A Theory of Design Identity

We are moving away from melting pot identity metaphors toward the idea of a rainbow

Colette Gaiter
Departments of Africana Studies and Art & Design, University of Delaware

Racial and other identity connotations are essential in design and visual communication analysis. Just as historical and economic conditions contextualize designed objects, omitting identities causes incomplete and biased design history. A look at the designs commissioned for the 2021 Oscars examines how minimizing some designers’ identities when talking about their work creates de-facto hierarchies and inside/outside attitudes toward creators.

Generally, unless a visual communication product is clearly biased in its presentation and intent, embedded social connotations are considered benign. Examining all identity representations is essential for insightful design analysis. In the news coverage examples presented, the Black designer’s heritage is most clearly connected to elements in his work.

“Design Identity Theory” is analogous to applying Critical Race Theory to law practice. Expanding Laswell’s Model of Communication that considers (1) Who (2) Says What (3) In Which Channel (4) To Whom (5) With what effect?, a thorough analysis of “Who” and “To Whom” would include all socially defining identities. Analysis does not automatically imply bias but expands historical and cultural context. Explicitly naming aspects of all designers’ backgrounds deflects stereotyping by foregrounding identity’s complexity.

We are moving away from melting pot identity metaphors toward the seemingly trite but accurate idea of a rainbow, where colors blend but are still individually visible and essential to the entire effect—acknowledging and celebrating difference. “Design Identity Theory” fills in historical gaps, expands culture, and helps build a more equitable society.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 8.2: Annual CAA Conference on Thursday, March 3, 2022.