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THINK BEFORE YOU TYPE The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

THINK BEFORE YOU TYPE The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Written and designed by Nancy Palm

Printed by Global Printing Alexandria, Virginia | 2012.

Dedication spread


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

dedication spread

Dedication This book is dedicated to my husband, John Palm III, who supported me through many long nights and understood when some of those nights took me away from home. This process would not have been possible without you.



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

that designers wield caution when representing an audience of different races.

there. As the minority becomes the majority, it is more important than ever

materials. Some of the images may not be as overt, but the subtle cues are

still often depicted using stereotypical imagery in advertising and marketing

come a long way since Aunt Jemima and Frito Bandito, racial minorities are

that America is now a post-racial society. But while the country may have

With the election of President Obama in 2008, there is an widely held belief


Some may argue that design is purely an aesthetic exercise

of a race that was not white. In 2000, that ratio changed

and that its role is to impart information to the consumer

to 1 out of 4, and by the 2042, non-Hispanic whites will be

while remaining free of social context; in other words, that

a minority. As the trends continue toward a more racially diverse

designers are merely the intermediary between client and consumer. That couldn’t be further from the truth. As Milton

nation, it is important that designers take note and respond

Glaser said, “Good design is good citizenship.” (Citizen

accordingly. Numbers and trends aside, it is perhaps more important that designers do the ethically right thing and

Designer ix)

steer clear of stereotypes altogether.

Design shapes our assumptions of the norm. Society derives its meaning and values from cultural and social experiences. Because design is a cultural dialogue, taking society’s experiences and beliefs and

Definition of a Stereotype

translating them into a visual message, it is imperative

Walk into a room full of people and an interesting thing

the designers take responsibility for how their work

happens. The human brain begins to classify its surround-

affects society.

ings, putting similar and dissimilar patterns together. This

Designers contribute to the fabric of our society, and

categorizing of images, emotions and the unknown has

their work can reaffirm many commonly held beliefs. But

many beneficial aspects. However, it also has a downside

when the work reaffirms a generalization that is in actuality

known as the stereotype.

a falsehood, then the designer is doing a disservice to

Reducing people to simplistic patterns and ideas dates

the public. The perpetuation of stereotypes is an example

back to the beginning of time when it was necessary to

of this disservice, and in the following pages, readers will

use identifiable characters to pass on history, tell stories,

find examples of how stereotypes have evolved and are

continue rituals and differentiate between good and evil

in use today.

(Ewen 51). Today, our tribes are no longer small and cut off

One cannot ignore history’s role in today’s design deci-

from one another. Instead, they have evolved into towns,

sions. America has had its fair share of racial tension, from

cities and countries. People can interact globally in a mat-

slavery to the Japanese interment camps, to the Zoot Suit

ter of seconds.

Riots. At each juncture, design has played a role, whether it

Back then, there wasn’t a word for it. The word “stereo-

be in the form of a black child being scrubbed white with

type” dates back to the 18th century and was coined by

Pears Soap or the form of a “Japanese hunting license”

French printer Fermin Didot, who developed a printing

showing a buck-tooth, slanty-eyed Japanese man. The impact of racism in those images reverberates today,

process in which a papier-mâché mold was created from compositional lockups, such as a newspaper page filled with

not only in print and media but also in the hearts and minds

columns of type and advertising. These molds could then

of the public.

be used on several presses at once to print mass quantities

Society is changing, as demonstrated by dramatic shifts in America’s racial makeup. In 1900, 1 in 8 Americans was

of books and newspapers without the need to reset type for each press (Ewen 51).


Left, cover for Typecasting. Right, in this Pears Soap ad, a black child is scrubbed white.

With this preconception comes an emphasis on the familiar and the unknown, which turns the familiar into

companies were looking for during and immediately follow-

comfortable territory and the unknown into something

ing the Civil War. Not only was the population expanding,

strange and alien (Ewen 55). The familiar, in turn, becomes

but so were businesses and advertising methods, which included handbills, broadsides, posters and trade cards. It was journalist Walter Lippmann who molded the meaning of the word as a method of perception in “Public Opinion,” his 1922 study of the public mind in which he said: “The real environment is altogether too big, too com-

“us” and the unknown becomes “the other,” creating a divide that is emphasized in politics, media and society in general. Look back to the late 19th century, a time when the population was booming and advertisers were looking for a way to capture consumers, which they did by using racial symbols. At this point, the use of racial caricatures was

plex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not

common. “Racial stereotyping in the service of commerce

equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety,

was a benign graphic convention not intended to deride, or

so many permutations and combinations. And although we

so the artists may have believed. It was a right-of-passage,

have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct

a tax levied upon all entrants to the melting pot,” said

it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. To

Heller in his book Design Literacy.

traverse the world, men must have maps of the world” (Lippmann 16). Reducing people, races and gender to a simple means of

Prior to her contemporary makeover, Aunt Jemima “spoke” to mainstream white America as the loyal servant whose grinning smile supposedly meant she was happy in

identification became this map, allowing one to find ways

her role as a plantation mammy. Following her promo-

to identify and determine where they fit in with a group or

tional debut at the World’s Exposition in 1893, she became

culture that was once an unknown. These impressions,

one of America’s most trusted commercial symbols. Because

however, are the not the product of an individual but rather

of the emotion so many attached to her image (warmth,

a culture that has already defined what we see.

stability, family), she has yet to be retired.

Add to that the rush of modern life and Lippmann said

Just as stereotypes are used to sell products, they’re

that because there is limited time for intimate acquaintance,

also used to sway public opinion in times of war. In Nazi

people are more apt to notice a trait that marks a type

Germany Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, told

and fill in the rest of the picture (89). Stereotypes “are culturally conditioned reflexes that we

his studio to manipulate anti-Semitic stereotypes into subhuman depictions. This, he believed, would “incite

carry around in our heads. To a large extent, they shape

callous treatment and justify extermination” (“Designing

how we will define other people even before we see them,”

Demons” 2001).

write Elizabeth and Stuart Ewen in their blog (Stereotype & Society).


Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Polishborn illustrator Arthur Szyk created a caricature of Japanese

Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Image from

This was a simpler and faster method to get a large amount of information out to the public, which is what



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

“Designers can’t assume that because they did not

intend to offend or did not mean to use an image or a Emperor Hirohito for Collier’s anniversary magazine in 1942. In the illustration, he depicts Hirohito as a bloodsucking vampire bat about to drop the bomb. Szyk believed

particular connotation of an image, that others will

he was “justly attacking the principal scourges of war through ridicule and derision, for which racism was a tool” (“Designing Demons”). In an essay for Eye Magazine,

not make other meaningful associations. If individuals educator and author Steven Heller said war is not the only reason for“graphic hate.” “There is no other greater motivator than apprehension of ‘otherness,’ ” he said, adding that

believe in stereotypes, they will use them.” imagery depicting racial stereotypes are used to exacerbate the fears of those who are insecure. Add a hateful gaze or dramatic lighting and a once-benign image can become an attack (“Designing Demons”). “It takes very little effort on the part of designers to open the Pandora’s box of offensive graphics,” he said, adding that terrorist attacks have left Arabs caricatured in a way that’s reminiscent of anti-Semitic cartoons of the past (“Designing Demons”). Those images end up leaving a lasting impression of this group, an impression that people will carry with them throughout life. “The single derogatory picture often negates a thousand positive words,” Heller wrote (“Designing Demons”). It is not the images, though, that stir controversy; it’s the images in combination with human perception and history (“Science of Stereotyping”). So, for some, if the Aunt Jemima box of pancakes has been on the breakfast table since childhood, those memories of happy family breakfasts are inextricably linked to her smiling picture. It’s easy to see why her removal would cause emotion. However, there are plenty of people for which Aunt Jemima represents a time of oppression and hate. Seeing a constant reminder of that stirs feeling of resentment. It is the former that makes it hard for some to discard Top, Illustration from the cover of Collier’s Magazine. Left, Aunt Jemima in 1939.

