Double Consciousness in Design

March 7, 2016


This year’s Black History Month was one for the books. Amidst a high stakes political race that is heating up, headlines ranged from displays of black excellence on some of the largest public stages to reports of people who seem to offended by such expressions. The courage that artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar have to speak out on the real-life issues of today is admirable. It makes me think about how as a designer, I usually have to mask my personal voice in favor of my client’s business voice in order to sell a product or idea to some target audience. I’ve learned to see the world through the eyes of a designer — in shapes, colors, composition, and typography. I also see it through a set of eyes which yearns for the opportunity to say more: the eyes of a black man.

W.E.B. DuBois spoke on the notion of “double consciousness” in his book, The Souls of Black Folk:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

As a black designer, I feel a similar sense of double consciousness. While I do speak the universal language of design, communication is heavily influenced by culture and context. The environment and the way I grew up influence my view of the world. At the same time, I work in an industry where faces like mine are scarcely seen on most agency websites or on highly visible platforms like design conferences, professional associations, or recruitment marketing materials. I am happy whenever I do come across another black designer or developer. It’s an inspiring and uplifting feeling that says, “Hey, I’m like you. Keep going.”

There is power in design. It can tell stories, call someone to action, provoke thought, and inspire change. Of course, it might be awesome to design the next big mobile app that goes viral, but there are issues in front of us everyday which could benefit from underrepresented voices speaking out — healthcare, education, economics, STEAM fields, infrastructure, politics, and more. As different perspectives are brought to the table, a greater understanding can be realized. It is important to me as a black designer to look for ways that my unique cultural experience can add value to a project. No one else can tell our stories but us; therefore, we should not discount the advantages that we hold that can change the world.

There are a few designers who stand out in my mind that have spoken out on issues by tapping into their blackness:

Chaz Maviyane-Davies

During my undergraduate graphic design program at The University of Tennessee, I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop with Chaz Maviyane-Davies, a designer from Zimbabwe internationally known for using his design work to raise awareness of a number of world issues. Our class created its own social impact posters, and I chose to create a series of posters inspired by the protests in Jena, LA. It was one of the defining experiences in my design education, and it opened my eyes to creating work that can elicit an emotional response.

Bobby C. Martin Jr.

I came across Bobby C. Martin Jr’s work while doing some research for a class in college. His graphic “Word on the Street” campaign for the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York showed the power of design to revitalize a community. remove a negative element, and replace it with something positive.

Emory Douglas

Emory Douglas’ designs and illustrations helped to define the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panther Party.  He was interviewed recently for a documentary entitled The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Emory Douglas’ dynamic woodcut-like illustration style immediately grabbed me, along with its powerful unforgettable social commentary. While I had not heard Emory speak before, his work had spoken to me years ago without me even realizing it. It’s everywhere — from the posters, signs, and newspapers, his work has stood the test of time. The iconic fist symbol still empowers people today.

While the focus of my typical workload for clients may not be specifically targeted to my own demographic, I believe that my personal experience offers a valuable perspective that can be used to make a difference. Like the artists and designers named above, I hope to have the boldness to use my talents to speak up on the issues affecting my community. I feel inspired to create work that is proud, beautiful, and most of all, unapologetically black.

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