Mitzi Okou speaks with AN about design equity and founding Where are the Black Designers?

Black Designers Change The Narrative

Mitzi Okou speaks with AN about design equity and founding Where are the Black Designers?

(Designed by Laetitia Auguste/Provided by Mitzi Okou)

Mitzi Okou is a young visual and interaction designer and a 2018 graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, but, most importantly, she, with graphic and interaction designer Garrett Albury, is the cofounder of Where are the Black Designers? The organization held its debut on Instagram this past June and has been breaking ground after entering academic and professional spaces to question the lack of inclusion of Black designers in the industry.

AN sat down with Okou to discuss the initiatives of Where are the Black Designers? (WATBD) and representational challenges faced by Black and POC creatives.

The Architect’s Newspaper: So, tell us a bit about what drove you to start this initiative.

Mitzi Okou: The question “Where are the Black designers?” was first publicly asked by Maurice Cherry in his presentation given at SXSW Interactive in March of 2015, where he asked this question and eloquently explained solutions about how diversity in design could be solved. He posted this presentation on YouTube, and I would find myself going back to watch over and over again. The question has been brought up by people like Cheryl D. Miller who in a PRINT magazine article titled “Black Designers: Missing in Action” brought awareness to the issue in 1987, but the topic has yet to be formally addressed.

Last summer, after the unfortunate death of George Floyd, I was unsatisfied with how companies were responding to the situation, and how they would throw their money into places that were clearly not beneficial to Black designers. They did not address the elephant in the room, which was the fact that Black people make up three percent of the design industry. I felt like this was a slap in the face because you can’t say that you care about the Black community, but then only have three percent. This contributes to racial injustice because there is way more than three percent of us out there, and a lot of us are struggling to get hired.

I would go to the Instagram of these large companies after they had posted the black square and a statement, and I would ask them what they were doing to address the three percent. The response was always an apology and something about their practice of working in low-income, Black and Brown communities.

That was when my cofounder, Garrett Albury, and I planned to put together a small community discussion, starting with a poster challenge as a creative protest. We were going to be happy if even ten people responded, but the poster challenge went viral and our community discussion became a ten thousand–plus person conference. People really wanted to talk about this question.

A poster made for a June 27, 2020 event (From Instagram user @kianije)

What are your thoughts on social media movements and how do you think WATBD pushes beyond the screen?

Social media movements are great because of accountability and interactivity. Without social media people aren’t plugged in. All of these young Black designers like me were floating on little islands, and social media movements have brought us together. Now we are a network and a community. We are educating ourselves, empowering ourselves, and we have an open space for allies to listen and support.

Being that WATBD has been on a public global platform, do you think it has opened learning and development spaces to designers that otherwise would not have access to these kinds of resources (like funding and/or school)?

I think that since we are an open educational community, there is always opportunity for learning. There was one event that we had in collaboration with Design to Divest, and we were addressing the question “What is good design?” We shouldn’t be asking that question, but instead we should be asking “What is functional and what is not functional?” All kinds of people came out to this event, of all ages and education ranges. We were listening to professors and elders on how to address these questions, and because of the openness of our community there was space for a broad range of learning.

an arrangement of cookies asking where are the black architects?, an initiative from mitzi okou
(Provided by Instagram user @flourless)

Where do you see WATBD inserting yourselves in the narrative of fighting for representation? How do you think that the programs and talks that you are introducing are raising both designers and the industry to question an established norm?

We are ambitious. We want to do all of these crazy projects because our goal is to not only push for diversity but really expose Black talent for how amazing it is. I see us as an institution of free learning and almost accountability to keep those in our community visible. We want to provide spaces and resources to amplify Black creatives. With events like the virtual art exhibition that is coming up, we are trying to expose Black talent. These designers deserve it because they work so hard.

We are already doing a lot of collaborative work with companies and trying to pick out specific talents but we wanted to open a space to just put as much talent on display as possible. We held an open call and are displaying submissions in a virtual exhibition. It is a gateway for portfolio building and exposure for our community.

The Where Are The Black Designers Black Virtual Exhibition, organized in collaboration with Working Not Working, will be held on Saturday, February 20. All information can be found on the organization’s Instagram account @wherearetheblackdesigners.