Racial diversity in the design industry

First published a year ago now, but still all too relevant, Terry Lee Stone has written a terrific article for Step Inside Design entitled White Space: Examining racial diversity in the design industry. The article details the disproportionate percentage of white designers in the U.S., relative to the racial breakdown of the entire U.S. labor force. It also takes a statistical look forward at racial diversity of the the future’s design industry.

We’ve got a problem and we need to talk about it. Graphic design—predominantly a white profession—is already a small, rather esoteric industry, one that San Francisco illustrator Dugald Stermer once called, “The pinky ring on the hand of corporate America.” If we don’t actively seek to reflect the changing racial and ethnic composition of our society, graphic design may well find itself marginalized in a whole new way. Diversity, especially race, is an issue that all designers need to be concerned with in terms of the future of our profession.

Stone suggests that the current lack of minority students in design programs results from a lack of awareness.

Parents and children in underrepresented groups don’t know that graphic design exists, let alone that it is a viable profession for a person with artistic talent. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that certain racial and ethnic groups actually discourage children from going into visual arts, pushing them instead toward science and engineering.

More than just another index finger pointing at a somewhat obvious condition, the author probes a bit into it’s consequences by asking a group of professional designers (of different races and ethnicities) questions like “Do you make adjustments in your behavior because of your race? Do you think you try to slip into ‘white cultural norms’ in your design work? Does race affect your design?” Some interesting responses arose.

The new racism

Stone also reminds readers of the dangers of disregard for race, and how, particularly when exhibited in an effort to be overly politically correct, it “can actually reinforce the gap between whites and nonwhites, trapping us in old prejudices”. This practice, itself a subtle form of racism, has been dubbed color-evasion or aversive racism. The idea of “color-blindness”, as present in the design industry as any other, “often allows people to ignore each other’s racial identity”, Stone writes.

Moving toward solutions

In this regard, kudos to the AIGA’s new diversity initiative. This recently launched program endeavors to establish leadership policies, lend active support for understanding and awareness, and plans to develop education programs for high school students, design students, and professionals.

The racial imbalance seen in the design community is far from unique to this industry. In fact, in many ways I observed the same thing during my nearly 15 years working in the environmental protection field. While both cases are certainly in need of addressing, the design industry perhaps bears a special responsibility to tackle this issue given our work’s ability to shape the visual communications within our society, and the affect of those communications on attitudes.

Solutions begin with honest discussions.

Never underestimate the power of a planted seed:




I know this entry is old but I have to say thank you for writing about this.

I’m currently in university for digital design and it’s an issue that has been bugging me for virtually the whole three years that I’ve been studying. My white female lecturer speaks of the lack of women in design and all the magazines that I read talk about the it also.

Yet even as a woman also, this is not my reality as I’m black. In western society, I will always been seen by the colour of my skin first and foremost before my gender. It is something that affects me more than being female.

I visit a lot websites of design companies and whilst there may be more men than women working, the fact still remains that I see women amongst the employees. Not just one or two but quite a handful, actually. However, more often than not the entire staff will be white.

I have looked quite a few times for articles on racial diversity in design yet it’s been hard to find. In magazines such as Computer Arts, Web Designer etc, the big issue that they frequently want to discuss is the lack of women and they do it over and over again. I’m trying not to trivialise the issue but I think it’s about time that they notice that it’s not just women who are lacking in the industry but non-whites. I can tell you that I’ve only seen the lack of minorities in design mentioned once but it was one sentence within an article about the lack of women. Funny!

Despite what the AIGA are doing, this is an issue that will take quite a while to be recognised and admitted by the industry as a whole. It’s a shame yet I can’t pretend to be surprised. My lecturer is happy that the number of female students is rising but I suspect if the entire class was all-white, she would fail to see anything “wrong”. In a class of about 30, I am the only black female in my class. There are 3 Asian men and two bi-racial men. This has been the case even when the group had about 50 students.

I think the only for this issue to really be recognised is for us to speak up but I wonder if it will really happen since I don’t really see any organisations or schemes made by us in the industry.

Rob Gough


Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important subject.

I believe that solutions begin with honest conversations. Have you had any direct discussion with your professors/instructors about your feelings regarding this issue? Perhaps, in some cases, as in the instance you’ve described, they are comfortable speaking about the role of women in the design industry because they possess a frame-of-reference and/or comfort level speaking about that, as opposed to their comfort in speaking about the role of people of color? If that is the case, perhaps your input and guidance in that regard would be much appreciated.

At any rate, I hope that you are able to embrace the cultural difference that you might bring to your classes, and to your work within those classes — and to wear it like a badge of honor. Graphic design is primarily about communicating with people, and that requires an understanding and an appreciation of the differences across our many cultures.

While it is indeed unfortunate that there is not more racial diversity in the graphic design field, those people of color who have chosen to enter the field are in a unique and powerful position. As you move forward with your career in the industry, I’m confident that you will find your perspective to be a real asset.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts. I wish you the best of luck with your studies and beyond.


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