their hold on stereotypes. To Lippmann, stereotypes may not

Los Angeles Times; Ebay; and


“be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted” (Lippmann 95). All of our habits, our tastes, comforts and joys have adjusted themselves to this picture in our mind. It is here where

“As graphic designers we can’t just shrug it off as the responsibility of the client and be absolved of our ties to harmful and derogatory imagery; we are its creators, after all, and have a heavy hand in whatever lasting message it may have.”

everything has its place and where people act accordingly. Disrupting that picture may seem like “an attack on the foundations of the universe” (Ewen 57). But what about positive stereotypes, some may ask. If the stereotype accentuates a positive aspect of a race, is it still wrong to use them? Verizon ran into this issue with its wireless TV spot in which a white kid walks into a Verizon store wearing a belt full of gadgets. He’s approached by an Asian salesman who appreciates his gear but offers the kid a smart phone that can do everything in one small package. The role here fits the “model minority” pattern of Asians presented as technological experts, mathematically gifted and intellectual. This portrayal also falls under the marketing concept called “match-up theory,” in which consumers are more comfortable viewing actors in roles they believe fit the product. Therefore, consumers expect Asians to have computer technical know-how, according to researchers (Fahri). It’s a far cry from the racist depictions of the past, but still manages to generalize a vastly diverse community that makes up nearly 6 percent of the US population (Fahri).


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

YouTube screengrabs

Top, two London-based designers created the VW suicide bomber ad without approval from Volkswagen. Below, Verizon plays to the match-up theory by presenting an Asian as a technology expert.

Finding comfort in the familiar is addicting, but in a world that’s becoming smaller, thanks to technology, it falls to the designer to step away from the simple and keep the lessons of the past firmly in the forefront (Design Literacy 350). Audra Buck-Coleman, assistant professor of Design at the University of Maryland, wrote in her essay “In Pursuit of Undermining Stereotypes” that graphic designers play a crucial role in molding the messages we see in advertising, commercials, food packaging and on websites and billboards. Sometimes, though, unintended messages sneak into a graphic designer’s work, which in turn reinforces stereotypes. “Designers can’t assume that because they did not intend to offend or did not mean to use an image or a particular connotation of an image, that others will not make other meaningful associations. If individuals believe in stereotypes, they will use them,” she said (“Undermining Stereotypes”). But that doesn’t mean designers need to create bland work. It just means that they need to be aware of the messages that are being created, she said. “As graphic designers we can’t just shrug it off as the responsibility of the client and be absolved of our ties to harmful and derogatory imagery; we are its creators, after all, and have a heavy hand in whatever lasting message it may have” (“Undermining Stereotypes”).



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

in current use today.

examples, however, provide a look at how stereotypes have evolved and are

spots turned up far more examples than what is shown here. The following

An examination of recent stereotypes in print media as well as television

Looking to the Recent Past

Benetton A contemporary investigation of racial advertising wouldn’t

joined together by handcuffs. Both men are dressed identi-

be complete without taking a look at the controversial ads

cally, with the exception of the black man’s jacket, which is

produced by Oliviero Toscani in the 1980s and 1990s for

cuffed at the wrist.

clothing manufacturer Benetton. Toscani stirred controversy with campaigns that put provocative subjects on large billboards and asked the public to consider the subject matter (Eye Magazine). AIDS, war, death and racism were all subjects within

The ad ran in the United States but was pulled when groups claimed the photo was racist and that it labeled the black man a criminal (Cortese 10). On closer inspection, however, a different narrative unfolds. There are no visual cues to suggest who is the criminal and who is the officer—

Benetton’s reach. Because Toscani was known as a

no visible tattoos, no grimy clothes, no cuts or bruises, no

photographer who stretched advertising beyond its norms

labels or pins.

of sterilized models and cute puppies, his work with the

The symmetry of the photo suggests an equal balance

clothing company took a normally shallow field and opened

between black and white. The slightly clenched hands give

it up to social critique (Eye Magazine).

way to a certain tension on both sides, which could be a

In terms of race, take, for instance, the ad that featured

reflection of society’s view toward the overall subject of

one black child and one white child. The black child’s hair

race. In the end, it’s impossible to tell who is the criminal

has been styled to resemble horns while the white child’s

and who isn’t. But it is clear that both men are linked, that

hair falls in blond curls to her chin. She is smiling and looks

what happens to one will affect the other (Burrell 25).

angelic while the black child stares with large eyes and

The only conclusion as to why people complained about

a flat expression. The children have their arms wrapped

the image is that society has been taught through social

around each other.

conditioning and the media to view the black man as a

The image raises a number of thoughts. Is good embrac-

criminal (Burrell 25).

ing evil? Or is evil embracing good? Is black bad and white good? Is the girl smiling because she’s privileged while the black child is just enduring the moment? Benetton banked on this type of provocative advertising to gain attention. However, some of the ads received negtive feedback, regardless of the clothing manufacturer’s original intent. Another ad showed a close-up of a black man and white man handcuffed together. All the viewer sees is two wrists


The only conclusion as to why people complain image is that society has been taught through so and the media to view the black man as a crim


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

ned about the ocial conditioning minal. Photographer Oliviero Toscani sought to challenge the public with his work for Benetton.


Taco Bell During the late 1990s, Americans became entranced by

While the dog was cute, there were many who saw the

a big-eyed, big-eared chihuahua that represented fast-food

commercials as a negative reinforcement of stereotypes.

chain Taco Bell with a variety of sayings in Spanglish: “Yo

The ads, they said, likened Hispanics to animals “who have

Quiero Taco Bell,” “Drop the chalupa” and “Viva Gorditas.”

to scamper for food” (Martin).

The latter likened the rivalry between Burger King

The campaign, created by ad agency TBWA Chiat Day,

and Taco Bell to a revolutionary war that had been won by

also placed the dog in a variety of settings, including

Taco Bell. In a “breaking news update,” viewers were “up-

a retro-style room, listening to what can only be described

dated” about the success of Taco Bell’s campaign to oust

as taco porn on a speaker phone. In another setting, the

the Whopper as the hungry man’s meal of choice. The end

dog takes his date to an expensive restaurant, only to turn

of the commercial showed the campaign’s “glorious leader”

and leave because the menu is unsatisfactory (YouTube).

addressing the public. “Hasta La Vista, Whopper,” said

It’s humorous to see a tiny dog in these settings, but the

the Taco Bell chihuahua, dressed as one can only assume

context of the messages is still clear: Latino men like to

is Che Guevara (YouTube).

listen to porn and lack sophistication.


