Diversity in Design Begins at HBCU

By Perry Sweeper

March 01, 2016

Perry Sweeper, Morgan State University alum and Information & Interaction Design doctoral student at the University of Baltimore, shares his rewarding experience at an HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) for HBCU Awareness Month.

One of my fondest childhood memories is when my mother would hand me a pen and paper during Sunday morning service at church. I would sit and draw my favorite cartoon, comic book characters, and whatever else I could dream up. It was the perfect way to keep me from squirming and crawling under the pews.

As I grew older, my love for art translated into magazines and design. The allowance money I earned from doing household chores was spent on new magazine subscriptions that I would read, draw in, and use for inspiration in my own work.

Magazine design peaked my interest early on, and because I knew I wanted to be involved in the process, I wondered who these people were that crafted such masterpieces—and I wondered if any of them looked like me.
As I think back, one of the magazines that had a profound effect on me was Black Enterprise. It was an empowering, educational, and well-crafted magazine with people in it whom I felt akin to, who were doing the things that I wanted to do, and going to places that I wanted to go. I am proud to know that the founder of the magazine, Earl Graves, is an esteemed graduate of my alma mater, Morgan State University, a historically Black institution. I am also glad to know that one of the creative minds behind the scenes of Black Enterprise is now at my alma mater sharing his career experiences with its students. Ed Towles, the founding art director of Black Enterprise, has an extensive body of work that continues to serve as a fountain of inspiration for emerging designers and art directors.

Despite such pioneers, as I look back on my HBCU experience as an undergraduate student, I remember a profound exchange with a former instructor, and current mentor, Joseph Ford. During one of the many hours that I spent in the Visual Arts Department’s graphic design lab, I confessed that I was very discouraged and thought I would have a difficult time succeeding in a profession where minorities are severely underrepresented. I could tell that he was greatly disturbed by my perspective. He replied that my color has absolutely nothing to do with my success as a graphic designer, and what matters is how hard I work at my craft to become the best that I can be. This is a conversation that stayed with me, and one that he and I still reflect on today.

Mr. Ford faced a unique set of obstacles growing up. He grew up very close to the low-income, urban, and troubled neighborhood that Freddie Gray lived in, the young man whose death recently sparked city-wide unrest in Baltimore. He was raised in a single-family household in poverty. Despite his difficult upbringing, Mr. Ford graduated with a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, and was the first Black art director in an advertising agency in Baltimore. Mr. Ford also spearheaded the start of the first AIGA student group at an HBCU in the State of Maryland at Morgan. As an instructor, he instilled in me to be relentless in pursuing my dreams, to strive for excellence, and to appreciate the process along the way.

Many of us were told as children that because we could draw or paint well that we should become graphic designers. Most of us had no idea of what the career entailed. But the graphic design department at Morgan gave students an in-depth understanding of what a graphic designer was, and the skill set to pursue the field successfully. We learned that graphic design is much more than learning special effects in Adobe Creative Suite, but that it is problem solving at its core. Graduates exercised their minds to develop creative concepts and produce a quality deliverable in various mediums, which prepared them to become successful communicators in a constant evolving digital world.

On the campus of Morgan State University I was given countless opportunities outside of the classroom as I collaborated with fellow students on start-up clothing lines; served as president of the Student Artists Association; worked on the yearbook staff and student newspaper; and designed flyers and promotional materials for the Office of Student Activities. Serving on these teams afforded me the chance to travel to national conferences and build a design portfolio and relationships that got me my first job out of college at national newspapers. MSU supplemented this hands-on approach with core classes in drawing, painting, photography, basic design and color, and other disciplines, presented before students could delve into their graphic design concentration—ensuring their design approaches were informed by a rich background.

Despite many obstacles and limited resources, MSU graphic design students have graduated and succeeded in the field with significant positions at IBM, The Washington Post, Inglefield/Ogilvy and Mather, and the United States Federal Government. In 2012, 10 graduates of the graphic design program created the Morgan State University AIGA Student Group 10th Anniversary Commemorative Booklet celebrating the milestone anniversary. Each student produced an 8x8” piece of artwork creatively using the number 10 in their style of choice. The booklet received a Graphic Design USA InHouse Design Award and was featured in the GD USA InHouse Design Annual. Within ten years of existence, the Morgan State University AIGA Student Group has connected the students with the local area design community, expanded their professional connections, and offered opportunities for enrichment through portfolio reviews and campus visits from Ellen Lupton, Ivan Chermayeff, and Leatrice Eiseman.

The nation’s 105 historically Black institutions, including Morgan State, hold just three percent of student enrollment at two- and four-year colleges—yet they enroll nine percent of Black undergraduates and award nearly 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned by African Americans, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Furthermore, according to Gallup, Black graduates of HBCUs are more likely than Black graduates of other colleges to strongly agree they had support and experiential learning opportunities in college, were prepared for life after graduation, had a professor who cared about them as a person, a professor who made them excited about learning, and a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. HBCU’s design programs are vital because they provide these students with a sense of purpose, essential support, and an immense understanding of their heritage.

Black designers offer a rich perspective to the conversation of graphic design, and in order to grow the number of successful Black graphic designers, HBCU’s must play a pivotal role and continue to educate and equip its design students.

At this stage of my career, I have worked for many of the top publications in my region. And as I look back, I credit my alma mater with providing plentiful opportunities to develop. Without professors who went above and beyond to build my career, I would not be the designer that I am today. I am an extension of the success of a diverse team of HBCU educators and the proud product of an HBCU. Although I credit my mother with sparking my design career on the pews of a church, my beloved HBCU is responsible for launching me into it. Graphic design is important at HBCU’s because these institutions ingrain uniquely essential values, pride, and tenacious character into its students. It is where the generations before pass on history to, and empower, the generations to come. An HBCU is the place where we can learn from people who look like us, who have paved the way, and who show us that a perceived ceiling that contains us can become our launching pad. It is a place where we can build the strategic toolkit to make our dreams come true.