The graphics industry is constantly seeking fresh talent. Where does the black designer fit into this search? In a field where talent is the prime requisite, are black designers’ abilities being sought and developed?”
You may have read the quote above and thought it to be relevant and timely. It’s certainly relevant, but the woman asking these questions did so 51 years ago. In 1968, designer Dorothy Jackson wrote an article for Print magazine describing the numerous ordeals of being a Black designer, including the sheer difficulty of just being seen—literally and figuratively—by art directors and other managers as a source of talent.
Can anyone say with confidence that the industry’s hiring practices have changed dramatically for the better since Jackson exposed these problems? To use a common phrase, attitudes have changed; but the complexion of design remains largely White. Of the more than thirteen thousand respondents to the 2017 AIGA/Google design census, 60.4 percent were White; only 10.4 percent of respondents were Asian, 8.1 percent Latinx and 3.4 percent African American. Designers and illustrators who identify as female still face roadblocks, too. Despite making up more than half of the design-world workforce, as of last year, they held only 11 percent of leadership positions, according to AIGA, and the gender wage gap affects design as it does most industries.
If there has been an appreciable positive shift in recent years, it’s the exponential amplification of the light that Jackson and other people of color and women first started shining on inequity in the design world. Leaders like Revision Path podcast founder Maurice Cherry, OCAD dean Dori Tunstall and Jacinda Walker, ex officio chair of the AIGA Diversity & Inclusion task force, have come to the fore, articulating the way forward to desegregate and decolonize design. They and others have appeared at conferences and given well-attended talks focusing on equity and how to bring it about. Individual AIGA chapters are also making efforts to push forward inclusion (full disclosure: along with two designers, Jen Roos and Jen Wang, I’m working on an AIGA NY–sponsored mentorship program for students of color, with four design leaders—Alice Chung, Bobby C. Martin, Husani Oakley and Eddie Opara—sharing their experiences and networks).
One tool for bringing attention to people of color and women has gained considerable ground over the last five years: online directories. Blacks Who Design, People of Craft, Latinxs Who Design, Women Who Design, Women Who Draw and Natives Photograph are just a few of these sites, which function as visual warehouses of creatives. Their homepages are typically an infinite scroll of images, names and links, laid out in an appealing grid. The illustrators featured on Women Who Draw are represented by images created by each member. Other sites use headshots, or an image of the member’s choosing.
Such directory sites are a perfect example of designers doing what they do best: creating visually driven products meant to solve a problem. Similar projects in support of equity in design have also embodied this approach. Before she cofounded People of Craft, product designer, writer and creator Amélie Lamont was cofounder of Good for PoC, a directory created “to help people of color find safe and inclusive companies to work for in the tech industry,” says Lamont. Tim Hykes’s project 28 Days of Black Designers and Maurice Cherry’s initiative 28 Days of the Web have both used the occasion of Black History Month to highlight a Black designer a day through February, also using enticingly designed grids of imagery and information.
These projects all act as a powerful visual riposte to the line that so many women, people of color and LGBTQ+ creatives hear: “I want to hire more (insert marginalized group here), but I just don’t know where to look.” With these sites, you know where to look. The breadth of talent is right there in front of you.
“We started Women Who Draw in response to the small number of women illustrators who were getting some of the industry’s most coveted and reputable jobs, including magazine covers. Our thesis was that people would hire more talented female illustrators if they only knew where to find them. So we created a way to easily find them,” explains illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, who, along with Julia Rothman, founded the site in 2016. Wes O’Haire launched Blacks Who Design in 2019 after first founding a Slack group for Black designers. “One of the members of the group had mentioned that they visited a portfolio showcase site, but out of the hundred-plus portfolios that were featured, not one of them was from a Black designer. So I threw out the idea of creating a site that highlighted all of the great Black designers in our industry,” O’Haire says.
Creatives are included in the directories in various ways. Some sites, including Women Who Draw and People of Craft, founded in 2017 by Lamont and designer and illustrator Timothy Goodman to support creatives of color, add all designers who “self-identity” and submit their information and portfolio. Other sites, like Blacks Who Design and Latinxs Who Design, use a nomination process. Some of the directories offer links to members’ Twitter or Instagram accounts along with their portfolio sites; others only point to portfolios.
All the directory founders who responded to interview requests reported impressive numbers for their directory rosters: as of the time of writing, People of Craft had around a thousand; Blacks Who Design, five hundred; and Women Who Draw has a remarkable five thousand listed. In all cases, social media accounts support the communities that the sites have created.
