Design Industry Embracing Diversity

March 21, 2011  |  

(New York Times) — 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.

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