Five Essential Design Books to Decolonize Your Studio, Library, and Classroom

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As a scholar and academician, I’ve always loved the month of October, and October 2023 gives me five new reason to celebrate. In my 50-year design industry awareness, practice, and career, I have never witnessed the parallel release of so many design books published by prominent Black graphic design scholars. They require our attention! But more than purchasing them, I ask that we USE them to decolonize our corporate design studios and expand our classroom syllabi.

If you are an educator, your students will dearly appreciate the conversations that result from exposure to a greater diversity of design voices. For practicing corporate designers, these books will help you to consider a broader history of design storytelling.

These five new books are a lens through which we can interact with a brand-new world of design commentary. Let’s broaden the 21st landscape of design in our thinking, academic pedagogy, and professional practice. Buy. Read. Assign. Require these books. Every Fall. Repeat.

Centered: People and Ideas Diversifying Design by Kaleena Sales

Described by the publisher as “a rich, inclusive, contemporary, and global look at design diversity, past and present,” Centered is curated by Kaleena Sales, an Associate Professor of Graphic Design and Chair of the Department of Art & Design at Tennessee State University.

Centered is a luscious bouquet of stories from accomplished and underrepresented graphic designers worldwide. The anthology features brilliant work by visual storytellers such as Adolphus Washington, a mixed media artist who creates incredible Romare Bearden-like collages (find him at @negrophonic). Washington, originally from New York, works for the State Department in London. He creates his collages after work each day, inspired by Bearden and the sights and sounds of a “Negro” America. Washington co-designed the striking book cover and its typography with Sales. The anthology showcases typefaces from diverse foundries, such as Tre Seals’ award-winning MARTIN. With the bounty of astute scholarship found in Centered, it begs to be part of our classrooms. Read and discuss one of the essays or interviews in Centered, then assign a project: create a brand for a nonprofit, a logo, a poster, or an app!

A noted scholar and voice for diversity in the design community, Sales is the coauthor of Extra Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti-Racist, Non-Binary Field Guide for Graphic Designers and cohosts a podcast about design and culture with Design Observer.

As the design industry reexamines its emphasis on Eurocentric ideologies and wrestles with its conventional practices, Centered advocates for highlighting and giving a voice to the people, places, methods, ideas, and beliefs that have been eclipsed or excluded by dominant design movements.

Princeton Architectural Press

Racism Untaught: Revealing and Unlearning Racialized Design by Lisa E. Mercer and Terresa Moses

We tend to regard racism as a construct that we’ve not been taught. But racism’s human-made DNA is integrated into society’s fiber, even found covertly in the practice of design. If we learn racism in our hearts, we can unlearn its tenets in our minds. In Racism Untaught, Lisa E. Mercer and Terresa Moses, two veteran anti-racist educators, provide a step-by-step guide to anti-racist interventions in academic, business, and community settings. The book, an adaptation of their successful workshop series, has concrete examples and case studies designed to help us analyze and reimagine design, unlearn racialized design practices, and “move more generatively toward collective liberation.”

Racism Untaught is a dynamic piece of scholarship disrupting our status quo. Embodying the design research process, Racism Untaught focuses on developing anti-racist designs in collaborative design environments. Mercer and Moses explore design-led interventions and why these approaches are foundational to disrupting normative design practice. Topics such as racism and oppression can be difficult to process and discuss, especially in classrooms, work environments, and community spaces that are not typically focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Chock-full of dynamic illustrations, case studies, data visualizations, and brilliant photography, Racism Untaught challenges us to be better than our histories. Moses’ cover design and illustrations are beautifully rendered. An accompanying workshop kit serves as a complimentary tool for studios, classrooms, or conference seminars. Try unpacking one of the case studies as a team, group project, or conference breakout, then ask the group to document their discoveries and write their reflections. Racism Untaught challenges everything we have been taught about racism in our lives.

Lisa E. Mercer is a designer, educator, and researcher. She is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and Design for Responsible Innovation in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Terresa Moses is a creative director at Blackbird Revolt, a social justice-based design studio. She is also an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and the Director of Design Justice at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design.

A powerful and proven guidebook that shows organizations how to recognize racism in designed artifacts, systems, and experiences—and how to replace them with anti-racist design solutions.

MIT Press

An Anthology of Blackness

From left: Omari Souza, Terresa Moses and Kaleena Sales

An Anthology of Blackness: The State of Black Design, edited by Terresa Moses and Omari Souza (foreward by Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall)

Curated by Terresa Moses (see above) and Omari Souza, an Assistant Professor of Communication Design at the University of North Texas, the organizer of the State of Black Design Conference, and a design researcher at Capital One, An Anthology of Blackness is a collection of essays, opinion pieces, case studies, and visual narratives. It examines the intersection of Black identity and practice, probing why the design field has failed to attract Black professionals, how Eurocentric hegemony impacts Black professionals, and how Black designers can create an anti-racist design industry.

Unapologetic is the only way to describe this anthology; it’s a scholarly “state of the union,” with design practitioners, researchers, scholars, and educators documenting their groundbreaking perspectives, research, and advocacy. An Anthology of Blackness offers bold treatises of where Black designers have been, where we are, and where we are heading, bridging the gap between the past and today’s advancement of the Black designer in the global design conversation. Once again, Moses proves herself more than a design professor and scholar but a brilliant graphic designer. Moses designed the book cover, section iconography, and typography, centering the Black design aesthetic. Souza’s passion for telling our stories is evident. He joins Teressa in editing new voices who tell it like it, “–T-I-S!” I especially enjoyed Jillian M. Harris’ essay, “African Design: Origins and Migration,” with research focused on the Ancient African contributions to design. I joyfully concur, most definitely, “Graphic Design history begins in Africa!” I plan to assign this reading and offer a writing prompt that challenges my students to reconsider the Eurocentric modernist lens of the beginning of graphic communication.

