Cheryl D. Miller

Born
1952, Washington D.C

“Until the lions have their historians, the tales of the hunt will continue to glorify the hunters.” —African Proverb

Knowing the tumultuous path of black professionals never deterred Cheryl D. Miller from pursuing her passion to become a designer, yet few get the chance to marry the career of their dreams with the issues closest to their heart. Miller, however, has tackled two: that of black designers and gender issues in the profession.

In 1987 she wrote the notorious Print magazine article, “Black Designers: Missing in Action,” which grew out of her Master’s thesis about the dismally low number of blacks recognized as design professionals. Ironically, Miller’s thesis itself is what literally wrote black designers into the annals of history.

Today, Miller remains as outspoken as ever—and finally, more and more people around the world are listening. It started in 1985 at Pratt Institute, where she received her Master of Science in visual communications. Miller explains it was the program’s chair, Etan Manasse, who challenged her to make a contribution to the field of design. “I don’t want you to do a design-based project,“ Manasse told her. “You must do something profound.”

She followed up her article for Print with “Embracing Cultural Diversity in Design,” published in 1990 by Step-by-Step magazine. Ever the visionary, Miller knew then that designers needed to prepare themselves to compete in a global market by designing for other ethnic groups, stressing that black designers and designers of color have the advantage of being able to design in the mainstream environment and design for their inherent ethnic group—something she feels white designers can’t always do. With her outspoken voice, she became a key member of the first AIGA Minority Task Force chaired by John Morning, who organized the symposium “Why is Design 93% White," creating a dynamic exchange with a variety of industry professionals.

It’s a path she seemed perfectly positioned for. Growing up in an affluent black family in Washington D.C., her father was a so-called Negro executive for the Federal Government, and her mother, a nurse for student services at Howard University, had emigrated from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Her mother was Filipino and Creole, but due to her father’s political aspirations and the era—it was the Civil Rights period and interracial marriages were unacceptable—her family was known as fair-skinned blacks.

Throughout her early childhood, Miller was exposed to art, having freely roamed the halls of Howard’s fine arts department. Encouragement came from both parents, as well as a godmother who bought her first paint set. Her art school aspirations were nearly dashed by a high school teacher, who bluntly told Miller, “I don’t know why you’re taking art. You’ll never become anything.” Undeterred, Miller applied to art schools and was accepted at Rhode Island School of Design. She later learned that this same teacher tried to block her transcript from being sent out in the first place. Luckily, her father intervened with the Board of Education and Miller left for Providence to begin her college career.

During her first year, she focused on design, but the unexpected death of her father prompted a change of plans in her spring term. With the help of RISD school counselors, she was able to transfer to Maryland Institute College of Art. Once at MICA, the dean of students affairs, Leslie King Hammond, helped ease the transition. Miller graduated from in MICA in 1974, and still counts Hammond as a colleague and valued friend.

When she looked for work, her choices were limited to government agencies, associations, and teaching at schools. However, she managed to land a position designing on-air graphics and sets at WTOP-TV9-CBS, an NBC local affiliate. She later worked with WRC-TV, and after that helped launch the art department at WHMM-TV/32-PBS, Howard University’s new station. One day she received an unexpected visit from Robert Johnson, who shared his vision to set up a network for black television shows and asked Miller if she would design the logo. She agreed, and for a meager $125 created the brand identity for BET.

In 1985, her husband, fresh out of an MBA program at American University, was offered a position with American Express in New York City. They moved, and through connections, Miller got a job offer at ABC that she foolishly rejected because it paid $10,000 less than her previous position. Not realizing how the New York design scene operated, she thought her print and on-air portfolio would be enough for her to quickly land a job with some of the top design firms or agencies. After fruitless efforts, she applied to the visual communications program at Pratt. Miller was not only immediately accepted, but based on the strength of portfolio she was allowed to shorten her course requirements by one semester.

Miller excelled in the program, catching the attention of her design professor Elisa Zamir, who offered her a job at her firm. Miller worked there for about six months, learning corporate design, annual reports, and the business of design. Soon, however, she was ready to move on. But rather than repeat the job search, she started her own company, and established Cheryl D. Miller Design Inc. in 1987, one of a handful of black women-owned design firms in New York. Miller built the firm around designing for corporate clients like Michelle Spellman at Sports Illustrated magazine. It was Spellman who placed the company on the affirmative action list for vendors, and that was when the big doors opened. From that point on, Miller pitched work with corporate communication directors for creative services for annual reports and corporate identities (a.k.a. where the money was in design at the time). The firm also worked for other Fortune 500 companies, including BET, Chase, and American Express—many of which asked Miller to create in-kind projects for black organizations, which she defines as Civil Rights design work.

Then in 1995, Miller’s career took a major shift. After more than two decades in business, she closed her firm to pursue a Master’s at Union Theological Seminary after having served The United Church of Christ and The American Baptist Churches, USA as a clergywoman.

Looking back over her career and that Print magazine article that started it all, Miller is concerned that now, 30 years later, the crux of “Black Designers: Missing in Action” is still as relevant as ever, and she doesn’t want to see another 30 years go with the diversity issue unresolved. To that end, she maintains a peripheral connection to design through a publishing imprint AAGE Heritage Press, where she produced her 2013 memoir, Black Coral: A Daughter’s Apology to her Asian Island Mother. She’s currently hard at work documenting her Civil Rights design with the goal of archiving a body of work at the Smithsonian Institute in her hometown, Washington, D.C.