I just moved to a nice neighborhood in Minneapolis — which is to say I live within walking distance of several places that would describe themselves as “bespoke” or “artisanal.” It’s a community filled with like-minded liberals who want to feel like they are in an urban cultural center and who prioritize buying ethical clothing and natural food over buying a house.
I was walking by the McDonald’s in the neighborhood, which is on the bottom floor of a historic brick building. A departure from most McDonald’s constructions — the standardized, free-standing structures, surrounded by parking lots that don’t work in neighborhoods that prioritize pedestrian traffic through civil engineering. This urban McDonald’s features floor-to-ceiling glass walls along one side and, as I walked past, I saw a black-and-white graphic pattern printed on the molded plywood benches inside. The pattern is wavy, graphic, geometric, and clearly African-inspired — completely unlike any other branded elements in this or any other McDonald’s.
McDonald’s has always marketed toward black Americans. It’s one of the few places in the media you consistently see black people represented across television, digital, and print campaigns., Even the tagline, “I’m lovin’ it,” conceived by Pusha T, targets the demographic. Their advertisements have included black celebrities and athletes and lots of black stock photo models and actors. What is significant about the benches I spotted is that they were using “black” graphics to attract white Americans in a predominantly white neighborhood.
White folks have generally shunned McDonald’s in favor of other food chains like Starbucks, Sweet Green, and... Chipotle, home of the California-style burrito (also owned by McDonald’s until 2006). McDonald’s, as one of the U.S.’s largest chains, has an army of resources and marketing research behind each design decision that they make. So this seemingly small decision — using patterned benches in a location that is targeted toward consumers in a racial, social, and economic demographic that happens to be an outlier to their target market — is a commentary on the intersection of race, style, and design.
This McDonald’s conversation is part of a larger discussion about race and food marketing, but it isn’t just in the food industry that I have noticed a trend toward using traditional and contemporary African and African American iconography to appeal to a white (or non-black) audience.
I’ve always been attracted to the minimalism of contemporary “white” brands — the understated brunch menu, the essential interior elements of buzzworthy coffee shops and breweries, etc. As a black graphic designer, I’ve often attempted to mask my blackness behind so-called white design aesthetics.
Designing your brand to look like it is a “black” brand is the new design trend, and I would forecast that it’s nipping at the heels of the healthy, artisanal, small batch trend in terms of scale. At a time when most creative content is data-driven and designed with metrics in mind, we can presume this trend is gaining ground because being black sells. Black imagery and black rhetoric have been used to sell cars, athleisure, fast food, and mobile applications to global audiences.
“Black” brand identities are the new mass-produced trend being consumed by white hypebeasts.
This isn’t a criticism of this trend, just a commentary. But…. is the black design being enacted by creatives who have the lived experience? There is one design firm here in Minneapolis that does work for several of the largest streetwear and footwear brands on the planet, but when I look at their staff, nearly all production comes from an almost exclusively white creative team. Consider that these brands are selling a “black” look to a white audience. But, if you are going to use Black™ designed and developed graphics and icons, I propose you should have to purchase a license to use those assets. The same way you would with stock photography and vector graphics. Do not align your brand with black culture without doing your homework and turning it into the black community for review. Foster and honor the black contributions to the graphic design industry by hiring black creatives and recognize that hiring black creatives isn't just about making good on using the black aesthetic but also bringing the talent that originated the aesthetic into the mix.
You could argue the design industry is so white-dominated that there isn’t a way for all of these black designs to be enacted by black creatives. But the McDonald’s creative — including the massive March 2019 campaign that focused on black millennials as it’s focal point — was all done by a large black-owned marketing and communications firm. Hiring black creatives is the easiest way to create a “black look,” but you also need to trust black creatives, and not cast them exclusively on those projects. Cultural exploitation has always been a concern to black creatives and it is unavoidable, but I think we are living and working in a world where the consumer can recognize what is real and what is a dilution and appropriation and make their choice.
Speaking on behalf of the 3% of African American graphic designers out there (citing a 2018 AIGA census), I would argue that we aren’t fixated on creating “black” or “white” design, but rather good design. And creating design solutions that benefit a wide range of people from different backgrounds — rather than working within the constraints of those parts of blackness that are now popular with the masses. Because aligning your brand with black culture is considered cool right now, but I’ll always be a black designer.
/written by Kelsi Sharp