We can readily point to Rosa Parks and Oprah Winfrey as women of color who have lived enriching lives. However there are also many other women of color who have helped shape the way we think, function and see the world. We’d like to highlight three amazing individuals: As creative thinkers, artists and designers, each one of these women of color have been incredibly influential in the graphic design industry.
Anderson has been part of New York’s art and design tapestry for well over 30 years. She is a gifted artist who has a keen skill for bringing stale and unassuming items together to make a piece of art that will take anyone’s breath away. She has created dynamic typographical works for magazines, book covers, posters, theater, and more, lending her unique creativity to every medium she touches.
After studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Anderson began working her first job as a designer for Vintage Books in 1984. By the next year, she had moved on to The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine where she stayed until 1987. She later described the years spent working there as “life-changing”, and said that it was one of the jobs that was the most difficult for her to leave.
Anderson then joined the team at the iconic Rolling Stone Magazine in 1987, where she steadily worked her way from an associate position to senior art director. It was here that she truly made her first big moves as a designer, particularly utilizing her creativity in the area of conceptual typography; the artistic layout of letters in a work of informational art. She made some truly eclectic, timeless and awe-inspiring letter forms that have been highly influential in the world of magazine design.
In 2002, Anderson moved on to work for the New York City design agency, Spot Co. There, as a creative director, she oversaw projects for big-name clients including Broadway, for whom she designed a multitude of posters. Some of her Broadway works that you might recognize include the iconic Avenue Q puppet art that appeared on posters and playbills for the show.
This eclectic artist has further spread her talents and forayed into new media. She is currently a partner at Anderson Newton Design. She is also a member of the faculty at the School of Visual Arts in their Master Authors Program. These many roles, combined with the several books she has written and illustrated on the subjects of typography and graphic design, have certainly put her up there as one of the greats within the design industry. In 2018 Gail Anderson was honored with The National Design Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Accolade, the first year that women of color were awarded.
Sylvia Harris was an expressionist who remains relevant throughout eras; someone who infused their art with subjective perspectives and emotions rather than create a literal interpretation of the world. She was born in the thick of the Baby Boomer generation, in 1953. After obtaining her BFA (in Communication Arts and Design) and her MFA (in Graphic Design) at Virginia Commonwealth University and Yale University, respectively, Harris spent the majority of her career deploying her artistic skills for the benefit of others.
She was hired at her first job while still holding only an undergraduate degree, working at the local Boston based public TV station WGBH. She later moved on to The Architects Collaborative (TAC), and then to the reputable Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM). It was at SOM that she became involved in urban design and planning, helping to create a more sustainable community. During her time there, she put her design talent to use for organizations such as the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.
As a graphic design consultant, Harris also worked with many other high-profile clients such as the Central Park Zoo, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Pfizer, and the New York State Council of the Arts. She did all of this through her design consulting firm, Two Twelve Associates, which she co-founded with two partners in 1980. It was during this time, while working with the Central Park Zoo, that Harris fully realized how powerful design could be in improving people’s lives. “The Central Park Zoo was a real turning point,” she said in an interview. “They were making the animals’ habitats more humane and thinking about the interface with the public… and the public loved it.”
In 1994, Harris established her advisory firm, Sylvia Harris, LLC, providing consultancy services for various clients on the design of public information systems. Organizations on her client list included the U.S. Postal Service, AIGA and a host of others. She also shared her wisdom with the next generation, working as a lecturer at Purchase College State University of New York, and at her alma mater, Yale. At the latter, she introduced a graduate information design class, the first of its kind at that institution.
Design teaches us not to make assumptions.Sylvia Harris, design strategist.
Harris truly believed in the power of design, and never stopped finding new ways to use it to help others. When asked in an interview what her future goals were, she said “I am interested in using design thinking to help the federal government create and deploy better public services,” showing her continued passion for design that directly affected people and the systems that make up their everyday lives. Harris is an inspiration to many women of color that are interested in the design industry because she was a trailblazer. Although she passed away unexpectedly in 2011, she is on this list because her knowledge and expertise lives on, remaining highly relevant and impactful, as evidenced by her posthumous AIGA award in 2014.
Michele Washington is a designer who creates work that is truly multicultural. Washington’s work often integrates colors, themes, patterns and textures from foreign cultures and different eras, putting them together in unique and interesting ways. This includes the use of letterforms from different writing systems, sometimes used as a subtle background, sometimes boldly in the forefront. There seems to be no limit of where Washington draws inspiration from, both culturally and artistically. When asked what inspires her, she once answered “I find the work of photographers inspirational, and printmakers and sculptors, because each has their own sense of visual language,” demonstrating the many visual art styles that she is moved by.
Washington got her initial graphic design education at the School of Visual Arts and her master’s degree at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. After completing her education, she began working for Vogue Butterick Patterns, a company that creates and sells clothing patterns. Working at this company helped her gain a vast portfolio of experience in media. Washington has also worked as a designer at the Chicago Tribune newspaper and The New York Times, and has lent her talents as a director of editorial art to publications such as Essence and Self Magazine.
Michele Washington has also taught a graduate exhibition class in Design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Teaching is something all three women of color in this list have in common. In her role as a teacher, Washington favors a highly unstructured teaching style, encouraging a sharing of ideas and thoughts. Of this, she has said “I want students to walk out knowing how to think.” Additionally, she incorporates her signature multicultural approach into the classroom by having her students spend time with different cultural groups outside of their own, doing things like sharing a meal. “The small rituals around the social act of eating” she says, “are something every living human can relate to.”
Not long ago, Washington went back to school to earn a second master’s degree in Design Criticism from the School of Visual Arts. She is also a graphic design entrepreneur and owns her own firm Washington Design, operating out of a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. She occasionally writes articles for her blog, Cultural Boundaries. Additionally, she is currently on the team at Cox Matthews Associates as a creative director and focuses on user research for Cerebral Design.
Further demonstrating the wide range of her talents, she also designed the packaging for her own line of natural home and body products, Mausam. One look at the product packaging and you can immediately tell that its vibrant and earthy design elements are owed to Washington’s skill.
Women of color are trailblazers.
Each of these women of color have made numerous impactful contributions to both the world of design and the world at large. Through their distinctly unique approaches, they demonstrate the many ways design can be created and utilized, and the many ways it can positively affect the people who see or use it. We hope that this has inspired you in your journey. And we hope you will take a minute to appreciate these amazing women of color and their roles in the world of design.