Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, we at Adobe Create have taken a close look at the content we’ve put out over the past several years, and we feel that we’ve done our readers, and the creative community as a whole, a disservice: we have failed to properly represent the diversity of that community, specifically in terms of showcasing Black creatives and their work. To remedy this, we launched a new program in July. Each month, we will hire a notable Black creative and welcome them onto our editorial board, to help us curate and showcase stories and social-media content about other Black artists they admire.
Our third guest editor in this series is designer and design activist Mitzi Okou. Not long after graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design, Okou — an interaction and visual designer who currently lives in San Diego, California — created a virtual event called “Where are the Black designers?” which has become a platform and virtual resource meant to connect designers, educators, and creative leaders, and to foster growth in the design industry and beyond.
In the coming weeks, Okou will be choosing artists that we will feature on our Instagram channel. I spoke to Okou by video chat in September..
Charles Purdy: I’m looking forward to learning more about “Where are the Black designers?” — but I know you also have a career as an interaction designer that takes up your workweek. It’s not a field that many people understand well; how do you describe what you do for a living?
Mitzi Okou: When I say that I’m an interaction and visual designer, I think most people get what a visual designer is. But for the interaction part — if they’re not familiar, I explain that it involves documenting and mapping out natural patterns that we see when people are interacting with apps, and then trying to apply what we’ve learned to developing new apps…. I usually explain that it’s a mixture of psychology and human behavior and graphic design.
CP: How did you come to this career — were you always interested in design?
MO: Actually, I studied classical music for a good chunk of my life. I started playing when I was four, and I was on a track to become a professional classical musician. I was at the Boston Conservatory, which is now the Berklee College of Music, and in my second year, I realized I wasn’t really feeling it, and it just didn’t seem financially sustainable. I told my parents, and they said they could tell I didn’t have the passion for the cello that I’d once had, and they asked me what I wanted to do.
I knew I wanted to something with art and technology — I didn’t know what it was even called, really. So I went on a few school tours, and my father booked one for me at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where I connected with amazing counselors. I told them that I wanted to do something combining art and technology, because I wanted to solve problems for musicians — people in the industry I’d just left. They recommended a graphic design program, and I loved it. Then I got introduced to user experience, and I ended up minoring in interaction design. I went into a fellowship at IDEO and did a few hackathons that I placed in … I knew I was doing the right thing because I felt like I was winning all these things, and it felt very natural to me.
I began my professional life two years ago. I got a job at HP right out of school, where I have been until very recently.
CP: You also have wonderful illustration and character design in your portfolio — where does that fit in?
MO: I think of illustrating as keeping my creative skills up and expressing myself. I had a knack for drawing when I was younger … when I finished school and had so much more time on my hands, I started doing more illustration work. I kept hearing from friends that when they started working, it was hard to keep creativity up; it’s not like school, where you constantly have to be coming up with something new. You’re focused on work and that’s it … I don’t want to lose my creativity, and I’m really inspired by color, pattern, and texture, and expressing myself through illustration.
CP: Tell me about “Where are the Black designers?”
MO: Originally, it was an event — a public conversation about the experience of trying to become a Black designer, about being a Black designer, and about the injustice that a lot of Black designers face. It was meant to shine a light on these issues and to confront the industry about things that need to change. Especially in the creative and tech space — these are progressive industries, and we’re trying to create solutions that are for everybody, but you can’t do that without diversity.
If we’re going to move forward in combatting racial injustice and really creating diverse products, we need to, as Antionette Carroll, one of our conference speakers, has elegantly said, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We need to be talking about how we can move forward, and talking about how companies need to work to attract more diverse talent.
But it’s not just about bringing in more diverse talent and checking off the box. It’s about creating a more diverse and inclusive culture so that people want work there…. That was the initial conversation, and it’s turned into a huge community platform where Black designers can go and be themselves, ask questions, get mentorship, and find opportunities. And it’s for allies, too — we’re trying to bridge the gap between Black designers and allies … we understand that it can be very hard as a non-Black person to figure out what you can do help battle racial injustice within the creative and tech space.
CP: You raise such an important point for companies and agencies to keep in mind: A lack of diversity on a creative team can lead to bad design.
MO: When you don’t have diversity in design, no one is challenging your ideas. You see it all the time with advertisements that go wrong — this happens because a nondiverse team let biases into the work. It’s so important to have different perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences … to challenge and ask questions and come to conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. Another conference speaker, Shabi Kashani, said that the danger of an all-white team is that they are essentially applying ancestral biases and other biases to their work, which can lead to racist products or products that don’t work. And in the hands of things like law enforcement or government, people can die from these products.
CP: Let’s talk about the barriers Black designers face in the design industry and in creative spaces.
MO: It’s so complex because it happens at different levels. It doesn’t start in the design industry. Cheryl D. Miller addressed it in an article titled “Black Designers Missing in Action” [originally published in PRINT magazine in 1987], where she talks about how it starts in early childhood education. Kids don’t learn that a creative career is a sustainable option, and this is especially true in low-income and majority Black communities, where parents also won’t see a creative career as a viable option for their kids. And then there’s a lack of mentorship in middle school and high school. Kids sort of have to discover design on their own and convince their parents that it’s sustainable.
