In 1984, Cheryl D. Miller established one of the first black women-owned design firms in New York City, Cheryl D. Miller Design Inc., whose Fortune 500 clients including BET, Chase, American Express, Time Incorporated , Sports Illustrated, Philip Morris, and McDonald’s.
Then, in 1987, she wrote “Black Designers: Missing in Action” for Print magazine, a powerful article that still resonates today. He also established Miller as a leading advocate for racial, cultural and gender equity in the graphic design industry.
She continues her frank critique of an industry that marginalizes black talent. Last year, in her last follow-up to her 1987 article, she wrote “Black Designers: Forward in Action (Part IV)”, writes:
“The Helvetica grid, aligned to the left and ragged to the right, with white space all around the page, was the appearance of the oppressor. If you were a black designer at the time and wanted to be employed by one of the established elite studios, well, good luck. The Swiss Grid system and Helvetica were the design gospel of the white man.
Miller is currently a Distinguished Lecturer in the School of Design and Creative Technologies at the University of Texas. She has held faculty positions at Howard University, Lesley College, and the Maryland Institute College of Art. In 2018, Stanford University acquired the vast archives of his personal and professional work.
This year, the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) awarded Miller the AIGA Medal for “his disproportionate influence within the profession in ending the marginalization of BIPOC designers through his civil rights activism, writing presentations on the industry, rigor of research and archival vision ”. And in September, she received the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. Miller is the only person in history to receive both industry awards in the same year.
Miller responded to questions via email.
Sight lines: How is white supremacy manifested in graphic design?
Cheryl D. Miller: It manifests itself in several ways. In my AIGA “White Default” talk, I show an example of a 1959 Barbie. Mattel threw her and she was 5’9, 125 pounds with a blonde ponytail. All the girls wanted Barbie. Here is an example of only seeing the dominant culture. If you wanted Barbie, Barbie was white. There was no respect for anyone else. In graphic design practice, this magnet of seeing only the dominant culture prevails – it still does. This is why diversity in design and trends in diversity, equity and inclusion (DCI) are declining. The white defect is the opposite of full respect for the population palette.
There was a lot of surveillance. We see it in products and services. We still see it in the educational process. This is why there is so much decolonization and decentering of whiteness and tales of stories other than the predominantly white Eurocentric perspective that forms the basic canon of graphic design. It suffocated us with other thoughts, and in American companies, only international typeface and design thinking strategies… all of those things that are common in our pedagogy are nothing else. Is there another visual dialogue?
So we see it in the educational process, and it has a lot to do with the pool of teachers. It has everything to do with the history books that have been written, which really all have a Eurocentric, white, predominantly male point of view.
One of my critical footnotes is that our core sacred book that guides us all is Megg’s 6th edition of ‘The History of Graphic Design’. I had it analyzed for my writing – out of a group of 594 designers, 62 are women, 80 are people of color and only three are black.
It all comes down to this: the white man writes history and teaches history.
In the beginning, the strategy was to suppress the advancement of the black designer. The Jim Crow Law sought to marginalize African Americans and subject them to whites. Whites over Blacks – it was a law until 1964. And a lot of that culture is still in our practice, especially if you have white males writing history, teaching and selling and no one else. .
Alright, I just explained to you why, so my question will always be, are you going to repeat the story or do something about it? What can you do about it?
S: How can we dismantle white supremacy in graphic design, when its application is often for multinational companies ultimately focused on the bottom line, not on equity or the common good?
SDM: Twitter and Instagram.
It begins in early childhood. It starts where you train. It comes from the second year teacher.
You are trained in this elitism of exclusivity coming from the second year teacher who himself was trained with it. So there is the cycle: this is how we are, this is how we have always been, and I teach it. You grow up, you turn around and you do the same thing again. And we have decades of it. So the first part is to change the second year teacher and just change and decolonize the content that comes out of the mouth of the second year teacher.
So I’m after the second year teacher because everyone goes through first year foundations. Then you claim your discipline and your interest, and this is where you begin the study of graphic design. Whoever starts teaching you repeats a cycle, and the only way to break it is at the start of training.
And I’m not joking with Twitter. Within a company, within a movement, we must continue to support. You just have to press: “Did you see that?” “Did you do that?” “Why do you do that?” “We are not buying.” “We boycott until you change. “
Netflix has a Dave Chappelle special that the transgender community doesn’t like, and Netflix didn’t get it until the entire employee community went on strike. You must be passionate about change and advocacy. I’m not joking with Twitter. I do not.
S: What aesthetic possibilities does the decolonization of graphics open up?
SDM: The globe. The global visual perspective.
Everything can no longer be this one goal, so that every aesthetic can come to the table of global conversation.
African Design Matters is a whole group, you can find them on Instagram. As a collective, they have one goal: to professionalize the craftsmanship and aesthetics of Pan-African design. They are a very smart community to be reckoned with. They do a great job and that’s their goal, take the African palette and colors and other things that are part of nature, all the aesthetics and they do fonts and design and communication systems. .
S: Who are some of your favorite 20th century BIPOC designers who have not achieved their due or lasting historical recognition?
SDM: Dorothy E. Hayes was the Senior Curator of a very important exhibition of 49 designers Black Creatives to Know, its history and the collection. I can only tell you that we had a presence and due to the dominance of the industry we were never reported by trade publications. We were never at the table, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t there.
S: Do you have any aspiring BIPOC designers that you are looking at today?
SDM: Yes, and what I love about them is that they practice, teach and write. This is going to be my hallmark – those who write have my attention.
My favorite is Tré Seals. He carved out a way for himself as a character designer. He is the one who will be at that time.
I love Kaleena Sales and especially her work with Ellen Upton. Her work is exceptional and she is the president of design at Tennessee State.
Another of my favorites is Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton. She is a professor of design at the State of North Carolina. It has just been published in “Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History”. She is a teacher and a writer.
There are so many but these three are my favorites. There are so many who are doing a remarkable job.
S: Working with students probably means that you influence the practitioners who will transform the field of design. What have you learned from the current generation of future designers?
SDM: First of all, when you are at the start, you are open and hungry and you do not yet know this drama.
I don’t want to sway those who just walked in with the drama that many of us have been through, but I don’t want anyone to be naive either. When they encounter things, what they are going to do, they resist and push back. It is a generation that must be listened to. This is because the classroom is no longer all white. It’s a palette, and especially now that we’re hybrids and on Zoom, it’s a full palette of people from all over the world. You have to be able to take other points of view, and if they don’t see themselves in one way or another, they push back. They will not wait to be offended. They will take you down on Instagram. They will express their opinion in action.
The other thing: there is real raw storytelling. It is not pretty and wrapped up. Get out of the way, or they’ll pull you aside. I see it every day, and I tell you: do not resist. Try to understand them.
Before I go, one thing I love about UT’s design department is that they recognize this community and come to each other wholeheartedly and want to be part of a positive change. This is definitely the place to go if you are looking for design, diversity and inclusion. They do a great job and quickly. They see things and approach them. It’s one of the best places to be and God knows if it wasn’t I wouldn’t be there. I have experienced so much exclusion and I know when and where I am appreciated.