead, we have the very narrow productions of a monolithic cognoscente, that engages in regular sessions of self-congratulations and self aggrandizement, i.e., the same designers on the same design juries; the same group of designers winning the same design awards year after year. If the design industry was more like the music industry, we would have a much richer and more vital design culture and definitely a more exciting one.
The majority culture is, in fact, an amalgam of cultures. We need to express minority values and experiences so that the whole can function harmoniously. It is crucial to provide unlimited outlets of expression and participation for all of our ethnic populations because their experiences inform and enrich the lives of our whole society.
The Overlooked $399 Billion Dollar Market
Indeed, Blacks are not much represented in the "World Design Industry," and particularly the "American Design Industry." There are black architects, industrial designers, interior designers, etc., but where are the lamps, chairs, seating systems, and fabrics that they have designed? When did Knoll, Herman Miller, Artemide, or any other major manufacturer for that matter, last contract with a black designer to design a product or line of products? How can this be in an industry that exceeds $200 billion dollars annually! Do Black Americans not use furniture, textiles or interiors? Do Black designers not specifiy them?
The design industry is missing out on a reservoir of ideas, concepts, indeed, perhaps whole new design realities that black designers can bring to the design disciplines, not to mention new markets. The U.S. Federal Government Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditures Section, reports that gainfully employed Black American consumer spending power is $270 BILLION per year! Total GNP(Gross National Product) for Black Americans is $340 BILLION per year. That is greater than the GNP of Australia, Switzerland, Mexico, Korea and India according to figures quoted from the World Bank. How many products are designed to appeal to this market? Are Nike and McDonalds the only possibilities?
There are tremendous oversights by the design industry of product markets that are very obvious to this designer that go unexploited due to lack of capital investment and lack of interest by "those in control"! We talk about global marketing but there is a $270 billion dollar market right here in the U.S., that due to cultural myopia, has never been adequately tapped. How many countries can exceed or approach a level of combined spending of $270 billion per year? On a global economic scale Black Americans easily rank as a viable independent economy! Yet, the lack of access to traditional capital sources by black design entrepreneurs prevents the fullest development of this tremendous market.
Other national design organizations such as the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the American Design Council (ADC), and the Society of Environmental Graphic Designers (SEGD), are sponsoring initiatives to address the great racial disparity in the design industry. There is a call for action and proaction to increase the number of Black Americans and other peoples of color. Obviously, that is an admirable and desirable goal, but FIRST THERE SHOULD BE GREATER RECOGNITION AND GREATER ECONOMIC AND PROFESSIONAL OPPORTUNITY FOR THOSE OF US WHO ARE ALREADY HERE.
That recognition should come in the form of exhibits, publications, awards, fellowships and most importantly -- WORK -- serious and not token work in the form of commissions, retainers and contracts.
Many of us, with immaculate credentials, have struggled long and hard for far too little opportunity, acknowledgement and engagement by the established design community.
It appears from the design magazines and the industry in general that only people of European and Asian descent are allowed the opportunity to fully participate in the commercial design industry. Truly design has no bounds when it comes to human talent, but the industry does not fully reflect that truth.
Talented and capable black designers and architects exist. When will we start seeing and enjoying more of their contributions? When will we see their products in the marketplace? WE ARE HERE! WE ARE COMPETENT! We welcome the assistance and support of all the members of the entire design community.
The apparent lack of African Americans in the multi-billion dollar design industry is unfortunately due to the fact that we still live in a racist society and are not yet a truly egalitarian one, regardless of the social progress that has been made in the last twenty years. And, since the practice of design has traditionally been elitist, it is more than understandable that members of our society that have been historically repressed socially and economically are not fairly represented in the industry.
However, we are now at the threshold of an entirely new era in human history. One where the militaristic confrontation of political philosophies is no longer tenable; and where the validity of one's political philosophy will be determined by the economic prosperity and dynamism of one's society. We are truly becoming a global society -- more pluralistic, more competitive.
In such a highly competitive new world order, we as Americans cannot afford to deny, in any way, the development of the potential of any segment of our citizenry. The creativity of Black Americans has contributed much to the cultural richness of our society even under stringent restrictions. That same creativity lives in the hearts and minds of countless Black youngsters and Black professionals who only need the opportunity to allow its full expression. America can no longer afford to waste human resources. It is no longer a matter of "divide and conquer," but "unite and prosper." Our future depends upon it.
Copyright 1995 The Organization of Black Designers All rights reserved