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

The Taco Bell chihuahua took on the persona of revolutionary Che Guevera for the fast-food chain’s “Viva Gorditas” television commercial.

Associated Press


Vogue cover featuring LeBron James and model Gisele Bundchen. “Destroy This Mad Brute” WWI recruitment poster.

Vogue In Vogue’s April 2006 cover, basketball star LeBron James

from the man with his arm around her? Does she not care?

is pictured next to model Gisele Bundchen for the magazine’s

Is she used to it? Contrast is also emphasized in the color choices. James

and star athletes and proposes to reveal the secrets of the

is dressed in all black. His tank top shows off his tattooed

best bodies.

arms (another bad-ass vernacular). Bundchen is wearing

James, wearing a black tank top, shorts and sneakers from

an aqua strapless dress, much like the dress worn by the

his own Nike line, is dribbling a basketball. His mouth

character in the recruitment poster. Her color suggests

is open in a scream, his body tense and leaning toward the

calThe masthead is in red, a color that can mean anger and

viewer. He has his arm around Bundchen, who appears

violence or importance and passion, but put in context

to have been caught mid-dance.

with the photo, the meaning leans toward the former.

The cover was celebrated by the magazine because it was

Conde Nast’s Vogue treats the photo placement in the

the first to feature an African-American man. (It was the

same symmetrical manner as other cover shots. However,

third cover to feature a man.) However, all of that backfires

rather than a tight crop, the magazine chose to show full

when viewing the cover in context of race (Shea).

body shots of James and Bundchen. Also, rather than

Rather than celebrating LeBron’s prowess in a positive light, the magazine relies on racial stereotypes and portrays

placing the masthead in front of the models, the editors placed it behind their heads. This most likely was done

James as an angry gorilla laying his claim on the tiny-

for legibility purposes, but it also creates odd shapes out

waisted Bundchen.

of the “O” and “G” that could be read as horns above

When compared with the 1917 WWI recruitment poster “Destroy This Brute,” the similarities are hard to ignore. In the poster, a giant gorilla is baring his teeth at the viewer while holding a distraught woman in one arm and baseball

James’s head. This subtle cue suggests that James is evil in some form. Was this an unfortunate accident? Considering that Vogue’s covers are well thought out in advance, it seems

bat in the other. The type above the poster calls for the viewer

unlikely. This juxtaposition of the past with the present

to “Destroy This Brute,” putting the gorilla in the role of

reinforces the role of the black male athlete as a brutish,

the enemy and devourer of the innocent.

angry figure.

In the Vogue cover, James is photographed by provoca-

In this instance, it seems that artist Man Ray Charles

teur Annie Leibovitz in the same pose, except instead of

was right when he said in 1998 to Steven Heller in Design

a baseball bat, James is dribbling a basketball. (His weapon

Dialogues: “In some of today’s advertising I now see the

of choice.) Also, Bundchen isn’t distressed but rather seems

Negro athlete as this superbeing who is able to be all things

unaware of the anger coming from James, which brings

within the confines of the arena. The image of the athlete

up a study in contrasts. Is Bundchen representative of the

is juxtaposed with the image of the criminal and the image

calm white woman who is not fazed by the emotion coming

of the rapper. When combined, you have the same old shit­­­—


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design;

“Shape Issue,” which spotlights the world’s top models



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design


Left, Intel’s print ad campaign. Right, a Harper’s Weekly illustration of slaves working a cotton gin.

a dangerously, uncontrollable, powerful physical specimen.

copy is centered and set in all caps in a sans-serif meant

In the nineties, this is beautiful. When something is

to evoke technology.

thought of as beautiful, it is considered sexy. In this case, the sexually charged black male remains.” With itscirculation of more than 1.1 million subscribers with an average annual income of $68,667, Vogue

Looking at the intended visual metaphor for an instance, it’s hard to see how this new processor will be fast, because once the starting gun goes off, the sprinters are going to run into each other. If the sprinters had been placed next to

should strive to be more thoughtful when it comes to repre-

the manager, with their heads raised, then perhaps the ad

senting race. (

would have read differently.

Intel In 2007, Intel launched a poster campaign for its Core2 Duo Processor that showed a white man standing in the middle of office cubicles with his arms crossed and a satisfied smile on his face. He wears khakis and button-down blue shirt. He is flanked by two rows of African-American sprinters who appear to be taking their block-start positions. They are dressed identically and their heads are bowed. The copy at the top of the ad reads: “Multiply computing performance and maximize the power of your employees.” The connotative message that the company is trying to get across is that its chips possess the speed of these top

The ad was pulled and Intel apologized for running it: “Intel’s   intent of our ad titled ‘Multiply Computing Performance and Maximize the Power of Your Employees’ was to convey the performance capabilities of our processors through the visual metaphor of a sprinter. We have used the visual of sprinters in the past successfully. Unfortunately, our execution did not deliver our intended message and in fact proved to be insensitive and insulting. Upon recognizing this, we attempted to pull the ad from all publications but, unfortunately, we failed on one last media placement. We are sorry and are working hard to make sure this doesn’t happen again” (Bhagat). 

sprinters, and that a single man can harness this power. But the ad’s denotative meaning supersedes the original intent and brings to mind a time when blacks were slaves and white men their masters. That the sprinters are all dressed alike reinforces this model as each man is no different than the other and therefore only exists as a machine meant to serve. The design is symmetrical with the exception of the central figure, who stands slightly to the right. This position partially blocks the view of the last sprinter and creates a visual tension that immediately draws the eye. The main


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

The connotative message is that Intel’s chips possess the speed of top sprinters, and that a single man can harness this power. But the denotative meaning supersedes the original intent and brings to mind a time when blacks were slaves and white men their masters.

Above, Library of Congress; top left, Google Images


Summer’s Eve In July 2011, Summer’s Eve, a feminine hygiene product,

exasperated “Ayi, Ayi, Aye!” The hand is complaining about

launched a series of 50-second spots under its “Hail to the

traveling, feeling fresh and adds that while it may perform

V” campaign. The spots targeted three racial groups and

miracles, such as having children, it needs a little help from

featured hand-puppet vaginas giving their apparently

time to time. The ad ends with the hand admonishing—in

clueless owners a stern talking-to (Adweek). The spots,

Spanish—her owner’s choice in underwear: “That thong is

however, received their own talking-to when viewers

the tackiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And you know

started to complain that the ads reinforced racial stereotypes.

I’ve seen it all’ ” (“Leopard Thong”).

