The Challenges of Being a Black Designer in Corporate America
Being African-American in today’s modern workplace offers its own unique sets of challenges, especially if you are in the disciplines of graphic, web, UI/UX, or industrial design.
Some progress has been made over the years, but only 3 percent of the designers in the United States are black.
One reason is that many African Americans are not encouraged to go into design, and often are pushed by family, friends, or guidance counselors into the business or marketing world. Many urban schools have cut art classes for budgetary reasons and don’t computer labs with the Adobe Creative Cloud on the machines. The Adobe Creative Cloud suite of programs are all but a must in the design field, and even I can barely swing the nearly $60 a month subscription as an adult.
Big design firms like Frog or IDEO, or companies with huge product design departments like Apple and Google are not actively pursuing African American talent, nor are they going to HBCUs to try to recruit them.
I’ve only met a handful of black graphic designers in my lifetime. I worked with a great motion graphics/video designer and had one black art director at a freelance gig who used to work for Johnson Publishing Company (the makers of Ebony and the now-defunct, Jet Magazine)
One was a very nice black woman who lived in our neighborhood (we were one of a handful of black families). Back then, the term “commercial artist” was still being used and my dad arranged for me to meet her when I told him I wanted to major in graphic design, and she showed me her portfolio and her basement studio.
My first real graphic job was at a small marketing agency in Champaign, Illinois where I met our very nice black student intern, Angelique, who went on to be a marketing professional in her own right.
A few jokes about race came up. A white coworker of mine made fun of me for being black and gay and said he had been with more black women than I ever had. Of course, he had.
One of our clients was the owner of a local fast food/chicken restaurant came into the agency looking for a new ad campaign. We were sitting around pitching ideas to each other, then he says “you know who loves chicken?! CHINESE people! Why don’t we get a picture of a Chinese family around a big ole bucket of chicken?!”
My jaw hit the floor. I couldn’t say anything, so I just sat there, stunned looking at my other coworkers to see if they felt the same. I wondered what he would have said about black folks and fried chicken if I wasn’t in the room.
I left that job because of its low pay and unprofessional behavior, and two jobs later I worked for another marketing agency. It was larger with a higher caliber clientele like a local hospital and the maker of Bell Helmets.
I worked with a white South African guy and was uneasy about it at first. I had no idea how he felt about apartheid and other matters about race. It was my first time meeting anyone from South Africa before. At first couldn’t understand a word he said because his accent was so thick but turned out to be a really nice guy who gave me and a friend free tickets to see Destiny’s Child, who were just starting to be popular at the time.
An early assignment I had was doing a microsite for the hospital. They had a special program for low-income mothers teaching them basic child-raising skills. I had to pick a stock photo of a baby for the ad, so I deliberately chose a white baby. Whenever I have to use stock photography I usually try to go with people of color first, but I wanted to test the waters. The client made me change it to a black baby.
Another project I worked on there was on a website for at-risk black girls sponsored by the same hospital that addressed their physical and mental health concerns.
There were a couple of web designers at the agency, but they chose me to do it. I got to meet with the girls in the recording studio, and see how it was all produced, which was really fascinating to me since I am interested in music and digital recording.
When the dot com bubble burst in 2000, most of the agencies in the Champaign-Urbana area got into financial trouble and started laying off people in 2001. I was the last hired, so I was on the chopping block. However, unlike my other coworkers, I had a special provision in my severance to finish the project on a freelance basis.
Normally when a person is laid off or quit, someone else finishes the project. I had a suspicion they had me keep working on it because I was black, and had a relationship with the client.
My next major job was in Chicago for a division of The Tribune Corporation, the first and last Fortune 500 company I ever worked for. It was the most ethnically diverse place I’d worked at up to that date, and so was our team. We had a Chinese American and a Mexican American graphic designer, along with a black project manager and a Jewish copywriter.
We all got along really well, became friends, and would often hang out after work and going to lunch together, and we shared a lot of the same liberal political ideas, but there were still a few awkward interactions.
