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Historically, the graphic design industry has included few people of color. In 1965, in the wake of the Watts riots, one designer decided to do something about that. Bill Tara, an illustrator and contributor to Communication Arts, started the Tutor/Art program. Working with inner-city high school students in Los Angeles, Tara helped them build their portfolios so they could apply for art school scholarships.

Students coming out of the Tutor/Art program achieved a phenomenal track record of receiving scholarships. Richard and Jean Coyne, the cofounders of Communication Arts, were so impressed with the results that after Tara died, they decided to create a foundation to carry on his work.

Twenty-nine years later, the Richard and Jean Coyne Family Foundation supports seventeen nonprofit programs across the country working with underrepresented youth. Grants range from $20,000 to $50,000 a year and are disbursed to organizations including AIGA, ArtCenter College of Design, Cooper Union and Massachusetts College of Art and Design, as well as smaller community organizations such as Project Osmosis in Chicago and Inneract Project in San Francisco.

Jean Coyne and Patrick Coyne, Richard and Jean’s son, administer the foundation’s giving. As he explains, “While we do fund scholarships and mentoring programs at the college and university level, we like to distribute money directly to organizations where one or two people in their community looked around and said, ‘We need to make a difference.’ We want the money to go directly to the people who are passionate about mentoring their own local kids. That’s where we make the impact.” His goals haven’t wavered much from Tara’s original aim: provide an introduction to graphic arts, illustration and photography (and now, digital media) so talented students of color can develop skills, build portfolios, win scholarships and enter the visual communications industry as professionals capable of earning a living.

In Seattle, the AIGA Link Program has done more than ten outdoor murals around the city. This mural at Seattle Canine Club (left) was designed and led by San Francisco–based artist Chelsea Wong, a former Link student and the daughter of Link founder Paula Wong. In Philadelphia, students in a University of the Arts Summer Institute photography course (right) learn about natural light and portraiture through an in-class shoot. Steve Belkowitz, photographer.

For students of color from immigrant families or low-income backgrounds, there may be a lack of knowledge of graphic design as a viable profession. So Vernon Lockhart, a graphic designer and executive director of Project Osmosis in Chicago, makes sure designers of color show up and represent. “Osmosis is like a book mobile for design,” he says. “We visit schools and get kids to look around their classrooms. We ask, ‘How did the lights get here? Why does the furniture look like that?’ The answer is, ‘They had to be designed.’ The lights, the furniture, the shoes the kids wear. Those were designed by people: lighting designer, furniture designer, fashion designer. Project Osmosis exposes students to the path of a designer and what they do.”

Project Osmosis runs Design Explorers programs that pair high school students with mentors in different design disciplines; conducts a ten-week business incubator for students; hosts a citywide design competition; and holds a two-day Design Youth Forum in connection with the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Design and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. One hundred twenty students from across the city participate. “More than 50 designers of color are working in the [design] profession because of Project Osmosis,” Lockhart says. “We would not have done what we’ve been able to do without the foundation’s support.”

The Worldstudio Foundation launched in 1993. As cofounder Mark Randall recalls, “The issues we wanted to address then have not changed. If anything, they’ve gotten worse than ever. We never see other cultures expressed in a white, Eurocentric view of design. We live in a multicultural society. To be truly reflective of what we are as a culture, we need to be inclusive of all kinds of creative viewpoints.”

The San Francisco Bay Area’s Inneract Project (IP)
“empowers underrepresented youth through design
education and links them to opportunities to explore
design in career and life.” Teachers and students at
IP’s Mobile App Bootcamp at Facebook. 

With support from donors including the Coyne Family Foundation, Worldstudio Foundation offers need-based scholarships for college students from the first year through the graduate level. With each scholarship awarded, Randall looks for talent, minority status and the student’s desire to use design as a tool for positive social change. Since 1995, Worldstudio Foundation has offered around fifteen to twenty scholarships a year, and began collaborating with AIGA in 2005 to execute the program. Cumulatively, more than a million dollars has been awarded to over 700 students. Some of those students have gone on to work at Pentagram, teach at Parsons School of Design and exhibit artwork at the Whitney Biennial.

In Seattle, the AIGA Link Program works with 30 students a year, conducting classes with high school juniors and seniors at twelve schools throughout the Seattle area, offering portfolio workshops and awarding scholarships. As Terry Marks, one of the Link Program coordinators, says, “Our great hope is to work with kids who may not know that college could be in their future.” Reviewing the application essays is eye-opening, Marks says. “There are kids who were withdrawn, locked-in, suicidal, retching in the bathroom, who write, ‘This program has given me a rung up the ladder to normalcy.’”