In the “Lady Wowza” spot targeting African-Americans, the hand puppet begins to talk over animated drawings,

This ad personifies stereotypes of Latino woman as overly sexual, mother of a large family and hot-tempered.

saying, “Girl, I’ve seen how much time you spend styling

The final ad, “B.F.F.,” targets the Caucasian women

your hair. And trust me, your hair can’t possibly do what

and is the only one that doesn’t depend on stereotypes to

I, your wunder [sic] down under, can do. …” As the hand

get its message across.

speaks, the animation morphs from one hairstyle to the next, all the while framing the hand as if it is the head. Not only does this ad use stereotypical language and cadence of African-American women­—“Girl,” “Mmmmmhmm” (complete with hand rotation)­—it also reduces them to their sexual organs (Doyle). The “Leopard Thong” ad targeting Latino women also starts with stereotypical language with the woman’s


All the ads feature hand-drawn text and imagery done in soft hues of purple, yellow, green and blue. The color palette adheres more to Summer’s Eve’s brand than it does to stereotypes of women. Originally, the ad agency, The Richards Group, defended the spots, with founder Stan Richards saying: “We have a wonderful client that recognizes no matter what they do, marketing in the feminine hygiene category is going to

Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Summer’s Eve’s “Hail to the V” campaign featured a series of spots aimed at different racial groups. Top, “Lady Wowza,” middle, “Leopard Thong,” and bottom, “B.F.F.” Screengrabs from YouTube

provoke a reaction. After listening to thousands of women

intend that. However, it’s a subjective point of view. There

say they want straight-talk and lighthearted communication

seems to be an important perception out there that they

on a historically-uncomfortable topic, Summer’s Eve gave

may be, and we would never want to perpetuate that”

us license to be bold, irreverent and celebratory across a

(Garrett Stodghill).

multitude of mediums and to different audiences. We are

The quote is interesting in that the Richards Group still

surprised that some have found the online videos racially

managed to deny the use of stereotypes in these spots,

stereotypical. We never intended anything other than

putting the onus instead on its target audience. This begs

to make the videos relatable, and our in-house multicultural

the question: Is it a good business practice for an agency

experts confirmed the approach. The more important

to devalue the opinions held by those it aims to persuade?

mission is to get women talking about taboo topics and we hope these negative sentiments don’t overshadow that effort” (Nudd). A week later, Summer’s Eve pulled the spots from its website and YouTube channel. Richards Group PR executive Stacie Barnett was quoted in AdWeek saying: “Stereotyping or being offensive was not our intention in any way, shape, or form. The decision to take the videos down is about acknowledging that there’s backlash here. We want to move beyond that and focus on the greater mission.… We do not think they are stereotypical, nor did we obviously


Girl, I see how much tim hair. And, trust me, your h what I­—your wonder dow you blowing me off ? Soa how much that dries me o line. You really want to Hmmmm hmm. Didn’t t dermatologist-tested Su Wash? An extra 10 secon Summer’s Eve cleansin club and, bam, we are so l 28

Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

me you spend styling your hair can’t possibly do wn under—can do. So why ap? Please. You know out and irritates my bikini o be itchy down here? think so. How about some ummer’s Eve Cleaning nds in the shower plus a ng cloth before you hit the lady wowza. 29


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Abercrombie and Fitch In 2002, clothing manufacturer Abercrombie and Fitch

Each shirt recalled a stereotype, such as the Charlie

released a series of graphic tees that were meant to add

Chan figure who spoke broken English and dispensed

levity its fashion line (

wisdom in a fortune-cookie-style of speaking (

The T-shirts featured Asian caricatures with conical hats, “Asian” typography and advertised services such as “Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make it

The shirts also portrayed imagery using “coolie” hats worn by Asian laborers who were forced into services such as driving ricksaws, or tending to laundry, which was a job

White”; “Rich Shaw’s Hoagies and Grinders: Good Meat,

white Americans gladly passed along to Asian immigrants

Quick Feet”; “Wok-N-Bowl: Let the Good Times Roll”; and

(Encyclopedia Britannica Online).

“Pizza Dojo: You Love Long Time.” The $25 shirts were quickly criticized for their racist

The term “coolie” means “an unskilled laborer usually in or from the Far East hired for low or subsistence wages.” The coolie trade began in the 1840s as a response to the

(BBC News).

decline of slavery, with most laborers being shipped to the

New York’s Chinatown. Photo by Joe Benjamin/Flickr

depictions and were pulled from the company’s 311 stores



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

“It’s unacceptable for them to smear and continue to

perpetuate racist stereotypes of Asian-Americans,” U.S. and European countries from China (Encyclopedia Britannica Online). Most workers became coolies via negotiation, but by the late 19th century, free immigration

said Ivy Lee, 30, a lawyer at Asian Pacific Islander

ended the trade. When Asian workers came to the United States during the Gold Rush, they came as immigrants and not contract laborers. But the “coolie” name stuck

Legal Outreach. “They wouldn’t do the same for any

(Encyclopedia Britannica Online). The name is also used in association with the Yellow Peril, a time when Americans became afraid that Asian immigrants would take over

other ethnic groups.”

their jobs and, thus, turn American into another China (Tam 6). The T-shirts show Asians not as business leaders or legitimate residents of the U.S. but rather as bumbling foreigners who are subservient to their white masters. Take, for instance, the “Pizza Dojo” tee in which the words “You Love Long Time” appear. The quote is reminiscent of one used in the film “Full Metal Jacket” during a scene in which a prostitute tells the American GIs, “Me So Horny. Me Love You Long Time.” It may not have come from the movie, but the auditory link is there. Bringing back such mental images only perpetuates negative stereotypes of Asians and puts them firmly in the category of “other.”

Associated Press, Google Images

About two weeks after the tees were sent to stores, they These Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirts were pulled from the company’s 311 stores following protests.

were pulled and the company issued an apology.


DirecTV The satellite TV company had a hit with its 2010 “Opulence, I Has It” spot, which featured a Russian billionaire, dogs playing poker and a miniature giraffe. Trying to capitalize on the popularity of its ad, the agency, Grey New York, set

The use of the song creates an uncomfortable tension because of the mood it conjures. The viewers see a stereotyped Asian man selling television packages to consumers while images of the Vietnam War flash in their minds.

out to create other over-the-top ads. The public, however, did not react well to the racial stereotypes presented in 2011’s “The Truth” and “The Whale.” “The Truth” was pulled from YouTube shortly after it launched, and “The Whale” was never released to the online video channel (Nudd). In “The Truth,” an African-American boxer talks about his career wins along with DirecTV’s savings package as he walks through his mansion, bling hanging from his neck and his entourage trailing behind and shouting, “That’s the truth, Truth!” The stereotypes presented here include the AfricanAmerican boxer who is wearing bling and walking around his mansion/shrine. This perpetuates the idea that successful African-American sport stars are egotistical, have to show off their wealth and have the most expensive items available (hence the boxing kangaroos outside, the yacht, etc). Other stereotypes in the ad include the overweight trainer, the old white butler, the copycat little boy (dubbed “Half Truth”) and the girlfriend with an attitude. The ad drew also criticism when, at the end of the 30-second spot, it showed Half Truth punching the butler in the stomach.