The Friday before MLK Jr. day (we had to work that Monday) my art director asked if I was taking the day off. I said, “No, why would I?”
She became very flustered, turned red, and said “Oh well, um, Sarah (my other supervisor who was white) is, and I thought you might be also..”
“Nope!” I said nonchalantly, and the conversation ended very abruptly.
After a stint of being an expat in Croatia, I got a job with the marketing department at the Follett Higher Education Group in the Chicago suburbs. It was the funnest job I ever had, and I joked our department of 12 was like an ad for United Colors of Benetton .
There was one difficult black woman I worked who told me “If I was talking to you over the phone, I would think you were a stuck up white boy”. It’s very annoying when a fellow black person says that you are “talking/acting white”. You get the “you are very articulate” comments enough from white folks.
The company used to celebrate Black History Month, then they turned it into diversity week, trying to celebrate everyone’s ethnic background, then they stopped it entirely. I figured out someone must have complained to HR about it.
One of the most annoying things that would happen was when I would get called my black boss’ name. We looked NOTHING alike, except we both wore glasses. Different height, skin tone, build, voice, personality. We jokingly referred to the famous Saturday Night Live skit with Queen Latifah about Excedrin, Racial Tension Headache which referenced the same phenomenon.
We had casual Fridays, so one day I wore a hoodie to work. My friend and I were supposed to go to lunch, but I couldn’t find her in the parking lot. I spotted her car and began to approach it. She told me she thought I was a homeless man at first. I still tease her mercilessly to this day about it.
After getting laid off from that job (I sure know how to pick them) I worked freelance at a small online stock trading company. I had a terrific black female coworker who went on to be my life and career coach but also had an annoying white boss who was always re-designing my work while constantly showing off his knowledge of the history of hip hop music. As an electronic musician myself who knows a lot about synthesizers, drum machines, samplers, breakbeats, and watching hour after hour of “Yo MTV Raps” as a kid in the 80s and 90s, I did not appreciate the genre being whitesplained to me.
We all have biases, and all designers bring their biases and life experiences with them to their work. So when only 3 percent of the designers in the United States are black, and working for tech companies that mostly owned by white or Asian men, you don’t get a lot of diverse input on how these products, apps, and websites are designed.
Recently Google’s black head of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team was fired after a leaked email about the ethical problems with Google’s AI systems. She also wrote a critical paper on racial bias in face recognition software.
Earlier in the year, it was revealed that diversity and inclusion programs had been cut at Google in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with conservatives, though Google says otherwise.
As an aspiring UI/UX designer, my curriculum keeps on driving home the point of having empathy for the people you design for. It’s why more and more companies are seeing the value in doing user research and usability testing of apps, websites, and new software. You can’t design products that people will want and actually use (I’m looking at you Google Glass and Google+) if you don’t study people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors across cultural, color, gender, sexuality, and levels of disability.
After the turbulent summer of 2020 after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, there seems to be some sort of movement on focusing on diversity and hiring in design and big tech, but I wonder if it’s just a trendy fad, and as time goes on, things will return to how it always was in Silicone Valley.
Angelique, the woman who was our intern/receptionist at my first job had a very different experience than me at as a student at the University of Illinois and the jobs she got afterwards.
I could fill a novel with stories about racism in the workplace, ranging from every day microaggressions (like a VP at my PR firm only speaking to me in rap lyrics for the first few months I worked there) to outright racism (my last boss, who was a Hillary Clinton-loving liberal, made a “joke” about being able to see my pearly white teeth in the dark). And then put me being a lesbian on top of it (I had to school a coworker on calling a trans person “it” // I had a boss who said I could get promoted if he could sleep with my girlfriend or watch me do it). Then add being a woman in general (a VP of another company told me if he ever got a shot with dating me he’d make sure I couldn’t walk for a week // having men repeat whatever ideas I’ve just said as their own and everyone embracing it, etc.). You’ve been lucky — most Black folks I know have not