You’ve seen the rainbow-colored people. They are blue, green and purple, with abstract, uniform bodies and faces. They idle within the apps of large tech corporations and smile at viewers from short films. They are part of a trend in illustration and motion design that has less to do with a specific artistic aesthetic, like Memphis design or at illustration, and more to do with the issue of representation.
But if a character’s limbs are exaggerated, does that avoid the body type conversation altogether? If everyone’s faces are the same, does that signal inclusivity without actually showing it? And if someone’s skin is colored in red rather than a more realistic skin tone, is that designing our way around diversity?
To better understand this issue, those of us here at BIEN, an animation and motion graphics studio based in Los Angeles, California, asked ten freelance designers, illustrators and animators from around the world about their experiences. We wanted the perspective of the people in the trenches, doing the hard work of actually making things every day with a variety of studios. We’ve worked with many of these creators on various projects, but have never had deep discussions on diversity and inclusion with them. What we learned was pretty fascinating.
Do you think drawing people with the same features and switching out natural skin tones for wild colors, like green and pink, are cop-outs to avoid dealing with diversity issues?
Monique Wray, director, illustrator, animator, San Francisco, CA
I do think there are a lot of companies doing this intentionally in an attempt to shy away from the conversation and some who, frankly, are ignorant of the fact. Though, it does seem that different industries handle this differently. I find work in editorial to be more open to more-accurate depictions of people of color than tech, for example, where you’ll find a lot of the same features and uniformity across characters. I think this has to do with who is commissioning these works and who’s being hired to execute.
Sam Bass, art director, animator, Atlanta, GA
The benefit of having characters in the “Mr. Potato Head” style is things are easily managed. If you make one walk cycle, the rest are all pretty much done with minor tweaks and color changes. This makes it easier to work on small budgets and tight turnarounds, but makes diversity seem like something expensive and time consuming. Which it shouldn’t.
Jackie Lay, designer, illustrator, animator, Washington, DC
I don’t think it’s a cop-out. I did one video about the African author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie where I initially portrayed her with purple skin, and I was excited by the color palette I had chosen of purples, oranges and yellows. My boss wasn’t sure if it was offensive or not to make her purple, and we had a long discussion about creative license, and I eventually asked my coworker, the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates—who writes extensively on race issues—for his thoughts, and he ended the argument for us by simply saying, “It’s fine.”
Jordan Lyle, designer, creative director, Los Angeles, CA
Wild colors are one way of representing a “diverse” cast of characters, but it is more just an illusion of diversity than how it exists in real life. It puts all the onus on the viewer to find themselves or a version of their image in the abstract colors and hairstyles and body types of characters as opposed to taking on the responsibility of deciding on which combination of skin tones and body types is appropriately representative enough. There will always be creative limitations set by brands and production processes, so, in some ways, it’s the best compromise, but not necessarily a solution.
I-Nu Yeh, art director, illustrator, Brooklyn, NY
At the end of the day, any project which is public facing must deal with the challenge of any groups of people feeling excluded. Sometimes the easiest way to create an inclusive project is by designing characters that don’t leave anyone out, even at the cost of being unrealistic and nonpersonified to the customer. Most clients are aiming for a campaign that is pleasing to everybody, so it is a viable solution, even if it can be a cop-out at times.
Are you ever afraid of portraying people in a way that could be offensive (button nose vs. aquiline, round eyes vs. almond, skinny vs. stocky)?
Wray: Never. For me, I’d be afraid to not make these distinctions in characters. I think there’s negativity in not wanting to show these varieties of features that make us all different and are identifiable elements. It suggests that these differences are wrong or bad. Eliminating them creates a negative connotation.
Margaret To, art director, designer, animator, Los Angeles, CA
No, but I think about the context I’m putting these characters in. For example, if I’m designing characters representing certain careers, I make sure they are also age-, gender-, ethnically- and culturally-diverse. Or, making sure women are equally represented in leadership and positions of power in a story.
Reece Parker, director, illustrator, cel animator, Seattle, WA
Yes! I think it is difficult. Just from a technical perspective, it’s not always easy to get correct attributes in a simplified form. But that’s more of a challenge than it is a prohibitor, and challenges keep it fun. I would hope to never offend with
As an artist creating the work, how much say do you have when portraying people a certain way? Have you received creative instructions to draw people as uniformly as possible or extremely exaggerated as a way to be ethnically agnostic?
Wray: I draw women in a specific style, sometimes very curvy, and once was told by a colleague that another woman at our company told him I should consider not drawing my women so curvy. In her mind, it was reestablishing negative ideals of how women should be shaped. Unbeknownst to her, I grew up with women shaped like this, and it’s part of the reason why I include these body types in my work. Imagine being told that depicting the body types of women you know to exist is perpetuating a negative ideal. I’m hopeful that continuing to represent these women in my work will normalize them.
