Mitzi Okou

Written by Erin Malone

In 1987, Dr. Cheryl D. Miller, the renowned graphic design historian and educator, asked in a Print magazine article, Where are the Black Designers? The article, titled, “Black Designers: Missing in Action” challenged the status quo of the graphic design field. In 1998, Sylvia Harris asked in The Education of a Graphic Designer, “Is there a potential design tradition that can fuel black designers in the same way that black music traditions fuel black musicians?”[1]

I expect Harris was asking the question to understand if there was a black design tradition not influenced by white, European Swiss design, perhaps there might actually be more practitioners who could be their authentic selves. In 2015, Maurice Cherry spoke about the same issue at SXSW and yet here we are another eight years later, and the same questions are being asked across all the design disciplines—Where are the Black Designers?

In 2020, the first year of Covid and just after George Floyd’s murder, Okou, a recent Savannah College of Art and Design (2018) graduate, organized and facilitated the first “Where are the Black Designers?” conference, cofounded with Garrett Albury. The conference targeted Black designers working in technology and digital product design predominantly but wasn’t exclusive to these design disciplines. The free conference was held again in 2021 and the group has now become a non-profit organization and added several others in addition to Okou and Albury to the leadership team. 

Since that first conference, they have created a robust and lively slack community with several thousand participants, a job board, and launched an ongoing speaker series as well as a mentorship program to elevate these practitioners across the field of design. The organization’s mission statement reads, “We exist to heal, support, amplify, and make space for the entire spectrum of Black creativity while also decolonizing design through education and wellness resources, events, partnerships, and collaborations. Additionally, by connecting designers, educators, and creative leaders, we host a dialogue about change, both in and out of the design industry through our annual conference.”[2]

The first conference brought in speakers like OCAD Dean Dori Tunstall (who has just recently left the college), writer Roxane Gay, and former IDEO CEO Sandy Speicher and had over 5,000 participants watching the stream over the course of the day and another 10,000 streams after the fact. The second year of the conference brought in speakers such as Dr. Cheryl D. Miller, Omari Souza, and Ari Melenciano of Google, as well as Ovetta Sampson from Capital One (now at Google).

Okou commented in a 2021 Fast Company article after sharing that she applied for more than 200 tech design jobs after graduating, “Here were all these companies in this progressive field, saying, ‘We’re here for you,' and I’m like, that’s bullshit because just 3% of the [design] industry is made of Black people.” Eventually she landed at HP and after two years, she moved to Stockholm to work as a product designer at Spotify.

Okou considers herself an activist and is using her skills and the platforms she has available—explicitly Instagram—to raise awareness about the lack of Black designers in the field working with technology.[3] On her website she says that she “hopes to use the platform to support, empower, and amplify Black designers throughout their career and to help them create their own narrative by connecting them with the established legacy of the Black design community.”[4]

Check out the WATBD Instagram and YouTube channel where you can play back talks from past WATBD conferences.

Footnotes

[1] Sylvia Harris, The Education of a Graphic Designer, ed. Steven Heller, 2nd ed. (New York: Allworth Press, 1998), 125–29.
[2] Where are the black designers?, “About Us,” www.watbd.org, n.d., https://www.watbd.org/about-us
[3] Keren Dillard, “Mitzi Okou Speaks with an about Design Equity and Founding Where Are the Black Designers?,” The Architect’s Newspaper, February 19, 2021, https://www.archpaper.com/2021/02/mitzi-okou-speaks-with-an-where-are-the-black-designers/.
[4] Mitzi Okou, “About | Mitzi Okou,” experiment, accessed April 1, 2022, https://www.mitziokou.com/about.

Mitzi Okou Bibliography

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Some of the speakers for the 2nd Where Are the Black Designers conference.

Selected Stories

Yehwan SongProject type

Anicia PetersProject type

Simona MaschiProject type

Jennifer BoveProject type

Chelsea JohnsonProject type

Donna SpencerProject type

Lisa WelchmanProject type

Sandra GonzālesProject type

Amelie LamontProject type

Mitzi OkouProject type

Colleen BushellProject type

Cathy PearlProject type

Karen HoltzblattProject type

Sabrina DorsainvilProject type

Lynda WeinmanProject type

Irina BlokProject type

Jane Fulton SuriProject type

Carolina Cruz-NeiraProject type

Lucy SuchmanProject type

Terry IrwinProject type

Donella MeadowsProject type

Maureen StoneProject type

Ray EamesProject type

Lillian GilbrethProject type

Mabel AddisProject type

Women of IXD logo using a large capital W over of ixd text

© 2023 erin malone 

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