The Link Program earmarks $25,000 from the Coyne Family Foundation to award five students a year with scholarships. “This kind of amazing, selfless giving needs to be talked about more,” Marks says. “The Coyne Family Foundation has allowed us to impact at least 30 students a year since 1994. That’s a significant number of lives.”

Maurice Woods, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Inneract Project, sees the case for diversity in the design industry as the “universal question” his organization is trying to solve. “There are not enough designers of color behind the wheel to represent our culture. We need a true representation—one that’s more accurate,” Woods says.

The San Francisco Bay Area’s Inneract Project (IP) “empowers underrepresented youth through design education and links them to opportunities to explore design in career and life.” Left: Students design wallets out of paper at IP’s Youth Design Academy 1, Oakland location. Middle: Students get help on a design exercise during IP’s Youth Design Academy 1, San Francisco location. Right: Students get assistance on a design exercise that deals with developing a built environment. 

Working with African American, Latino, and Asian students in middle school, high school and beyond, Inneract Project aims to “empower young people of color to envision their future through design,” Woods says. The Coyne Family Foundation helps underwrite the free programs at Inneract Project, including a youth design academy, design boot camps, classes and workshops, as well as studio and museum tours. “Ultimately, we are trying to get kids of color to own their culture and the way that culture is represented,” Woods says. “Design is a conduit to all the things we interact with every day. There’s no better profession than design to promote diversity of thought in the world.”

“Most of our students weren’t even born when the Coynes started supporting ArtCenter for Teens and ArtCenter at Night,” says Darryl Mori, senior director, Foundation and Government Relations at ArtCenter College of Design. Over 24 years, the Coyne Family Foundation has given scholarships to ArtCenter so low-income students with the potential to pursue a college education can afford it. “Art schools are inherently expensive,” Mori explains. “High student/teacher ratios and equipment costs make it an expensive educational model. The scholarships are crucial to leveling the playing field. Cumulatively, Coyne Family Foundation contributions have added up to over a million dollars. That’s a lot of people who have been affected by the Coyne Family Foundation’s generosity.”

If there’s a single thread that ties together the philosophy of giving at the Coyne Family Foundation, it is its sustained support and personal involvement in the mission. Erin Elman, director of the Pre-College and Outreach Programs and dean of the College of Critical & Professional Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, says, “I still have all the typewritten letters from Jean Coyne. There’s an authenticity to the way they manage their funding. They do it for all the right reasons, not to have their names on a plaque on the wall.” Since 1990, the Coyne Family Foundation has made possible scholarships for 286 high schoolers taking first year–level courses at the University of the Arts’ Summer Institute and Saturday School.

Project Osmosis student photographer Connor Fenwick took both of these images at the 2018 Osmosis Design Youth Forum, held at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Design. A student (left) works with design teacher volunteer Gregory Stapleton and Osmosis instructor Cyaira Adams; another (right) works on a graphic design project. Connor Fenwick, photographer.

Twenty-nine years after the Coyne Family Foundation began, demographics of minorities in the field have improved, but by woefully small amounts; in 2017, the second annual Design Consen
sus by AIGA and Google reported that only 8.1 percent of the more than 13,000 designers surveyed were Hispanic, 10.4 percent were Asian and 3.4 percent were African American. “Everyone says we need more diversity,” Patrick Coyne says. “But I’m not seeing action. We need new ideas, new faces, new viewpoints, new approaches and more new organizations to get involved.”

“The creative workforce does not represent the diversity of the general public. There is a disconnect there,” Coyne says. “Creative work is being produced from a single viewpoint, which creates a monocultural bias. I believe if we can get people from more diverse backgrounds into the industry, we’ll see breakthrough work—something new, exciting and original. Designers are creators and curators of culture. If we are all coming from the same, limited background, we’re missing a lot of opportunity.”

Looking toward the future, Coyne hopes to increase the foundation’s rate of support and build a network of mentoring organizations across the country so they can share best practices, leverage what’s working, discuss problems and find solutions. “Instead of doing this alone, let’s talk to similar organizations in other cities,” he says, “so we can build relationships, convince other institutions to get involved and create even more opportunities.” ca

Visit coynefamilyfoundation.org to learn more about the organizations the Coyne Family Foundation proudly supports.

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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