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

DirecTV’s “The Truth” campaign drew criticism rather than laughs for its depiction of an over-the-top boxer. Following page, comedian Dat Phan’s portrayal of a larger-than-life gambler was chock-full of stereotypes. Screengrabs from YouTube

DirecTV didn’t learn from the reactions and continued with its larger-than-life concept with a new spot called “The Whale,” which contained over-the-top Asian stereotypes. In the ad, an Asian gambler (Dat Phan) talks about how

with war protesters, and the song soon became inextricably linked with the Vietnam War (LaRose). The use of the song creates an uncomfortable tension because of the mood it conjures. The viewers see a

while he’s small, everything he does is “crazy big,” which

stereotyped Asian man selling television packages to con-

has earned him the nickname “Whale.”

sumers while images of the Vietnam War flash in their

To drive the point home, the viewer first sees Phan petting

minds. That probably wasn’t what the agency intended.

his oversized koi. Phan then gets up and walks through

Grey New York crossed all racial lines when creating these

his garden while two super models follow on either side.

ads, and one could argue that they are stereotype parodies.

The commercial cuts to Phan, who looks like he’s just

But at what point does one join in on the laughter and at

sat down on a furry couch, but once the camera pans back,

what point does one feel insulted?

the viewer sees that the couch is really an oversized baby panda eating a large bamboo stock. All the while, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” plays in the background. The list of stereotypes is long: the koi pond, the panda, the character’s short stature, his gambling obsession, his display of wealth, his accent, his broken English and his exaggerated motions. The music selected for the commercial is not only an auditory stereotype but is also disconnected from the ad’s message. According to Adweek’s Nudd, the music is from Public Enemy’s “He Got Game,” which samples Springfield's youth anthem (Nudd). “For What It’s Worth” was written in response to the closing of Pandora’s Box club on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. The song’s lyrics, however, also resonated


“There’s something happening here. What it is ain

there. Telling me I got to beware. I think it’s t

Everybody look what’s going down. There’s battl

wrong. Young people speaking their minds. Gett

it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound. Everyb

the heat. A thousand people in the street. Singin

for our side. It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that so


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

n’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over

time we stop, children, what’s that sound.

le lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s

ting so much resistance from behind. I think

body look what’s going down. What a field day for

ng songs and carrying signs. Mostly say, hooray

ound. Everybody look what’s going down.”



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Staples’s 2011 ad plays to the Asian model minority type.

Verizon/Staples In Verizon’s ad for its Xperia PLAY cellphone, a white kid

The theory says that consumers are more apt to buy a

walks into store sporting a belt containing all the latest

product from someone who fits the role: “Just as consum-

gadgets. He boasts to the Asian salesman that he has every-

ers expect cosmetics to be sold by a supermodel or athletic

thing he could possibly need, but when the salesman tells

equipment by a professional athlete, in the minds of the U.S.

him about the Xperia’s capability to do everything all his

public, Asian Americans are strongly associated with

gadgets do, the kid is flummoxed (Verizon, YouTube).

technical know-how,” says researcher Jinnie Jinyoung Yoo

In a 2011 Staples ad, gadgets fly and walk into the store. The main expert in this commercial is an Asian man

of the University of Texas (Fahri). This new, positive role, while better than the standard

who appears as the words “highly trained tech experts” are

tropes, still has some Asian-Americans bristling and saying

heard. In a companion piece, one of the laptops flies into

that it depicts them as one-dimensional characters (Fahri).

the window and crashes. It’s picked up by the same Asian

The stereotypes will probably continue, given research

expert and taken to the tech support center. Again, the

that shows Asian-American consumers who accept it.

words “highly trained expert” are heard as the actor comes

A 2010 study reinforced the match-up theory when Asian-

onscreen (Staples, YouTube).

American consumers were shown ads featuring Asian

While both ads feature Asians in roles that showcase positive attributes, they also fall into the “model minority”

models and white models. Consumers responded more favorably to the ads featuring Asians selling technology

category, which creates the ideology that all Asians are

products than they did when they were sold by Caucasians.

smart, hard-working, highly successful and driven (Fahri).

The opposite held true when the product was replaced

It’s a trend that experts have seen during the last two

with something other than technology (Fahri).

decades and speaks to what they call “the match-up theory.”


Top from left: Lum’s Chop Suey in Fresno, Ca.; a 1965 sign for a restaurant in Pasco, Wa.; and Pete Hoekstra’s website.

Typography Stereotypes in advertising and print go beyond just the model and settings. There’s also type to consider. Typefaces have personalities, and when they’re used over and over for a certain product or movie, they turn into visual cliches. Ethnic type is type that is meant to express the essence of a specific ethnic group. To some, it’s a quick way to get a message across without having to resort to other, more intricate and thoughtful methods. Perhaps the best-known example of an ethnic typeface would be the “chop suey” letters that can be seen on so many Asian restaurants, menus and anything that has to do with Asia. Take the 19th-century face called Chinese, which has been known as Mandarin since the 1950s. This face has pointed ends and wide bases, as if it were drawn with two of the eight basic strokes of Chinese calligraphy. “… Just as chop suey is an American invention, so, too, are the letters of Mandarin and its many offspring. Neither the food nor the fonts bear any real relation to true Chinese cuisine or calligraphy. But this has not prevented the proliferation of chop suey lettering and its close identification with Chinese culture outside of China” (Shaw).


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

The typeface was seen in San Francisco’s Chinatown following World War I and, by the 1930s, was used in restaurants across the country. Chop suey—meat and eggs cooked quickly with vegetables and held together by sauce—became a popular dish in the early 20th century, and restaurant owners leveraged that by using the name in advertisements and signage. The lettering has transcended regions and is now used to advertise several pan-Asian restaurants (Shaw). Chop Suey lettering was seen earlier this year on former U.S. representative Pete Hoekstra’s web campaign to unseat Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow. The site combined stereotypical images of China with “calligraphy” (Ellison).

Bottom from left: Restaurant signage. The 1899 poster “A Trip to Chinatown,” by the Beggarstaff Brothers. Top, photo by Vintage Roadside, Flickr; by Curtis Gregory Perry, Flickr; and Google Images. Next page, photo by Curtis Gregory Perry, Flickr.



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

hit their target market without falling prey to stereotypes.

that are striving to get it right. The following are examples of those ads that

Just as there are ads that perpetuate stereotypes, there are also companies

Getting It Right

Gerber Babies America’s population trends have dramatically changed since the early 19th century. And with 50 million Latinos

The company also held a Gerber Generation photo contest in 2010 in which the winner received a starring role

now living in the U.S., they are the largest minority group

in the company’s print campaign along with a $25,000

in the country. By 2042, America’s majority population is

scholarship. The winner of the contest was 2-year-old Mercy

expected to be non-white (Garrett Stodghill).

Townsend, an African-American child, whose features,

With this in mind, Gerber, the maker of baby food, decided to change its iconic logo from a single Caucasian baby to babies of different races (Garrett Stodghill).

the judges said, stood out among the 217,000 entrants. Gerber’s campaign of the changing face of America goes a long way to bridging the diversity gap.

This isn’t the first time the company has focused on diversity. In 2010, Gerber worked with Draftcb, a New York agency, to create a campaign celebrating diversity called “The Gerber Generation.” The campaign included a spot called “United Babies,” which featured babies of different Lesley McDonald of Draftcb said in 2010 that “the ad was meant to represent a new generation of children of different ages and backgrounds” (Malykhina).

