BIPOC DESIGN HISTORY Black Design in America: African Americans and the African Diaspora in Graphic Design 19th—21st Century
Asynchronous Online Design History Course
Black Design in America is the first in a series of BIPOC Centered design history courses facilitated by Polymode. Launched in January of 2021 as live and pre-recorded lectures, readings, and discussions, this synchronous and asynchronous series of classes sheds light on moments of oppression and visibility. The series revisits and rewrites the course of design history in a way that centers previously marginalized designers, cultural figures—and particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and Queer, Trans, People of Color (QTPOC).
Silas Munro, Pierre Bowins, Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton
Brian Johnson, Silas Munro, and Tanvi Sharma
COURSE MARKETING AND OPERATIONS:
Audrey Davies, Brian Johnson, Silas Munro, and Tanvi Sharma
Audrey Davies, Randa Hadi, Michelle Lamb, Silas Munro, and Tanvi Sharma
TEACHING ASSISTANT: Tanvi Sharma
Black Design in America class topics include the ancient origins of African alphabets, innovative mathematics in African architecture, systemic racism of the transatlantic slave trade, W.E.B. Du Bois’s innovative information diagrams in 1900, the aesthetics of Eugenics and its science of racial profiling, the Harlem Renaissance and other queer Blackness, the grassroots network of Victor Hugo Green’s Motorists books, urgent Civil Rights protest movements, the rise of hip hop’s graphic language, histories of Black liberation from Afrofuturism to the Black Lives Matter movement, and methodologies of Black design education. Explore this project’s poetic research →
Silas Munro: Bearing Witness: A Designer’s Struggle for Integrity
CCA September 2020
The Design Division at CCA welcomed Silas Munro as our second speaker in the 2020 Fall Design Lecture Series. These lectures bring leading designers, strategists, curators and educators to speak with our community.
The Fall 2020 series speaks to design as a tool for empowerment. An established designer, educator, and founder of the design studio, Poly-Mode, Silas Munro has come full circle. Drawing inspiration from James Baldwin’s 1963 talk entitled, An Artist’s Struggle for Integrity, Munro guides us on a journey through his own search for integrity within the world of design. Throughout the lecture, we get a clear sense that Munro believes that “what he ought to do” as a designer is “bear witness” to the times. His witnessing is a sort of triple vision. With one eye, Munro is witnessing the present – a revolutionary movement for Black lives and against police brutality and systemically entrenched racism. Through his second eye, Munro reaches into the past to witness the history of systems of oppression, to contend with multiple identities – designer, queer, biracial, Black; and to make visible, the identities that have been erased or suppressed from design and data visualization. Munro’s third eye bends its lens towards what’s possible for design futures.
Munro weaves us into a narrative crescendo that amplifies a design ethos that he describes as Polymodal, Du Boisean, and rooted in Lineage. His polymodal way of practicing design—born from his thesis at CalArts—has lent a flexibility that has allowed Munro to work on researching, writing, and designing identities and systems with clients like MoMa, The Venice Biennale, Institute of Contemporary Arts, and Cooper Hewitt, in an effort to present and exhibit the work of a deep lineage of African-American designers. That lineage stretches back to include Black men like Jacob Lawrence, Mark Bradford, Willi Smith, and W.E.B. Du Bois, with the latter two having deeply influenced Munro’s approach to his work. After contributing to design research and design writing for the book, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America, Munro’s Du Boisean ethos was born to contend with a reframing and recontextualization of design history, a remapping that uncovers and illuminates design’s historically invisible voices. Munro describes his identity work for the Willie Smith: Street Couture show at Cooper Hewitt as “uncanny but powerful”. In Willie Smith, the queer, Black fashion designer who made “clothes for the people who wave at the Queen”, Munro found lineage, an “ancestral node whose legacy he has felt compelled to honor and memorialize”.
Early in his talk, Munro refers to W.E.B. Du Bois as a designer, an identity not often associated with Du Bois. At one point Munro plays a speech where Du Bois, after having been made aware of a series of lynchings near Atlanta, discusses the impetus for action when knowledge has run its course. Hence, Munro acknowledges that this moving from knowledge to action is indeed the work of a designer. He concludes his talk with images of his newly found connection to surfing and of a paddle-out in honor of Breonna Taylor. Joined by what he saw as “all kinds of people”, Munro says of the experience that he finally felt like he belonged. He calls on designers to design for community and for society, to share in the un-learning and co-creation of what design can be, and to integrate a more embodied self into the design process. It certainly is a strategy of emergence, a strategy for bearing witness to the times with integrity. The struggle is certainly real.
Lecture at SFPL Main Library, Koret Auditorium
Tue, Oct 29, 2019
W. E. B. Du Bois was a prolific author, renowned sociologist, fierce civil rights advocate, co-founder of the NAACP, and a historian of black lives. He was also a pioneer in data visualization. Working with ink, gouache, graphite, and photographic prints, Du Bois and his student and alumni collaborators at Atlanta University generated crisp, dynamic, and modern graphics as a form of infographic activism. 63 brightly colored broadsheets were exhibited in Paris and made 20 years before the founding of the Bauhaus. These visualizations offer a prototype of design practices now vital in our contemporary world—of design for social innovation, data visualization in service to social justice, and the decolonization of pedagogy.
Silas Munro is a designer, educator, and writer based in Los Angeles. He’s currently an Assistant Professor in Communication Arts and MFA in Graphic Design at Otis College of Art and Design, Advisor, Chair Emeritus in the MFA program in Graphic Design at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and his work and writing has been published in many forms around the world. In this episode, Silas and I talk about what it means to be a ‘design nomad’ and how this applies to ideas around expanded practices and cross-disciplinary work, how teaching influences his design practice, and how to think about decolonizing graphic design history.