Why Black in Design Matters: Learnings from the Harvard conference

Black in Design is shifting the paradigm by reframing the annals of not just architectural and design history, but of American history itself.

When was the last time you attended a conference, alone, but by the end of the evening, you and the person sitting next to you had fast become best friends, even deciding to form a collective to collaborate on community-based initiatives? This is only one of many dynamic interactions that ensued at the Black in Design Conference, held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and organized by the school’s African American Student Union (AASU). Black in Design delivered a rare opportunity to connect—one that we designers need to cultivate, particularly when the minority becomes the majority. The energy was electrifying.

Drawing upon the success of the first Black in Design conference in 2015, the most recent conference sought to “broadly expand the definition of design, imagined for a more equitable future,” by interweaving presentations of what it means to be black and working as a designer today in contrast to viewing oneself as a black designer. The conference attracted attendees from a diverse set of disciplines: from graphic and UX designers, developers, educators, and mathematicians, to food scholars, visual artists, photographers, service designers, and data scientists. 2017’s co-chairs, Marcus Mello (Masters of Urban Planning and Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, 2018)and Chanel Williams (Masters of Urban Planning 2018), along with Natasha Hicks (Masters of Urban Planning/Masters in Design Studies 2019), Amanda Miller (Masters of Design Studies 2017), and Armando Sullivan (Masters of Urban Planning 2018), formed a five-person conference planning committee that curated a dynamic, interdisciplinary pool of architects, community planners, academics, social activists, curators, thinkers, visual artists, and designers working in the field today and chose themes of social justice and activism to explore the 2016 presidential election and its impact on communities of color.

Unapologetically black

Harvard’s Black in Design conference is shifting the paradigm of Black design by reframing pedagogical practices, building interdisciplinary collaborations, and contributing new thought and scholarship to the history and development of architecture and design, while offering distinct elements of “soulfulness and spiritual connectedness.” For many attendees, it was their first time attending a design conference with primarily black and brown designers, providing a safe space that is unapologetically black to generate new ideas and build diverse voices within the design community.

Sekou Cooke, a Harvard GSD alum and assistant professor at Syracuse University School of Architecture, said, “Black in Design conference is its own thing, and seeks to define blackness as its own thing. I feel that BiD is distinct from most conferences by offering emotional support and solidarity; models that are missing in most academic and corporate environments, but are necessary to foster inclusivity and counter existing marginalization for non-white design and architecture professionals.”

A cross-section of visual and cultural identities

BiD’s speakers tackled a cross-section of robust topics, including pop-cultural criticism, from Afrofuturism (an all-encompassing philosophy, imagining alternative visions of tomorrow) to Hip Hop; as well as mental health, structural racism, and the effects of urban planning to reframe and expand visual identities by presenting case studies that demonstrate how African Americans are situated within the design community.

Brandon Breaux's presentation on the importance of mental health.

Designing the stigma out of mental health

An emerging voice in visual arts and design, Brandon Breaux’s down-to-earth demeanor allowed him to honestly share his personal family experience with mental health and said he was humbled and honored to be invited to speak at Harvard, yet still needed to be himself. He shared his recently developed t-shirt line to remind people of the importance of mental health awareness, with half of its proceeds going to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This session hit a personal chord with several attendees: designers Audrey Bennett and Dian Holton both admired Breaux’s honesty, as mental illness is not typically discussed by people of color in public, yet it has been a reality in Holton’s own family, prompting her to volunteer for mental health nonprofit groups.

VR: A tool to teach about racism

Embedded social issues, such as structural racism, impede design and designers, too. Columbia School of Social Work’s Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn demonstrated how virtual reality can be a solution by immersing viewers in the realities of racism: to achieve racial justice requires understanding. “There are people who solve the problems of their work and people who solve the problems of the world. People who solve the problems of the world require the intersection of art, design, science, and humanity,” Cogburn said.

“Virtual reality can be a solution by immersing viewers in the realities of racism: to achieve racial justice requires understanding.”

