Michele Y. Washington

Atlantic City, New Jersey
New York, New York

At three years old, Michele Y. Washington could be found in her grandmother's kitchen rearranging the collection of salt-and-pepper shakers by color. This first clue that her life path would lead through the landscape of design came as no surprise to the other creatively inclined members of her family: her uncle Horace Baldwin Washington, a San Francisco sculptor and muralist; a great aunt who ended up teaching grade school because it was extremely difficult for a black woman artist to earn a viable living through her own work at the time; and another uncle who studied glass blowing and advertising design at Syracuse University but spent his life working as a shop teacher. The coveted prize of a design career would prove to be more easily attainable for a member of Washington's generation.

Her journey as a graphic designer, educator and writer reflects an omnivorous approach to life and learning, each area of her work informing and overlapping the others to form a unified whole. Whether teaching a graduate-level exhibition design class at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) or working with clients at her firm, Washington Design, in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood, she brings a structured, nuanced combination of eclectic influences to bear on the finished result. Her design embraces the world of hand-based craft while remaining modern and disciplined in its regard for the formalities of typography and composition.

On what inspires her:
I find the work of photographers inspirational, and printmakers and sculptors, because each has their own sense of visual language.

Washington's work incorporates language and writing systems from other cultures—from Zimbabwean to Native American to Korean—in what she calls an “understated, indirect way.” She'll use letterforms and symbols as background patterns, blowing the type up, or hand-printing woodblock type over a silkscreen to create rich, densely layered surfaces. Paging through her process sketches and finished projects—ranging from posters for a DUMBO arts festival to packaging for Mausam, her own line of natural body and home products—reveals a love for pattern and texture that's paired with vivid color saturating every surface.

Her color sensibility blossomed from an upbringing near the ocean—and her grandmothers' church hats. “The colors you like depend so much on where you grew up; light and bright environments lead to bright colors,” she says. “In Atlantic City, with that wide open seaside light, our neighbors always had beautiful gardens, just a menagerie of colors. There were flowers everywhere. Ever see black women's church hats? My grandmothers wore hats covered with flowers—not sedate like Queen Elizabeth's! These were exuberant and descriptive; you could tell a woman's status in the church and community just by looking at her hat.”

Washington's mother encouraged her interest in craft, teaching her to knit and sew when she noticed her only daughter (out of five children) was always busy making something, anything, with her hands. In fourth grade, her father presented her with a stamp album, recognizing her propensity for organizing and collecting. She still has her childhood stamp albums, but these days she collects Russel Wright ceramics, Eva Zeisel tabletop wares and most recently, KleinReid vases. An earlier passion for mid-century modern chairs had to be put on hold when she ran out of space to display them in her Harlem apartment.

Her advice to young designers:
Be persistent and never let anyone stand in the way of your dreams.

While studying for her graduate degree at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, Washington switched from printmaking to graphic design, calling it a “fluke, but one of the smartest decisions I ever made.” Her first real design job, at Vogue Butterick Patterns, introduced her to designer Mel Skirloff, who became a mentor, helping Washington to hone and develop her portfolio. Washington's wide ranging interests and boundless intellectual curiosity have led her to explore newspaper design at the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, editorial art direction at Essence and Self magazines, and to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Parsons the New School for Design, Pratt Institute and FIT.

Teaching has been particularly rewarding, though the idea of a rigidly structured syllabus makes Washington shudder. She prefers to view the classroom as an idea lab. “I want students to walk out knowing how to think. When I started teaching in Chicago, I was looking for ways to make them feel at ease with their own cultures. Some are into it, others are somehow perplexed and embarrassed. In a class of 12 or 15 students of different backgrounds they usually break into groups and don't interact. So I mix them up cross culturally to force them to talk to each other. I have them choose an ethnic community different from their own and go out and share a meal with to help break down barriers. The small rituals around the social act of eating are something every living human can relate to.”

Her next adventure?
Building a creative space in another country.

A provocative poster by art director Phil Mimaki for Charlotte-based BooneOakley Advertising uses 99 white Pantone swatches and one black swatch to illustrate the shockingly low percentage of African-Americans employed in the advertising industry. When shown the work, Washington shakes her head vigorously in agreement. “It's critical for students to be shown this kind of information so that open conversation can happen,” she says. “I have been marginalized by sex and race. Sometimes it was hard finding the right fit with work, other times it was companies or art directors uncomfortable working with a black designer. Frankly, I hate the word minority, it's limiting. Why put people in categories? I try to maintain my classroom as a neutral zone where race, sexism and gender issues can be discussed gracefully.”

Washington is currently studying for an MFA as part of the School of Visual Art's Design Criticism (DCrit) program. When asked why she sought a second master's degree, she grins. “I'm good at telling stories, and writing is the next progression—I want to do exhibits and books. I like the idea of learning new things, solidifying what I already know and putting it into the spectrum. You need to keep evolving your depth of intellect to be able to see design from another side.”

By Angela Riechers