Above, Mercy Townsend, winner of the 2010 Gerber Generation photo contest. Below, the new generation of Gerber Babies. Following pages, “Your Skin Color Shouldn’t Dictate Your Future,” a poster campaign targeting racism from Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme.

ethnicities growing up and becoming children.



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design


Combining Snoopy and the gang with the popular activity of dragon boat racing provided a nice and colorful visual metaphor for teamwork. At right, the Metlife print ad. Left, the banner ad racing game.

Metlife Snoopy has gone up against the Red Baron, but in this ad

click a link that would take them to a full version on the

for Metlife, the popular Peanuts character took on the

company’s Chinese page. Players could then post their

“Red Dragon” in ads for the company’s target audience of Chinese-American parents (Applebaum). The ad showed the company’s mascot at the helm of a dragon boat, leading his team to victory as they cross the

scores on Facebook. The banner ads won the 2011 Diversity Achievement & Mosaic Awards in the Multiethnic Interactive Media category (Applebaum).

finish line in front of two other competitors. Combining Snoopy and the gang with the popular activity of dragon boat racing provided a nice and colorful visual metaphor for teamwork. The design of the ad itself, created by IW Group, is successful in its composition. The dominant image uses the principles of continuance to lead the eye from the two dragons entering the frame on the left to the central characters in the boat. Snoopy, facing his team at the head of the boat, takes the eye back to the central characters, emphasizing the central theme of teamwork. The asymmetrical ad is divided into two modules, with the image being positioned just below the midpoint. The accompanying text is set into hierarchical thirds, and is distinguished by weight, size and color. To the left of the main text block sits a badge in a gradient going from gold to yellow, connecting it to the main image. The use of blue in the company’s name, which is set in its own space to the right, gives it the third position in hierarchical placement. It also connects it to the rest of the piece. Aside from the use of gradient—which distracts rather than integrates because it is used only once—the ad is successful not only visually, but also in its concept and use of metaphor. Metlife also introduced a simple dragon boat racing game banner ad. Viewers could either play this version or


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design


The ad is refreshing in that it puts AsianAmericans in a familiar American environment. It skips the stereotypes and shows them for who they are rather than what people think they are.

Target’s all-American family and college roommate ads showed minorites in regular settings..

Target Target pulled at the heart strings of mothers across the country when the store launched its mom, daughter and boyfriend ad in 2010. The ad featured a regular mom who worries about her teenage daughter when she starts dating. In one spot, the mom is shown perched on a tree branch with a pair of binoculars, keeping an eye on her daughter and her date. In another scene, she is shown “accidentally” spilling spaghetti sauce on the boy’s shirt. Two more scenes show mother and daughter bonding and then cat and daughter bonding. The final scenes show Mom in the center of the young couple, putting her arms around them and drawing them closer. Each instance is paired with a product that is sold at Target. Screengrabs from YouTube

The ad is refreshing in that it puts Asian-Americans in a familiar American environment. It skips the stereotypes and shows them for who they are rather than what people think they are. In a 2009 commercial with the same theme of family, the ad showed a montage of family events: Mom taking her son to work, the family dancing to some improvised music, the son sharing his lunch with schoolmates, and a professional photo shoot of the family. This ad, too, captured the all-American family life and reached across race lines. In 2008, Target released its Happy Together spot, which showed two girls, one African-American and the other Caucasian, starting their college life together as roommates. The music starts and the girls begin dancing in a competitive but fun manner while decorating their dorm with products from Target. At the end of the dance, their room is decorated and the tagline appears with a voice-over: “Be Happy Together, Design Together. Save Together.” The spot, set to the reggae beat “Calabria” with vocals by Natasja Saad, was created by W+K Portland.



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Old Spice “Hello, ladies,” starts out Isaiah Mustafa in Old Spice’s 2010 body wash commercial that had the African-American actor telling ladies that anything was possible as long their men smelled like Old Spice. The ad, created by W+K Portland, was released Feb. 4, 2010, on YouTube and has received more than 38 million hits. The spot, done in a single shot, shows Mustafa in different settings: from the shower, to a boat and, finally, on a horse. The popularity it received spawned several more Mustafa ads—Swan Dive Old Spice, Backward Horse Old Spice, Vacation Old Spice and Komodo Old Spice—and turned him into a pop culture leading man. The ad also took an African-American male out of the realm of stereotypes and placed him squarely in the role of

The ad also took an African-American male out of sexy leading man. Most ads featuring African-American males either depicted them as a brute savage or a simpleminded being. In the late 18th century, if a black man had

the realm of stereotypes and placed him squarely

dared to speak to a lady in such sexual tones as Mustafa does in the commercials, he would’ve been killed. Muscular black men weren’t attractive; they were animalistic and

in the role of sexy leading man.

meant to be feared (Jefferson). Today, however, that mold has been broken and the Old Spice Guy is smoldering, smart and dynamic. No man can be as sexy as he is, and no woman can resist him (Jefferson). Not only that, he crosses racial lines and turns a staid, old product into something every man, not to mention woman, wants.

Left, Isaiah Mustafa in Old Spice’s print ad. Above, examples of historically insensitive ads from the advertising blog Creative Criminals..



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Screengrabs from YouTube

Isaiah Mustafa on a horse, on a motorcycle and in the bathroom in a variety of ads for Old Spice.

Screengrabs from YouTube; Google Images



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

behind the backs of others.

were the physical representation of labels; those thoughts that people whisper

throughout the day, asking others to add their own opinions. The T-shirts

and unaware of what people were writing, the students wore these T-shirts

Berlin and invited them to write the answers on their backs. Left vulnerable

“What would people call me behind my back?� They approached strangers in

In 2010, students were asked to put on T-shirts that asked the question:

Awareness and Education

James Victore’s “Celebrate Columbus” poster.

Except these students were asked to carry those labels around for everyone but themselves to see and judge. The project was part of Sticks + Stones, a multi-university

By creating an atmosphere where students discuss hottopic issues such as race and learn firsthand from a diverse group of peers, Sticks + Stones aims to produce knowledge-

initiative that gathered students from different parts of

able and responsible designers who can see when their

the world and challenged them to reconsider their percep-

own personal biases leak into their work (“Navigating

tions about the “other” while at the same time educating


them about the importance of meaning in visual language.

Buck-Coleman also pointed to the Power in You 2005

The course, which won the Core 77 Design Education

campaign in her essay “In Pursuit of Undermining

Initiative Award, dissected the responsibilities of the

Stereotypes.” The program, created by W Communications

designer in today’s changing global climate (Core 77).

for Utah’s first lady Mary Kaye Huntsman, featured 175

Audra Buck-Coleman, assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and one of the project’s main investigators, said the goal of the project is to correct

billboards with single-word labels such as “Ghetto,” “Failure,” “Slacker” (Stewart). The billboards were meant to make the residents uncom-

visual misconceptions and unintended use of stereotypes

fortable yet curious. The campaign also featured a series

and produce designers with strong ethical values.

of back-to-back 15-second spots that showed students with

Sticks + Stones started in 2005 as a collaborative project

labels stuck on their foreheads going about their daily

between four U.S. universities and brought together

campus activities. After four weeks, Kaye Huntsman

75 students, each of whom carried their own set of values

publicly removed one of the labels in an effort to get others

regarding race, sexual orientation and religion. The

involved. And the final 15-second spot showed students

curriculum was based on the stereotypes each student

shedding their labels as well (

held about his or her fellow classmates, with the ultimate goal of broadening each student’s view (“Navigating Cross-Cultures”). Designers have been using visual language as a means to communicate both positive and negative messages.

