Representation Matters Everywhere, Even Abstract Illustrations

Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.

Living With Television: The Violence Profile

Strong word, annihilation. We are represented when we see analogs of ourselves in popular culture and the world around us. When we aren’t represented, it’s as if we cease to exist in the larger cultural narrative.

As a straight, middle class, white male I have never struggled with representation because most of popular culture has looked like me for most of my life. It’s easy to be fooled that what I experience is the default experience for everyone.

As a designer, I have to know better. And then I have to do better.

Putting Representation into Practice in My Design Practice

When I sat down to design an editorial illustration for this article, I knew I wanted to represent the diverse clientele my company aims for — different social backgrounds, genders, races, ages, etc. Diversity was design constraint Number One.

I also knew I wanted to use the same four-color color palette from a recent Blankenship Office Instagram campaign, and a simple geometric graphic style I tend to lean on for quick editorial illustrations of people. Those were design constraints Two and Three.

With those constraints in mind, my inner designer monologue went something like this:

“Hmm… pink reads as Caucasian. If I use pink for all four characters, it communicates ‘these people are white’. I don’t really want this article to be all ‘when I say clients I mean white people.’ What does gold mean? Blue definitely says dark skin. If I use it, how do the other colors work in relation to it? What do light-colored eyes on dark-colored skin signify? What does the size of the smile say? Eye shape? Clothes? Hairstyles?”

You can see how representing different types of people gets graphically complicated. If I was only designing from my own ethnocentric background, I’d probably draw four slightly different-looking white people, maybe one or two of them women, and call it a day.

But I have to know better. And then I have to do better.

Design is never neutral.

I believe design is the disciplined process of changing an existing situation to a preferred one. That process is a series of decisions, and all decisions and designs are manifestations of what we believe. Design can’t be neutral and ideological at the same time.

The decision to represent diverse types of people in a little spot illustration isn’t inconsequential; it’s design decision informed by an ideology. It changes an existing situation to a preferred one so that more people see themselves (or some approximation of themselves) represented. Where there was symbolic annihilation, now there is symbolic representation.

Michael Bierut says, “Much, if not most, graphic design is about communicating messages, and many of these messages are intended to persuade. This places its practice clearly in the realm of politics.” 

Design is packed with intent, symbolism, and — as much as we may not want to admit it — unconscious bias. When I’m pushing pixels or drawing shapes, I’m making statements, articulating my beliefs, and using whatever platform I have to say “this is the way I see the world.” And so do all designers.

Everything we design and every character we draw are direct results of our beliefs and experiences. Informed or ignorant, we make what we believe.

It Takes a Village

If we believe representation matters, it will show in our work, no matter how abstract our characterizations may be. We won’t always get it right. We’ll always need the input of people who are different from us to ensure we’re portraying them in a respectful manner. But as my friend Kim said, “There’s a fine line between offensive caricature and tasteful representation — for me it’s worth it to see something that looks like me even if a well-meaning person missed the mark a little.” That gives me hope that when we aim for better representation in our work, even if we miss the mark, we’re being more helpful than harmful.

Mean well. Listen well. Represent well.