With the creative industries as a whole receiving a much-needed wake-up call on the lack of representation at multiple levels, designers and design professionals have been incited to question how they have been complicit in perpetuating the status quo and what they can now do to change it.
Mitzi Okou, an interaction and visual designer at HP, is the force behind ‘Where are the Black Designers’, an initiative that seeks to provide a platform to creatives of colour by addressing that rhetorical question. Inspired by Cheryl D. Miller’s article for Print Magazine ‘Black Designers Missing in Action’ from 1987 and Maurice Cherry’s presentation at the 2015 edition of SXSW, titled ‘Where are the Black Designers’, Okou’s platform, which she co-founded with her former schoolmate, graphic designer Garrett Albury and launched at the beginning of June, has already galvanized the design community through its popular Instagram channel and 23,000 followers. It is also set to tackle the conversation head on with its first virtual conference, taking place this weekend on 27 June.
Okou, 25, who graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design with a degree in graphic design and a minor in interaction design, says, ‘Originally Garrett and I wanted to do this same theme at our educational institution because [we] felt that there weren’t that many black creatives at our school. It’s funny because the location of our campus was in this predominantly black neighbourhood. We tried [to] and failed, but we came back together after what’s been happening now with George Floyd. There was work being done out on the streets and at the federal and governmental level, but I felt that work had to be done in the digital space.’
Where are the Black Designers announced its conference alongside the launch of a poster campaign, inviting designers (both professional and amateur) to create a poster design plugging the event. ‘We want the community’s voices to be heard. We need to listen to black voices. Some people are bringing up concerns to us and we want to address them and make them feel like this is a safe space where they can come to,’ says Okou, who has pledged to publish all submitted designs on Instagram, of which there have been over 650 to date. ‘We really want to make this brand a communal brand. Garrett and I chose the font and colours and that’s it. We want everyone to come and showcase their work because this is really a community thing.’
The conference, which Okou and Albury expected to bring in a couple hundred attendees and mostly friends of friends, has now multiplied into over 11,000 RSVPs from all over the world. The five-hour event will feature a design education panel that addresses how disruption of that space can happen with the help of designers, a spotlight section where different voices and stories addressing experiences and perceptions will be highlighted, a panel on allyship as well as an interview with IDEO’s CEO Sandy Speicher who will share the firm’s journey and address their failings in a bid to help other agencies and studios learn from their experience. The event concludes with a dialogue that addresses the bigger picture by inviting figures from institutions across the United States discuss what they want the future of design in terms of diversity to look like.
Although there will be a capacity limit to attend the conference via Zoom, the event will be streamed live on Youtube and will also be recorded for those who can’t watch in real time. Audience members will be able to participate via a Slack channel and pose questions to panelists for discussion.
‘We’re trying to make this as inclusive as possible, so that even if you’re not in the Zoom room, you still feel like you’re there participating,’ Okou says, while sharing that the platform’s newfound network has made it possible to accommodate such large attendance. ‘This is as many eyes that design has ever gotten in terms of diversity, so I think it’s really huge and monumental for everybody.’
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Pei-Ru Keh is the US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru has held various titles at Wallpaper* since she joined in 2007. She currently reports on design, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru has taken a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars and actively seeks out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.
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