Jen Wang’s essay does a brilliant job of challenging the neutrality/whiteness of modernist design aesthetics, as part of a broader analysis on the intersections of racism and design.
“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
— Howard Zinn
In 1991, Brenda Mitchell-Powell published an article in AIGA’s Journal titled, “Why is Design 93% White?” Since then, little has changed in the racial makeup of the design industry. While there are now more women in the profession, design remains overwhelmingly white, and decidedly not reflective of the racial demographics in the United States. The topic has been revived lately, but the discussion seems to revolve around issues of inclusion. But that inclusion is contingent on the aesthetic parameters of design itself being inclusive. What value does design, as it exists and is taught now, have to communities of color, and how does it represent them?
The lack of racial diversity in graphic design is tied to the pedagogy of design itself. At design schools, foundation courses teach a clearly Western European approach rooted in Modernism. Design history, as it is taught in those settings, renders racial whiteness invisible through an erasure of social context. By isolating creative movements and individual creators, design pedagogy supports the myth of individual exceptionalism, while the Western-centric approach implies racial essentialism. Combined with validating its design aesthetic through theory, this results in a visual language that can exclude and invalidate the perspectives of non-whites. How can a profession hope to attract people of color when the requirements are to assimilate, internalize, and perpetuate white hegemony?