Racism Untaught

John O’Neill
Assistant Professor of Graphic Design
University of Minnesota Duluth

My presentation will speak to the legacy of how the graphic design industry throughout history has reflected racism in mass communication, shaping the attitudes and behaviors of the general public.

Teaching graphic design students the racial impact of design is as important as instructing them in software or conceptual and visual form-making skills. Racial components are often overshadowed within socially conscious design, for example higher sustainability standards to decrease waste and pollution. If students learn how racism is experienced within mass media, they will gain greater sensitivity how their graphic work could perpetuate racial stereotypes.

My presentation will showcase how a higher sensitivity to racism provides a greater context for the way different cultures and communities around the globe can perceive the same visual messages differently. Students will also gain an in-depth sense of empathy and critical thinking, which can be applied to other aspects of their design skills, most notability through their use of UI/UX design principles as they design interfaces. Students need to have the same sensitivity to societal and cultural norms when designing content for the 21st century, no matter if it is print or digital media.

With the use of web 2.0 and social media, graphic designers can have worldwide audiences for their projects larger than what could have been possible before. Communities around the globe are becoming more diverse, which requires graphic designers to have the skills to recognize racism in all of its forms. By doing so, they will avoid provoking overt and subtle racism in the work they produce.

Graphic designers are no longer limited to promoting social causes in their work to evoke social change. Instead, they can be agents of social change by intentionally preventing racial stereotypes in mass media.