“I pulled junior high and high school kids together and asked them what types of labels they face. They suggested putting these words out there to say, ‘Let’s get rid of them,’ ” Huntsman said in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune. While generating buzz, the campaign also alarmed

Design luminaries such as James Victore, Seymour Chwast

caregivers who treat those with substance abuse issues.

and Tibor Kalman have addressed racism, tolerance and

Other residents complained that the ads were directed

ethics in their work. The Nazi party, however, used design as

at them. For instance, one billboard with the single word

means to oppress and divide its citizens during World War II. Sticks + Stones educators believe it is important that students realize the power of design (Desert News, “Weber State Students”).

“Ghetto” was located near a trailer park and was removed following complaints (Stewart). While creating buzz can lead to awareness, it’s something that also needs to be done with care.



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Students asked strangers to label them as part of the Sticks + Stones initiative. Following pages, screengrabs from the 2005 Power in You campaign.



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

dards of Professional Practice.

AIGA, the professional association for design, acknowledges this in its Stan-

that designers expand their knowledge when it comes to racial identities.

shrinking of the world via new communication technologies, it is important

get to the truths of any project. With the increase in immigration and the

today also have a responsibility to shelve generalizations and dig deeper to

best solutions coming from a combination of research and craft. Designers

At its essence, design is about communication and problem-solving, with the


“A professional designer shall respect the dignity of all

from me and I cannot make myself more diverse, even

audiences and shall value individual differences even as

if I help the profession to become more diverse…’ and yet,

they avoid depicting or stereotyping people or groups of

if there were core principles among designers who believe

people in a negative or dehumanizing way. A professional

that their role is to be the intermediary between informa-

designer shall strive to be sensitive to cultural values and

tion and understanding, they should be clarity and truth.

beliefs and engages in fair and balanced communication

How can a designer can be clear and true in communicating

design that fosters and encourages mutual understanding.”

with a diverse public without extraordinary empathy for

This standard is also reflected in a list of six trends that

different cultural viewpoints?” (Grefé e-mail interview)

will define a designer’s role in 2015, one of which includes a shifting of communication from broad-based messages to

AIGA is encouraging diversity within the profession through its international chapters as well as promoting

those targeting specific audiences. “This trend demands

K-12 progams that emphasize design as a profession to

a better understanding of a variety of cultures, the value of

a diverse younger set.

ethnographic research, a sensitivity toward cultural

“Ultimately, the critical issue for a professional designer

perspectives, and empathy,” according to an article posted

is to develop a very inclusive sense of curiosity, which will

on the association’s site (AIGA).

join with a designer's natural tendencies of empathy to

To meet the shifting needs of the industry, the association also posted a Top 13 list of designer competencies, which included two skill sets specifically addressing race: “A designer should possess ‘a broad understanding of

improve the quality, range and sensitivity of design,” he said. Some advertising agencies have started to address the issue by creating specialized cultural departments. After more than 50 years of following the same advertising model,

issues related to the cognitive, social, cultural, technological

Ogilvy & Mather created OgilvyCulture in 2010 in order to

and economic contexts for design.’

reflect current census data. However, agencies that focus on

“A designer should possess the ‘ability to respond to

specific ethnicities, such as Burrell, believe that a one-size-

audience contexts recognizing physical, cognitive, cultural

fits-all approach does not work in today’s environment, and

and social human factors that shape design decisions.’ ”

that a person’s racial identity is more important than educa-

AIGA’s research is a call to action for designers to gain a better sense and understanding of today’s shifting envi-

tion, gender and income (The Economist). Both directions have their drawbacks. A cross-cultural

ronment and will go a long way toward helping designers

approach has the possibility of becoming homogeneous

create authenthic work.

while an ethnic-only approach risks pigeonholing its audi-

Richard Grefé, AIGA executive director, said sensitivity to diverse cultural settings is an imperative for designers. “It represents a special challenge for designers for two reasons: first, many designers might say ‘my creativity comes

ence and alienating others. Rather than generalizing a design approach—indicating that it has to fit into this category or that category­—it makes more sense to take each assignment on its own merits.



A DESIGNER SHOULD possess “a broad understanding of issues related to the cognitive, social, cultural, technological and economic contexts for design.�


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design


A DESIGNER SHOULD possess the “ability to respond to audience contexts recognizing physical, cognitive, cultural and social human factors that shape design decisions.� 67


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design


Niall Kennedy, Flickr

Whether a designer has a cadre of multicultural specialists behind him or is part of small firm without such luxuries, the need for understanding the nuances of designing across cultures is critical. Effective design begins here: “You can’t assume what’s culturally relevant to an ethnic group [or a subset of that group] that you don’t belong to. [It’s not even safe to assume it for a group you do belong to]” (Lipton 8). The answer to a successful campaign begins as it would for any project: It starts with knowing your audience and then adding visual cues that relate to that audience (Lipton 9). McDonald’s has been doing that successfully since the 1960s and has also started to tailor its products to minorities. In 2010 the fast-food chain started offering mango and pineapple smoothies, both of which were big hits in the Hispanic community. Interestingly enough, the new flavors soon overtook the traditional leader, strawberry banana (The Economist). Designers, however, have to tread with caution when imbuing a campaign with visual cues because the line between stereotype and cultural awareness can be very thin. In fact, designers would be wise to question their first instincts when starting a new project because it is possible that the ideas that come to mind first are the result of either generalizations or overuse. For instance, when targeting an Hispanic audience, it’s best to leave the pínatas, sombreros and cacti out of the picture, said author Ronnie Lipton in Designing Across Cultures (Lipton 15). She added that using those icons is likely to have the opposite effect, conveying to the audience that the designer didn’t take time to study the culture more thoroughly.