Then going into higher education — art schools and design schools are super expensive. A lot of people, especially young Black people who want to go into any higher education, have to take out a lot of loans, and we’re not set up to financially compete against many of our white counterparts, which affects performance at school. Then many of these primarily white institutions lack Black professors. And the curriculum is very white — I mean there is nothing wrong with learning about Bauhaus and the Swiss grid and so on, but there’s nothing in the standard design curriculum where Black designers can see themselves and see where they come from.
And then after that, after graduating from that institution of higher learning and surviving all of that, there’s the fact that … at least in my experience, the school doesn’t really help you get a job. I mean, they tried when I was there, but there was no Black alumni network that I could turn to. There’s not really a good support system when a Black person enters the workforce, and there’s a lot of unemployment, in part because they don’t know how to tap into primarily white networks that get other white people hired through word of mouth.… You hear companies or agencies to say, “Well, we don’t know where [Black designers] are.” But they’re not looking beyond non-diverse word-of-mouth social networks.
And in the workforce, a lot of company culture is not very inclusive. Black people can’t see themselves in these cultures, and there are the typical microagressions, and HR not doing their job in terms of protecting people … it’s a traumatic experience all the way through, and it really speaks to some people’s resilience that they were able to survive all that and get to where they are today.
CP: There’s so much to unpack here and talk about. But what would you say to companies that are having their eyes opened to racial injustice and inequity in the creative industry?
MO: What I noticed when the uprising started after George Floyd’s murder was a lot of performative activism: companies posting the black square and saying, “We stand with the Black community.” And the data is not accessible, but we all know that these companies are predominantly white. You can’t say you stand with the Black community when you’re not hiring Black people … which contributes to ongoing injustice and truly puts Black people in danger. So there’s such a need for transparency: I’d like to see companies post the data on employee demographics and then explain the steps they’re taking to bring in more diversity.
People really appreciate when companies admit there’s a problem, invite people to talk about it, and are honest about the steps they’re taking to address it.
CP: You’re not far from your experience at university; what needs to change at art and design schools?
MO: Reflecting on my experience at school, first I would’ve liked a bigger scholarship. A lot of socioeconomic issues really affect Black and brown people, and there needs to be an acknowledgement of that. I was at a school where there was a scandal about our president making a lot of money — almost enough money to be able to give scholarships to everybody on compass. I think there needs to be a fairer distribution of money, so students can focus on their education instead of worrying about where their next meal is going to come from our how expensive their art supplies are. I don’t think it’s even a question that schools make more than enough money to provide better financial aid.
Another thing I would’ve loved is a more diverse curriculum. I vividly remember sitting in my Intro to Graphic Design course, and my teacher was talking about the history of graphic design and all these prominent graphic designers. He mentioned one Black designer, and I got excited, but he glossed over that person so fast, and it felt so insignificant. I was like, “That can’t be the only Black graphic designer in the history of graphic design.” I would love to see the history of more cultures in terms of design — I’m wearing an African print right now that has a design history worthy of that.
We need more Black professors that students can see themselves in. I think that really matters whether it’s in education or in the workplace: I think when you see yourself, you can be yourself, and when you can be yourself, you can do amazing work.
CP: What is your advice to young Black designers who may be just starting out, about how they can find the resources they need?
MO: Thinking of my own experience … you have to seek out your tribe and your people, whether they are Black or not — people who care about you, who see your potential, and who can be there for you.
That’s why I created “Where are the Black designers?” — so if you can’t physically find them, there’s an online community you can go to. Try your best to find online resources. Also, I think we need to undo the taboo of therapy and accessing mental health resources. Therapy is great.
Another piece of advice I would give to a young Black designer, in terms of resiliency, is that the worst thing anyone can ever say to you, professionally, is no. Despite someone perhaps being at a higher level, I think you have to see them as a human being who might be willing to talk to you — so don’t be afraid to reach out. That’s how I landed at HP: I cold-emailed so many people, I cold-emailed VPs, I cold-emailed all types of people in all types of different positions … because at the end of the day, it’s not that they’re any better than me. I looked at them as people who had access to resources I could benefit from, and I wanted to talk to them about investing their time and energy into me — and convince them that I’d be able to return that investment. Just reach out to people. You will get a ton of nos, but there’s one person who will say yes and literally change your life.
CP: What’s next for you? I know it’s a strange time to be talking about the future.
MO: I have a hard time thinking far into the future. I can’t even think past what I’m going to eat next, to be honest. But for “Where are the Black designers?” I have so much planned, in terms of how I can push the agenda and also break the trend of things dying down. I want to keep that fire that a lot of people have. And I eventually want to have my own design agency. I want to do more projects. I want to start more public conversations on topics that need to have a light shined on them. This is just the start of us getting uncomfortable with being uncomfortable, and I really want to keep that going.
Follow Adobe Create on Instagram to see the artists Mitzi Okou chooses to feature over the coming month — and to find out who our next guest editors will be in this ongoing series. We will also add Okou’s picks to this page, below, as they are featured on Instagram.