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Design has a diversity problem and universities need to address it

Graphic design is not just about making pretty images. It’s about enhancing visual communication. And as designers, we must be aware of what we put out into the world.

The Graphic Design Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign has a responsibility to teach students how to be critical thinkers. The program should encourage young designers to analyze real world problems and brainstorm ways in which to solve them. Students should also be engaged in discussions on the continuous mistakes being made in the design and advertising industries.

Every design program should be racially equitable. However, there seems to be a disconnect between the current social and political climate, and how universities are addressing themthese themes in the classroom. The IllinoisGraphic Design program is working to become more inclusive, diverse, and progressive; but at its their own pace.

Former Chair of Graphic Design, Eric Benson states that the program looks much different than it did when he joined ten years ago. When Benson began teaching, there were a total of four faculty members. All male. Two white, one African American, and one Asian professor. Benson made it a priority to hire faculty that were representative of the student body, which were 70/80% female and racially diverse. According to Benson, “who [the students] see as mentors on the faculty influences their ability to see themselves as a designer post-graduation”.

Currently, the graphic design faculty is diverse but they do not showcase their background and research enough. I feel like I know snippets of each of their stories and passions but l acquired most of this information outside of core classes. Most students, unlike myself, do not make an effort to befriend their professors and learn more about their personal projects. I wish they brought more of their unique perspectives into the classroom and really pushed us to have discussions about social issues. However, I do understand the frustrations of students not participating in class, as I have served as a discussion leader for FAA 101, so even if it was implemented students might not take it seriously. This is frightening.

How do we convince the next generation of designers that social issues are worth discussing?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously warned that “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” 

Design is visual communication and this needs to be taken seriously. Too often I see inappropriate messages and graphics displayed by companies. Why is this happening? Advertising agencies and design firms are lacking employees from ethnic minority backgrounds. BIPOC are not a part of the crucial conversations being had within agencies on topics such as racism. This perpetuates a cycle of insensitive ad campaigns that no one realized were racist.

Why are the structures in place inherently limiting these conversations? Why are we not demanding change?

With that being said, the Art + Design department at Illinois can only do so much. It is also the responsibility of the designer to educate oneself and consider how their choices can impact others. What kind of designer are you if you do not think about how your work will be perceived and the messages it conveys?

Designers are visual communicators. To be a skilled communicator, you must practice empathy.

Empathy requires additional work. To deeply understand another culture, race, ethnicity, person, etc. research and a deeper understanding of ethics will be required. A design ethics class, ARTD 451, otherwise known as EDGE (Ethics of a Designer in a Global Economy) has recently been implemented into the BFA in Graphic Design course requirements.

Benson fought to make EDGE a required course. Benson and John Jennings, a previous professor at the School of Art + Design “thought it was much more important than it was made out to be.” They launched the class as an elective in 2008, but many students chose coding instead. Subsequently, the duo taught the course outside of their paid hours and this proved to be an amazing experience. The students that wanted to be a part of it were extremely passionate about ethics and design thinking. One of the first students to take the course dropped out of his fraternity because he began analyzing the inappropriate ways in which this organization acted, which he realized did not align with his values. The course became obligatory to obtain a Graphic Design BFA in 2018.

Before taking this course, I had never been challenged to assess my own values and why I believe so strongly in what I do. The classroom became a space in which I self-reflected heavily and realized how much importance each step of the design process holds. When designing for a client or specific target audience you must conduct research, ask questions, and not be ignorant.

I spoke with a student about their opinion on the best way to encourage BIPOC to pursue design given the lack of diversity in the field. Their answer is crucial to understanding how challenging it can be to navigate specific spaces and career opportunities as a minority. The predominantly rich white environment of academia can be extremely difficult to navigate for students of varying cultures, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many students put on a “mask to meld into the Eurocentric society” (Anonymous). This causes feelings of stress and disconnect from their identity. Since design is so heavily influenced by personality, those impacted by historical trauma will not be as comfortable experimenting creatively.

An extremely talented and well-versed designer taught me the meaning of trauma informed practice as the ability “to design in a way that you are aware, considerate, and empathetically connected to traumatized and marginalized communities”. I can recall practicing this type of design thinking within EDGE, but not in many of my other required courses. I would like to learn more about being a conscious designer before I go into the industry.

The design program needs to craft more required classes and projects that require critical thinking as well as cultural exploration. I think an interesting design challenge would be to create a poster that is reflective of a non-western culture, not only in meaning but in the typography as well. Everything I have designed in my classes so far has been sinistrodextral, meaning you read it from left to right. Additionally, I would like to see an emphasis on encouraging students to bring in their cultural heritage into projects. I’ve been meaning to research Polish folk art and incorporate that into my design practice but have not had the time to do so. I feel as though a majority of my classes require very clean and modern design. Thankfully, there are some projects we have more creative freedom in. To inspire students to create unique and meaningful work the department needs to become more proactive in questioning Eurocentric design.

Top illustration by Apolonia Wielgus. 

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