|From left: Matthew Septimus; Darren Cox; Kevin Kunstadt & Andrew Kenney|
LONDON — One night at design school in London, Eddie Opara was working late with a friend, Kojo Boateng. “A friend of ours came in and was like: ‘Why are you still here?”’ he recalled. “Kojo said: ‘It’s because we’re black. We have to work harder than you.’ I don’t know if it was true, but that was how we felt.”
Twenty years later, Mr. Opara is a partner of Pentagram, the prestigious design group in New York, and Mr. Boateng is design director of ITN, the television news network in London. They have joined the elite band of successful black designers in Europe and North America, which includes Gail Anderson in graphics, Joshua Darden in typography and the furniture designer Stephen Burks.
Yet such successes are still relatively rare. Women have long complained that design has been a “man’s world,” but white man’s world would be more accurate. “There are more black designers coming up now,” Mr. Opara said. “But it is disappointing that there aren’t more of us.”
It is, though design has come a long way since Charles Harrison first tried to join the design team at Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago in 1956. A manager told him that there was an unwritten policy against employing black people. Sears eventually hired him in 1961, and he worked there for 32 years, becoming chief designer and developing more than 600 products, many of them best sellers.
But designers of color, even those as accomplished as Mr. Harrison, were largely ignored by the design establishment until fairly recently. Historically, design has had difficulty with diversity. Culturally, it was dominated by European Modernism throughout the 20th century, when its values shaped industrial design worldwide, even in North America. Economically, design was defined by standardization, and the need to exploit economies of scale by making huge quantities of the same things.
Design is becoming more eclectic, but surprisingly slowly in some respects. Digital technology has eroded the economic benefits of standardization. And design increasingly reflects the cultural diversity both of its established Western markets and expanding ones in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where a new generation of designers is emerging. Those designers are defining their own approaches, which are influencing their peers elsewhere.
Designers of color are benefiting from these changes, not least because design is largely a meritocratic profession. It is tough for everyone, especially at the top. No designer secures a sought-after job like Mr. Boateng’s, or coveted international commissions like Mr. Burks’s, without talent, courage, charisma and determination, but they do tend to be judged on performance.
“Of course some inequality still exists, but I’ve never personally felt discriminated against,” Mr. Burks said. “I would hope that the color of my skin doesn’t change the way people see my work, or in any way change the voice or impact my work can have.”
“I really haven’t encountered any problems,” Ms. Anderson added. “When I worked at The Boston Globe way back, someone at the front door asked if I was a messenger. I thought: ‘Are you kidding?’ Every person of color has ridiculous stories like that. But I don’t think the creative industries focus on the color issue as much as others may. It’s all about talent and your ability to communicate effectively.”
Still, relatively few black teens are choosing to pursue careers in design. The number of designers of Asian descent has soared in Europe and North America, as some have bagged top jobs with crack design teams at companies like Apple. At the Rhode Island School of Design, the number of students identifying themselves as Asian rose from 9.2 percent in 1990 to 14.53 percent in 2010, while the number of black students fell from 2.5 percent to 1.65 percent.
A similar pattern is repeated elsewhere. “The overall proportion of African-American students at degree-granting institutions in the U.S. tracks fairly closely to the population at 13 percent or 14 percent, but African-Americans are not going to art and design schools in the same numbers, it’s closer to 4 percent,” said Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons The New School for Design in New York.
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