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Beware Racist Images

... design with care

Imagine my shock and embarrassment when reading this month's posts to our contact page, I'm suddenly accused of being a racist! The images used on the "Soft Soap" box evoked some understandably angry reactions from readers.

One writer exclaimed:
    > This was my first visit to your website
    > instead of leaving it with a wealth of knowledge
    > I am left wondering if this site owned by a
    > card carrying member of the KKK.
    > Is the lesson you were attempting to teach
    > worth losing millions of African American visitors?
    > Signed:
    > One Offended African-American Graphic Designer

Another reader wrote:
    > I was so shocked that you would allow
    > such an image to be put up on
    > your site without some type of disclaimer
    > or explanation about the "sambo" images.
    > That really hurt since I am an advocate of
    > defending other community groups.

Lessons not learned

I apologize for failing to realize that imagery used on the box would have racist associations. I failed to make the point up front that the article is about a box as a promotional vehicle and not the specific images decorating the box. I picked up a piece of memorabilia from 1971 and talked about its use as a promotional device -- when I should have used it as the launch of an investigation into the use of potentially racist images in graphic design. I can clearly see why some readers immediately took offense. I sincerely appreciate that some readers took the time to write -- and force me to look deeper at the issues.the image

While writing this apology, I've looked at many aspects of the article, the box, the images and how those images could take precedence over the main point of the article. I tried to contact anyone from the Trousdell studios to no avail. I really wish we could go back to 1971 and chat with the actual design team who put that box together. Wouldn't it be fascinating to understand what design processes and what decisions brought that box to life. Aside from just picking a turn-of-the century soap box as a knock-off for a promotion -- what were they thinking of? What was the racial climate of Atlanta in 1971? How could an illustration firm -- and such a notable one -- ignore images and their nature? Would they do the same promotion today? We simply don't know the answers to those questions and probably never will.

I contacted Ronnie Lipton a long-time friend and colleague (author of Designing Across Cultures and Information Graphics and Visual Clues) to get her take on the issues. Ronnie looks deeply into the meaning of images and words. Her writings and teachings promote sensitive design for diverse ethnic cultures, including African Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and others. One of her cardinal rules is to learn as much as you can about your audiences: Listen to and observe them, and test your designs. Through three revisions of this article Ronnie and I have gone back and forth via email, pondering why I didn't see the "Sambo" images and what I should say about that oversight.

Every book you pick about "graphic design" teaches that designers should select images appropriate for the audience. I've preached that lesson many, many times over the years. It's a simple rule: a designer should never use any image that could offend anyone -- unless they specifically intend to. Designers who knocked-off an 1800s soap box as the basis for a promotional piece should have taken into account the nature of the images they used.

Pimp But we see these kinds of images everywhere. Take a look at this year's New York Art Director's "Pimp My Brand" promotion. When I received that poster in the mail I was immediately shocked that the New York Art Director's club (which I have idolized for years) could use such an image and copy platform for their annual call for entries! But it wasn't just me -- one of my long-time favorite design pundits, Steven Heller, seems to agree with me. His article Exploiting Stereotypes: When Bad Is Not Good takes on the issue with fervor, saying:
      "Perhaps I am overly sensitive, even squeamish, when it comes to using racial and ethnic stereotypes in design projects. Yet it strikes me that the current Art Directors Club call for entries is toeing a thin line to make a humorous point."

And, there were many others... like Ad Rants and AdLand who tells about the Ronald McDonald connection for the promotion. Was this also a marketing blunder? Here's how the Ad Club explains it away. Myrna Davis, the club's Executive Director explains:
      "The African-American posing as Ronald McDonald is a reference to the company hiring hip-hop artists to mention its brand in their songs, and to earlier challenges to complacency about cultural icons"

Yet the imagery still seems a bit over the top. Davis also adds: "The coupling of these elements may be misconstrued on quick reading, but discussion and debate are vital. They also bring attention to the competition..."

So, in this case we're led to the conclusion that it was, indeed, a promotional gimmick specifically intended to get dramatic reactions from readers -- whether good or bad!

Anyone with any education at all in graphic design knows that readers generally view images first at face value, as valid, or even as gratuitous decoration, then move to a deeper level by making educated associations. It's the natural progression of human visual perception. (Note that all imagery used in design should reinforce the correct meaning and not be simply gratuitous!) We also know that since all images evoke a deeper meaning, whether learned or not, it is the designer's solemn duty to carefully plan the images so they will elicit the correct response from the reader. While writing about the soap box I failed to include the fact that those designers, thirty-five years ago, failed to follow that all-important rule to include all potential readers. We know that those who have a prior negative association with an image will be offended by it.

Fortunately, a third reader wrote in to share links to references that teach about racial stereotypes.

Stereotypes: Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans -- This excellent essay by Laura Green at Virginia Commonwealth University, identifies seven historical racial stereotypes of African-Americans and demonstrates that many of these distorted images still exist in society today.

Representation in Children's Literature: Colonial and Postcolonial Texts -- This essay by Betsy A. Knirk, exposes how literature which is not carefully written and designed can teach children society's beliefs, customs, and mores in a false or negative sense. It specifically uses the children's book "Little Black Sambo" as the epitome of racism. This essay struck home with me, because these are the images found on the "Soft Soap" box.

Knirk goes on to show us the most important consideration:
    > Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo,
    > which was first published in 1899 illustrates
    > how the native African was portrayed during
    > colonialism.
    > Sambo represents the quintessential caricature of the
    > black race prior to the late twentieth century.
    > ...
    > the images brought to life through language,
    > illustrations, and enduringly clever story lines
    > can skew, stereotype, and pervert different cultures,
    > as well as a child's notion of other.

This is the crux of the issue. But don't think it can happen just in children's literature -- it can happen in any visual communication to any audience. Extreme care must be taken to avoid racial or religious stereotyping.

These are excellent references for learning the lessons of race-neutral design and literature, and I wish to thank all of you who have written to point me in the right direction. See below for more references and further reading.

Always remember that none of us is infallible -- if I write something that offends you, or write something that is contrary to your thoughts on the subject, I'm hoping you'll call it to my attention so we can build a better understanding between us all.

Fred Showker
    Fred Showker, Editor/Publisher

Further reading:


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