Elizabeth Bayne: In ArtCenter's 90 years, we've had 300 black students graduate. How do you feel about those numbers?
Tyrone Drake (BFA 96 Graphic Design): We basically make up 1 percent of the total number of graduates from ArtCenter at this point, which is obviously an extremely low number. And you know, I have been teaching here for the past 17 years, and was also a student. The numbers of BIack students since 1996, when I graduated, have increased, but very minimally. And in my 17 years of teaching here at ArtCenter, I see the effects of these low numbers by the absence of Black students who are enrolled in my classes. Of course, I would like to see those numbers increase at the student, faculty, and administrative levels.
EB: In terms of faculty representation, has that changed at all? Has it increased; has it improved?
TD: I don't really know the total number of African American or people of African descent in terms of the number of faculty we have here, but I know that the number is low. I do know that there are only a few of us in the Graphic Design Department, and obviously, I would like to see that number change. I think increasing the diversity in our faculty would bring more diversity in terms of thought, perspective, culture, process things of that nature, which in turn will benefit our student body and the culture of the school at large. More representation brings more awareness.
EB: Why is faculty representation important?
TD: Faculty representation is important because, as I said, it fosters different perspectives on learning and doing, design and process. A diverse faculty is ultimately good for design education and design practice both nationally and globally.
EB: How do you cultivate that? How do you teach that?
TD: Graphic Design for example, which I teach at the undergraduate and graduate levels, is about storytelling. The most important as aspect of design problem-solving is the Discovery Phase — it's where you ask questions and do the information gathering to gain perspective on problem you are trying to solve. Having students understand problem-solving evolves, looking at the issue from various perspectives produces more authentic solutions. As a teacher, it's my responsibility to teach that methodology as part of my courses.
For a more personal example of this being cultivated in practice, when I designed the exhibition I did on the Black Panther Party, Hard Bop, Reflections + Interpretations of A Militant Manifesto, I was bringing to the exhibition design from my very personal experience and cultural influences of growing up in Oakland, Calif., and the influence the Black Panther Party had on me as a kid and our West Oakland neighborhood. I knew that at some point, I wanted to pay homage to that movement. When I had the opportunity to do it on a personal level, I used all of the skills that I had to communicate that information. But I did it with the perspective of experiencing that on a firsthand basis. Because I was there and I lived it.
Ultimately, I wanted people to experience the impact of the Black Panther Party through my eyes, through my use of contemporary typography and graphic design. But the message dates back much further than that. My perspective influenced the way the content came out. That's what diversity is, to me, in design. That's one of the ways diversity manifests itself.
EB: How'd you find out about ArtCenter?
Through a friend of mine who was going to school here. I remember the first time I came up and I saw the work. The influence of that, I'll never forget it. I mean, the smell, the look, the feel, everything. When I left here it's like, "You know what? I'm supposed to be here. I need to be here." I think a month after that I resigned from my job as an art director. I got my portfolio together, submitted it. Once I got accepted, I came to work the next day, wrote a letter that said, "You guys, love you, I'm out."
EB: Any regrets?
TD: No regrets whatsoever. ArtCenter came into my life at the time that I needed it to come into my life. So there's no regrets. That was meant to happen, destiny.
EB: What does it mean to be a Black artist?
TD: I'm not a fan of titles, but I get why they're used because in this country — there's always this need to put people into categories, which creates stereotypes. I really despise that. I hate the idea that somebody has to be labeled one thing or another. I am a designer by trade, Black by my race, and African American by ethnicity and nationality.
I grew up in an all Black neighborhood. I went to an all Black high school. I was around a lot of creative people, musicians. And I was also around a lot of political people, the Black Panther Party. I went to the worst public high school in our neighborhood in the ’60s in the Bay Area. I came to ArtCenter to get my education. But I got my other education growing up in Oakland. I don’t feel using the term Black Designer is necessary to define who I am and what I do.
EB: How might ArtCenter, the campus environment and the curriculum, benefit from having an increased number of Black students?
TD: When you start your design education here at ArtCenter, it becomes this journey of problem-solving, asking questions, cultural immersion, exploration and establishing your own voice. That's how, again, having diversity and having differences of opinion and different perspectives will help influence other people in the classroom. Because you learn more from your classmates sometimes than you do from your instructors.
EB: If we want to see more diversity at ArtCenter, what's the creative community's role or responsibility in making that happen?
TD: I'm actually involved in an initiative with a guy who has a studio in Los Angeles, Kenny Gravelis. Kenny is Black; he's from London. He worked for Def Jam Records years ago in New York.
We decided to create an initiative through his connections with the entertainment industry and my connections in academia to go out and identify talented kids in the Southern California area: in South Central, Watts, any of those neighborhoods, all of those high schools, identify those kids, expose them to careers in design, and find ways to get them to have the money to go to those schools. But more importantly, even after that, help them find placement in terms of jobs.
So, I think the role of education and institutions, as far as diversity is concerned, it has to be authentic. You've got to go into the communities; you've got to go into those neighborhoods; you've got to identify talent; and you've got to provide opportunities.
More importantly, you've got to create opportunities and give them exposure. That's what true diversity is about for me. Exposure. For example, having young, talented creatives understand that all that gear you're wearing from your favorite lifestyle and streetwear brands and all that music you're buying... There aren't many Black artists and designers behind the scenes in major decision-making roles on the creative side doing and making. However, like myself, there are some and the numbers are slowly increasing. We want to create opportunities for young talented Black kids to consider careers in design; you can be one of those designers."
*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo credit: Everard Williams
I think the role of education and institutions, as far as diversity is concerned, has to be authentic. You've got to go into the communities, identify talent and provide opportunities.Tyrone DrakeDesign Educator, Graphic Designer
ArtCenter's Commitment to Black Lives