Through autoethnography, lived experience, scholarship, and applied research, these contributors share proven methods for creating an anti-racist and inclusive design practice.

MIT Press

Design at an HBCU: The Morgan & AIGA Era by Perry Sweeper (foreward by Cheryl D. Miller)

I love well-kept secrets. This story is quite a surprise to me, having had no idea Morgan State University, a famed HBCU in Baltimore, has an award-winning graphic design department! Design at an HBCU, written by Perry Sweeper, a design technologist, researcher, and Professor of Practice at Morehouse College, documents the founding of the Graphic Arts Program at Morgan State University, the first HBCU to have an AIGA chapter. The story begins with a once fledgling university fine arts department in a moment of transition from analog design technology to the digital era. Sweeper honors his mentor, Professor Joseph Ford, whose genius lies behind the strategies to turn the Morgan Fine Arts Department toward its prosperous future. Partnering the new design department strategic plan with an AIGA student chapter affiliation proved to be a winning combination, garnering awards for the Graphic Arts program over its 20+-year association. Morgan students and alumni all attribute their successes to the legacy of Professor Ford. Sweeper sheds light on some of the “best kept secret” institutions for studying design—an urgent conversation, with the Supreme Court effectively ending the use of affirmative action policies and enforcement in colleges. Morgan University’s design story and relationship with AIGA’s Baltimore student chapter offer a path to greater outcomes for design education. Design at an HBCU is full of Professor Ford’s curriculum and syllabus examples, and educators will appreciate its project prompts for creating a new curriculum (and new pedagogical space) for any underrepresented community that desires to receive a quality design education.

Extending beyond Morgan, the author hopes that this book further highlights the importance of HBCUs and the pivotal role Black designers will continue to play in the future of graphic design.

Design Social Change by Lesley-Ann Noel

The growing Stanford design school library

Design Social Change: Take Action, Work Toward Equity, and Challenge the Status Quo by Lesley-Ann Noel

Who are you? What motivates you? What forces are preventing you (and others) from thriving?

Design Social Change, written by designer and design educator Lesley-Ann Noel, Assistant Professor of Art and Design Studies at North Carolina State University, asks these questions to help you design strategies for making a lasting impact. Noel’s current work, situated at the intersection of equity, co-creation, and futures thinking, is evident as she offers tools to tailor your design approach, considering your history, personality, ethics, and goals for the future.

The book captures artful editorial design and page layouts featuring colorful illustrations by Trinidadian artist Che Lovelace. Noel explores different methods and approaches of design experimentation for accomplishing fair and equitable change and creating new futures through the metaphor of creating recipes for a cookbook. Three distinct conversations narrate Design Social Change: 1) What’s wrong? 2) What does it feel like? and 3) What world do you want to change? Noel engages us to dream the change we want to see in our lives, community, and world. Warm and inviting, Noel’s scholarship helps us grow past oppression and injustice to a more inclusive present and future. Past any present darkness, we see a better tomorrow by the vision we imagine today.

Design Social Change is part of a collection published by Stanford University, in which two additional books are launching (November): Experiments in Reflection by Leticia Britos Cavagnaro and Make Possibilities Happen by Grace Hawthorne.

Discover design strategies for using your own unique social identities and experiences as inspiration to challenge the status quo and create the kind of lasting change that leads to greater equity and social justice.

Stanford University

The sensibility to publish the Black design perspective has never been greater during my 50-year design career. Historically, this has not been the case. Simply put, we weren’t included in the trade publishing narrative of the design industry. We’re seeing trade publishing’s response to the political, cultural, and political paradigm shifts of the era. Since 2020, dynamic Black, brown, and BIPOC indigenous scholars have published monographs, anthologies, articles, and memoirs in numbers. One example is The Black Experience in Design: Identity Expression and Reflection. I treasure this “orange bible” for its curated scholarship of the Black experience. We must keep writing and producing quality scholarship that will garner the attention of the major trade design publishers.

We are designers and writers of extraordinary astute scholarship, but it’s not only a matter of getting published. Our future to remain in the dialog of trade publishing depends on our texts being used, adopted, and absorbed into graphic design history and lexicon (and included in publications like Fast Company). Our scholarship must be purchased and USED for a transformative future in design that we all can experience.

I started trade writing for the design industry decades ago. It humbles me that I now find my own words of scholarship permanently recorded in quotes, references, endnotes, footnotes, indexes, biographies, forewords, introductions, and essays. Trade publishers are listening; may we continue writing that our voices to resound boldly the call for expressive rights in the design industry.

Please buy, read, assign, and require these five books.

From left: Lisa E. Mercer, Terresa Moses, Omari Souza, and Kaleena Sales

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller is recognized for her outsized influence within the graphic design profession to end the marginalization of BIPOC designers through her civil rights activism, industry exposé trade writing, research rigor, and archival vision. Miller is a national leader of minority rights, gender, race diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion advocacy in graphic design. She is founder of the former Cheryl D. Miller Design, Inc., NYC, a social impact design firm. She is a designer, author, educator, theologian, and a decolonizing design historian.

Banner photo: chapter graphics from “Centered: People and Ideas Diversifying Design” by Kaleena Sales.

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