To: Once I was working on a project that required the designing of senior characters. I actually received feedback from the client to include more diverse facial features. I realized that sometimes I don’t have the full perspective of portraying people in a certain demographic, and took it as a lesson to be more mindful of my own personal biases. In the future, I will do more research to represent people more accurately and authentically.
Lyle: I have taken it up as a personal duty—admittedly quite biased—to include and champion images of dark-skinned people whenever possible as hero imagery in my work. Representation matters, especially for people of color to see themselves and be seen in nicely designed things.
What has been your own experience with clients regarding diversity and inclusion?
Sianey Montes de Oca, art director, designer, animator, Los Angeles, CA
Diversity and inclusion was never brought up in any studio I’ve worked for, except one. It was a project for Lifetime network where the target audience was middle-aged women. The team was all women who could design and animate. There was also a studio in New York City that ‘used’ me to win an account for Telemundo. I fit the demographic. They asked me to come to a pitch meeting, and they promised that if they won the account, they would hire me to work on it. Which they never did!
Yeh: I think only 5 percent of clients care about diversity, such as Universal Channel (Latino). Most clients want trendy styles and colors.
Bass: I have had my fair share of projects that were noninclusive. One was a pitch for a luxury car company. Because photography was the most compelling way to show a customer how they could look and feel if they bought into this brand, I looked through their website to find some photos to help sell my ideas. It was almost impossible to find photos of people on their site who weren’t White. Being a Black man, it was a bit uncomfortable working on the pitch knowing that someone who looked like me wasn’t included in what this brand thought of as its clientele.
Brittain Peck, illustrator, storyboard artist, animator, Raleigh, NC
I am thankful to work with creative partners who seek to create work that is diverse and inclusive. However, I can look back at numerous experiences where clients expressed preference for characters to be portrayed as more “normal,” “less ethnic,” lighter or, just simply put, as “White.”
Live-action commercials and films have become more inclusive in the past few years. Why hasn’t that translated into illustration and motion design yet?
To: People design characters and create stories they are familiar with. So if the designers and decision-makers themselves are not diverse, then, naturally, what we see on screen would be limited to a certain perspective.
Lyle: Film has become more inclusive over the last few years, particularly because the players involved are real people who have taken specific actions to speak up about their own inclusion—not only on-screen, but overall for film productions to have diverse production crews. No one is immediately economically disadvantaged or put out of work by decisions to have or not have diverse illustrations represented in campaigns because illustration ability is independent of most factors of diversity. As it pertains to illustrated artwork, there are attempts to make illustration inclusive, but it still falls lazily into pockets of just needing to show characters as different from each other than to accurately represent real people and abilities in order to be “inclusive.”
Salvador Pedilla, illustrator, cel animator, Mexico City, Mexico
I think it has. It’s just going at a slower pace. It probably has to do with the fact that they are drawings—they may be orange, purple or green. They are so obviously not real people that maybe the need to portray diversity doesn’t feel as urgent.
Parker: I don’t know that I would argue it hasn’t, and I don’t know that it has to follow live action and its trends. Characters can be fun and quirky, animals and monsters, circles and squares! Why limit it to only what we see in the real world; that’s more boring than anything, I think. That being said, if the piece is real-world character-driven and is not being inclusive at all in its physical portrayals or even in its attributes and actions, I would be disappointed in 2020.
When illustrating people, what can we do to be more inclusive and authentic?
Wray: Consider all people, ethnicities and genders in an authentic way. Pull up photo references of people of color and make an effort to create a visual that reads as that race. Clients and studios should hire more POC illustrators.
Peck: Many times, we create characters that could just as easily be non-White, with no impact on the story or message, yet we choose by default to make them White. We should take more of these opportunities to challenge ourselves away from this default and find how easy it is to imagine a world where “White” is not “normal.”
To: I’m always aware of portraying women in leadership, power and “unconventional” jobs. As illustrators, I think that doing research, sharing our work and getting critiques from people of diverse backgrounds can help us create more authentic representations. Promoting underrepresented artists and encouraging them to share their perspectives is crucial in reaching inclusive design.
Does inclusive motion design matter from a societal and/or business perspective?
Wray: Absolutely. From a business perspective, content that speaks to underrepresented demographics consistently does well—Black Panther, Insecure, Atlanta, Us, Parasite and “Hair Love”—and everyone enjoys this work. I think people as a whole are now more than ever interested in content that is reflective of all people. From a societal perspective, we all deserve to see ourselves represented in content, whether illustrated, animated or live action.
Bass: One hundred percent yes. Seeing content that I relate to makes me more invested in what they’re selling me. Collaborating with people from different backgrounds makes the work stronger. Also, having minorities in positions to make impactful decisions embeds a unique perspective in the work. Building a team of diversity after the ideas have been solidified doesn’t result in an inclusive product.
Padilla: We are at a moment when we can help to make diversity more “common.” So in the future, we don’t need to be so “conscious” about “including” everyone. We will simply draw. ca
Header illustration: © Carlos Alegría