In 1984 Cheryl D. Miller established one of the first Black woman-owned design firms in New York, 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. It also established Miller as a prominent advocate on racial, cultural, and gender equity in the graphic design industry.
She continues her forthright criticism of an industry that marginalizes Black talent. Last year, in her latest follow-up to her 1987 article, she penned “Black Designers: Forward in Action (Part IV),” writing:
“The Helvetica, flush-left, rag-right grid bearing white space all around the page was the look of the oppressor. If you were a Black designer back in the day and you wanted to be employed by one of the established elite studios, well, good luck with that. The Swiss Grid system and Helvetica were the white male’s design gospel.”
Currently Miller is distinguished senior lecturer at the University of Texas School of Design and Creative Technologies. She has held faculty positions at Howard University, Lesley College and the Maryland Institute College of Art. In 2018, Stanford University acquired the extensive archive of her personal and professional work.
This year the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) awarded Miller the AIGA Medal for “her outsized influence within the profession to end the marginalization of BIPOC designers through her civil rights activism, industry exposé writing, research rigor, 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 answered questions by email.
Sightlines: How does white supremacy manifest in graphic design?
Cheryl D. Miller: It manifests itself in a couple of ways. In my AIGA “White Default” lecture, I show an example of 1959 Barbie. Mattel launched her and she was 5’9, 125 lbs with a blonde ponytail. Every girl wanted Barbie. Here is an example of only seeing the dominant culture. If you wanted Barbie, Barbie was white. There was no regard for anyone else. In Graphic Design practice, this magnet to only see the dominant culture prevails — it still does. That’s why diversity in design and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) trends are pushing back. White default is the opposite of full regard for the palette of population.
There has been a lot of oversight. We see it in products and services. We still see it in the educational process. That’s why there’s so much decolonizing and decentering whiteness and telling stories other than the Eurocentric, white-dominant perspective that makes up the basic graphic design canon. It has suffocated us from other thinking, and in corporate America, only the international typeface and design thinking strategies… all these things that are current in our pedagogy don’t regard anything else. Is there any other visual dialog?
So we see it in the educational process, and that has a lot to do with the professorial pool. It has everything to do with the history books that have been written, which really all have a Eurocentric, white, male-dominant viewpoint.
One of my critical footnotes is that our basic sacred book that guides us all is Megg’s 6th edition of the “History of Graphic Design.” I’ve had it analyzed for my writings — out of a pool of 594 designers, 62 are women, 80 are people of color, and only three are Black.
It all boils down to this: the white male is writing the history and teaching the history.
Early on, the strategy was to suppress the advancement of the Black designer. Jim Crow law sought to marginalize the African American and subjugate them to the white. 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 men writing the history and teaching and selling and nobody else.
All right I just gave you why this is, and so my question is always going to be: are you going to repeat the history 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 corporations ultimately focused on the bottom line, not on equity or the common good?
CDM: Twitter and Instagram.
It starts at toddlerhood. It starts where you train. It comes from the sophomore professor.
You’re trained into this exclusivity elitism coming from the sophomore professor who themselves have been trained with it. So, there’s the cycle: this is the way we are, this is the way we’ve always been, and I’m teaching it. You grow up, turn around, and do the same thing all over again. And we’ve got decades of that. So, part one is to change the sophomore professor and just change and decolonize the content that’s coming out of the sophomore professor’s mouth.
So I’m after the sophomore professor because everybody goes through freshmen foundations. Then you claim your discipline and your interest, and that’s where you begin the study of graphic design. Whoever begins to teach you is repeating a cycle, and the only way to break it is at the beginning of training.
And I jest not with Twitter. Within a corporation, within a movement, you’ve got to keep pressing. You just have to keep pressing: “Did you see that?” “Did you do that?” “Why did you do that?” “We’re not buying.” “We’re boycotting until you change.”
Netflix has a Dave Chappelle special that the transgender community doesn’t like, and Netflix didn’t get it until the whole community of employees went on strike out front. You have to be passionate about change and advocacy. I jest not with Twitter. I don’t.
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S: What aesthetic possibilities does decolonizing graphic design open up?
CDM: The globe. The global visual perspective.
Everything no longer can be this one lens, so every aesthetic can come to the table of the global conversation.
African Design Matters is a whole group, you can find them on Instagram. They, as a collective, have one goal: to professionalize the craft and aesthetic of Pan African design. They are a very astute community to reckon with. They make beautiful work and that’s their goal, to take the African palette and colorings and other things that are part of nature, the whole aesthetic and they’re making typefaces and design and communication systems.
S: Who are some of your favorite BIPOC designers from the 20th century that did not get their due or lasting historical recognition?
CDM: Dorothy E. Hayes was the main curator of a very important exhibition of 49 Black Creatives to Know designers and her story and the collection. I can only tell you we’ve had a presence and because of the dominance of the industry, we were never reported on by trade publications. We were never at the table, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t there.
S: Do you have some rising BIPOC designers today you’re watching?
CDM: Yes, and what I like about them is they’re practicing, they’re teaching, and they’re writing. That’s going to be my distinguishing mark – the ones who are writing have my attention.
My favorite is Tré Seals. He’s carved out a lane as a type designer. He’s one that will be at this a while.
I love Kaleena Sales and especially her work with Ellen Upton. Her work is outstanding and she’s the chair of design at Tennessee State.
Another one of my favorites is Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton. She is a professor of design at North Carolina State. She was just published in “Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History.” She’s a professor and a writer.
There are so many but these three are my favorite. There are so many doing outstanding work.
S: Working with students likely means that you’re influencing the practitioners that will go on to transform the field of design. What have you learned from today’s generation of upcoming designers?
CDM: First off, when you’re at the beginning of this, you’re open and hungry and you don’t yet know this drama.
I don’t want to influence those who are just entering with the drama that many of us have faced, but I don’t want anyone to be naïve either. When they run into things, which they will, they are resisting and pushing back. This is a generation that must be listened to. That’s because the classroom isn’t all white anymore. It’s a palette, and especially now that we’re hybrid and on Zoom, it’s a full palette of people from around the world. You’ve got to be able to put in some other viewpoints, and if they don’t see themselves in some kind of way, they’re pushing back. They’re not going to wait to be offended. They’ll take you down on Instagram. They’re going to voice their opinion to action.
The other thing: there is some real, raw storytelling. It’s not pretty and wrapped up. Get out of the way, or they’ll take you out of the way. I see this every day, and I’m telling you: don’t resist. Try to understand them.
Before I go, one thing I’m loving about UT’s Department of Design is that they are recognizing this community and wholeheartedly addressing and wanting to be part of positive change. It’s really the place to be if you’re looking for design, diversity and inclusion. They’re doing a great job and quickly. They see things and address them. It’s one of the best places to be and God knows if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be there. I’ve experienced so much exclusion and I know when and where I’m appreciated.