Sustaining these growing, community-based projects is no small task. O’Haire built his site with the help of his four Slack-channel compatriots, Tolu Olubode, Hasque May, Nathalyn Nunoo and Yannick Zanfack. In making Women Who Draw, MacNaughton and Rothman had support from Los Angeles illustrator Fin Lee (who remains on the organization’s advisory team); the site is maintained by Fairfield, California–based illustrator Kaylani Juanita McCard, Women Who Draw’s community manager and sole paid staffer. Noting the challenge of keeping People of Craft afloat given that both he and Lamont have full-time jobs, Goodman says they hired three “amazing interns”: Madelyn Hinojosa, Twisha Patni and Andrea Paz, all School of Visual Arts students, have pitched in to gather information about submitters and update the project’s Instagram feed.
All this hard work has seen some gratifying payoffs. Says MacNaughton, “We felt there was a need for Women Who Draw, but I don’t think we anticipated the demand. Within 24 hours of launching, we’d heard reports of people discovering artists and hiring them.” Leading companies and organizations, including Pottery Barn, Planned Parenthood and Eileen Fisher, have initiated brand partnerships with the site, providing work opportunities for its members. O’Haire, too, says that Blacks Who Design started getting a positive response “right away.” “We had a great launch, and a ton of companies reached out to look to hire people,” he notes. Goodman also reports success: “We’ve heard from employers and creatives alike all over the globe about new hires, connections and friendships made because of the initiative.”
Individual stories from directory members show the range of effects that participation can have. Illustrator Fin Lee (who prefers the pronouns them/they) received their first editorial assignment from the New York Times within the first week of Women Who Draw’s launch. Another Women Who Draw member, a Philadelphia-based illustrator with the poetic name Loveis Wise, got an assignment from Refinery29 within two weeks of uploading her work to the site. She has since created two New Yorker covers and a Google Doodle. Alex Swanson, a UI/UX designer based in Denver, has found Blacks Who Design most helpful in terms of connections and mentorship. Regarding its impact on his prospects, he says, “I wouldn’t say it’s changed heavily overnight, because it’s going to take time to change. But I think connecting people with similar challenges in a positive way is always a good thing.”
I asked Cherry for his opinion of the directories. He had kind words for the sites’ ability to develop visibility and grow community. For those purposes, he says, “I believe these directories are a great thing. However,” he added ,“I don’t think they are bringing ‘diversity to the design industry’ at least not in a way that gives these members seats at the table so they can make decisions, get speaking opportunities, hire people, get jobs and truly make the design industry a reflection of the real world.”
Many of the creators and members of the directories seem to understand that directories alone can only do so much. Says O’Haire, “More companies need to be transparent with their hiring numbers. I work in tech, so I know that you need to establish a baseline if you want to start seeing some improvement. For individuals: we all need to diversify our networks so we can refer a wider pool of people. Also, give more people access to you, like with mentoring and coffee chats.” MacNaughton says, “There have been some notable changes in the past two years. We are seeing more women and women of color, queer women and other less visible groups get big-time editorial and commercial opportunities that they otherwise might not have had the visibility or contacts to get. But. Until we have a representational shift in who is doing the hiring, we still have a long way to go.”
O’Haire and Lamont both describe their sites as being part of a process. Says Lamont, “It’s best to think of People of Craft as an MVP [minimal viable product]—we wanted to put it out into the world quickly. Right now, we’re brainstorming ways to improve it.” O’Haire puts it this way: “Awareness is always the first step, and I think most companies are aware of the issue and want to do something about it. It’s just that they may not have a robust toolkit to improve their hiring practices. Sites like ours can be one piece of their toolkit. The first goal was to elevate the profiles of amazing designers who normally get overlooked, and we’re doing just that. The next goal is to help people diversify their feeds and their teams. Those are larger ships to turn, but we’re definitely seeing traction there as well.”
Lee also emphasizes the need for hiring managers to step in and make necessary changes, but their outlook on the role played by the directories is sanguine: “It is no secret that the field of illustration was historically dominated by straight White men. That’s why the very existence of these directories is so vital and important: it is creating waves in the industry. [In] such an uncertain political climate, it is beyond beautiful to see these directories getting attention and visibility. From my point of view, just being a part of the community that supports each other is impactful in itself. I know that art directors are encouraged now, more than ever, to include inclusivity in their hiring practices. Now it’s up to them to follow through.” ca
Spotlights On Talent
Here is just a handful of the online directories featuring talented designers, illustrators and photographers.
Blacks Who Design
Latinxs Who Design
People of Craft
28 Days of Black Designers
28 Days of the Web
Women Talk Design
Women Who Design
Women Who Draw