Redefining identity, space, and placemaking

As Black designers, we need to generate new models, design practices, and design principles to create new places based on the embodied experience of racialized subjects and the spaces that they inhabit. Historical research and recent design initiatives illustrate the potential for new, more inclusive spaces if cities were designed “afrocentrically.” Columbia University professors and architects Mabel O. Wilson and Mario Gooden presented their work in constructing Global Africa Lab, (GAL). The lab harnesses new design methods, technologies, and media to explore the history of regions and specific places in the African continent and its diaspora. GAL’s innovative research and theoretical frameworks examine how the specific political histories and the contemporary forces of globalization shape the architecture, urbanism, culture, and ecologies of these places. For BiD, Wilson and Gooden showcased their architecture student’s renderings that re-imagined the future built environment through a black lens.

Wilson and Gooden weren’t the only ones to focus on the importance of politics and public spaces in shaping identity. Seattle-based designer, community advocate, and educator K. Wyking Garrett co-founded Black Dot, a resource center for African-American designers.

Garrett is also the president of the Africatown Community Land Trust, which was developed by a consortium of concerned parents, educational professionals, and community stakeholders to address the Seattle Public School District’s educational crisis within its African American community. The group’s efforts have provided a culturally responsive learning community that fosters hope, resilience, and academic achievement. Also working at the intersection on architecture and identity, internationally-known landscape architect Walter Hood developed an elevated bridgescape project in Oakland, California, which pays homage to the 7th Street corridor as the former hub of Jazz and Blues clubs. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., curator Michelle Joan Wilkinson is currently working to reframe visual identities while preserving architecture and design born of African-American culture.

Panel discussion during the Black in Design conference.

A call for systems change

The conference ended with a challenge from speaker Antionette Carroll, founder of St. Louis’ Creative Reaction Lab: initiate more equity-centered community design projects. Carroll defined this notion as a unique creative problem-solving process based on equity and humility-building while integrating history and healing practices, addressing power dynamics, and co-creating with the community. Following the death of Michael Brown and subsequent unrest in Ferguson, this design process was devised to focus on a community’s culture and needs so that they can gain tools to dismantle systemic oppression and create a future with equity for all. Carroll feels the design industry tends to respond to racial injustices by developing “band-aids” via poster or social media campaigns rather than actually challenging traditions through human-centered design thinking, which would connect current issues with the constructs of racialized spaces in our society.

“Bringing in a world of equity; of justice and joy, requires deep imagination. If we can’t dream it, we can’t fight for it. As designers, you can offer new ways of thinking—by inviting yourselves into more spaces.”
—DeRay McKesson, Black Lives Matter organizer

Students from Professor Jennifer White-Johnson's Bowie State University class pose for a photo during the Black in Design conference.

Building collaborations and coalitions

The energetic spirit of BiD 2017 was so infectious that designers from numerous cities expressed a need to collaborate, to become more civically engaged with local nonprofits, expand their networks within their own firms, schools, or professional communities.

With the help of fellow designer Rafael Sergio Smith, conference attendees Sarah Lidgus, founder of Small Cities, and designer Njoki Gitahi are now developing a model for an alternative design school, called Everyone, Everywhere design.” There have been additional outcomes from the Black in Design conferences as well, including the development of Black Space NYC, “a collective of young, Black, NYC residents, changemakers, systems thinkers, learners, and lovers.”

Attendee Alana Washington, design manager at Capital One, riffed off of the Afrocentrism, Afrofuturism, and Hip Hop sessions to map out a presentation to share with her 400-member design team. Washington says, “While searching online for a conference with my peeps, I found Black in Design.” Her story and other attendees is indicative of the ways the AASU group and the Black in Design conference have the power to be a significant game-changer in the reframing of black convenings, critical design discourse, and coalition building. There is a growing movement and a distinct need for mounting such conferences that bring together an interdisciplinary collective of creatives in one black space, and this is just the beginning.

Learn more about Harvard University's Black in Design conferences.

Learn more about AIGA Diversity & Inclusion.