The same holds true for any of the visual mnemonics associated with Hispanics: family, music, food and religion. The key is to using each one effectively. For instance, while food is part of the cultural fabric of the Hispanic community, there are differences within each subculture. Rice and beans are part of many Latin cultures, but each country has its own take on the dish. Because of this variety, residents of varying regions will easily spot inconsistencies (Lipton 41). When it comes to family, there are cultural truths that Google Images

can be used as starting points

Tom Burrell, founder of Burrell Communications, which has been focused on minorities since the ’60s.

to create effective campaigns. Be warned, though, these are not a means to an end, and some of them can be inter-

preted as stereotypes in and of themselves: According to Lipton, they love their families; the father is the king of the household; they love extended family and include them in all aspects of their lives; the parents will sacrifice for their children; and making sure the family is well-cared for is a priority to the mother (Lipton 24). Most of the above can probably be said for all races. It’s highly unlikely that Hispanics marked “love my family” more than another race on some hypothetical poll, but the idea is to start with the basic information and go from there. Take the “extended family” cultural truth. One does



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Designers, however, have to tread with caution not have to take this and turn it into a literal campaign. Other visual treatments that don’t include the whole family can still provide that emotional impact while getting the

when imbuing a campaign with visual cues because

client’s message across. Designers should also take their research outside the realm of theory and see what they can learn firsthand by visiting the areas in which their clients

the line between stereotype and cultural awareness live. By seeing where their target audience shops, how they address each other and what visuals they respond to, designers can gain some good insights. Starting a dialogue

can be very thin.

with residents and shop owners can also lead to information that can help inform a campaign or address a visual issue. However, creatives need to understand that every group is unique and adjust visual messages accordingly. Part of the role of the designer is to educate the client, too. But sometimes that can be tricky, as marketing executive Albert J. Ferrer learned. His company had presented some concepts to a client and felt satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. However, colleagues who had not been present at the meeting said they felt the concepts lacked “a sort Hispanicness” (Ferrer). What the client was referring to, Ferrer said, was visual and auditory literalness: darker skin for a model, music with more salsa … all the stereotypes associated with the culture (Ferrer). “There’s a fine line here. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that the music used in a commercial targeting Hispanics be one that deeply resonates with the target. It’s not reasonable, however, to expect that it will be lively and loud

Examples of stereotypical icons used when communicating to Hispanic audiences.

because Hispanics like salsa music. Targeting what we show in a commercial or how we portray our talent is just smart


Being aware of history and associated imagery are key components to creating a successful campaign. At right and following spreads, examples of offensive imagery.

marketing. Putting abuelita in the creative just because Hispanics care deeply about family is just silly” (Ferrer). This is where creatives need to find a way to make sure their clients understand how visual messages play to a large audience made up of different personalities and types. Clients hire agencies because of their visual storytelling expertise. With that comes trust. The client has to trust the agency, and it is the agency’s job to push back when a client makes an uninformed request. Otherwise designers are just as accountable for the perpetuation of stereotypes. Being aware of history is another key component that can help or hinder a campaign. Aztec symbology may seem like it could appeal to Hispanics, but its history suggests otherwise. For art director Christian Dobles, it’s a symbol of genocide. “It’s part of my heritage that I abhor and detest. The pyramid is where people were massacred when they came to Mexico” (Lipton 39). To reach the Hispanic audience, Ferrer suggests designers challenge themselves to engage the audience without resorting to stereotypes. “Be careful not to take the easy way out [by adding a few stereotypes]. We’re not talking about instant pancake mix [just add water] here,” he said. African-Americans also have to battle their fair share of visual stereotypes, with many of those images crossing the line into racist territory. Today, some of those racist images persist, either deliberately or out of sheer ignorance. To battle that, designers, clients and art directors need to be aware of those images and their meanings. One designer learned his lesson the hard way. Fred Showker, publisher of DT&G Design ezine, created a controversy when, in an article about self-promotion, he


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Google Images

included a piece designed in 1970 by the agency Mabey



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design


Fred Showker learned the hard way about the impact of historical images when he included a piece designed in 1970 by the ad agency Mabey Trousdell that featured insensitive characterizations of black children. At right, the poster for the Art Director’s Club call for entries.

Trousdell featuring insensitive characters of black children (“Undermining Stereotypes”). He was shocked and embarrassed when disappointed e-mails started arriving, some of which called him a racist. He apologized for not realizing that the imagery recalled

“It plays to the idea of the African-American as a buffoon, the butt of a joke, while also casting hip-hop as an extravagant culture” (“Exploiting Stereotypes: When Bad Is Not Good”). Hip-hop, too, seems to draw on wide range of stereotypes

a past when African-Americans were disenfranchised, and

for its aesthetic, including the black man as brute, the

he issued a stern warning to other designers so that they

angry black man, and the jezebel. Add to that the use of

could learn from his mistakes (Showker). One does have

the loaded word “nigger” and the audience is left with an

to wonder, however, if the image caused him pause.

undeniable tension that is meant to intimidate.

A lack of historical knowledge leaves designers vulner-

This, however, is not the only face of hip-hop. For

able to making mistakes that can offend. To avoid this,

instance, how many would know that rapper Ice Cube

designers should make fact checking/reference checking

studied architectural drafting in Arizona and that he is

part of the research stage. Maybe designers don’t use

an ardent fan of designers Charles and Ray Eames? (Lloyd)

this approach because they don’t want to appear unknowl-

The point driven home by the above examples is that

edgeable. But asking those questions can save a lot of

design is more than making pretty artifacts. In other words,

headaches, not to mention money.

it’s not about the whole but how the whole works within

Even professional organizations aren’t immune from making mistakes. When the Art Director’s Club wanted to promote its 85th annual call for entries, it did so with a campaign that drew criticism from fellow designers. The

a given environment, how it communicates to an audience, what the context and subtext are in any given piece. To keep a piece from becoming another stereotypical visual for the African-American market, there are

poster featured an African-American with a flaming red afro

practices designers can follow. First they need to know

dressed as Ronald McDonald holding a gold cube. The

what type of imagery works well for an African-American

headline above him was given the full bling treatment and

audience. Lipton points to several cultural truths: close

read, “Pimp My Brand.”

family ties, women as the boss at work, success and status,

The piece’s original intent to poke fun at branding’s overarching grasp on society missed the mark, said Heller. “If irony is being used to critique how blacks are exploited,

pride, dignity, church, sports, music, respect, education and others (Lipton 68). Of course, many of these can apply to several races,

combining a hip-hop aesthetic with a send up of McDon-

and one can go overboard on these, too. Sports may be a

ald’s—a company famously known for targeting minorities

cultural cue, but it has also turned into a visual cliche that

and the poor through its advertising campaigns—paradoxi-

sometimes borders on the “black man as brute” stereotype

cally reinforces the stereotype” (“Exploiting Stereotypes:

as suggested by the Vogue ad shown earlier.

When Bad Is Not Good”).


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Google Images


Hip-hop draws on a wide range of stereotypes, including the use of the word “nigger.” Below, Ice Cube is an ardent fan of designers Charles and Ray Eames.

Stereotypes evolve over time. The mammy character

Getting critiques from fellow designers and others who

depicted by Aunt Jemima continues today in updated ads

aren’t personally involved will lead to a more in-depth

for a new audience. Think of the oversized black woman

analysis of visual collateral. Another way designers can

who appears in a commercial for the Jurassic Park ride at

keep from taking cultural missteps is to create a library

Universal Studios. She’s screaming and pulling the heads

covering the topic of stereotypes. Filling that library with

of her children into her bosom. The ad is funny and the au-

examples and discussions can go a long way toward

dience laughs, but when one dissects it further, one finds

creating material that avoids stereotypes.

that it is cashing in on the stereotype of a large black woman who is overbearing, loud, and controlling. Other images have turned into stereotypes because they have been overused. There’s nothing inherently wrong

Design studios should also take a look at their staffing and transition toward creating a diverse workforce. The graphic design industry is made up of roughly 300,000 designers who are predominately white, which means

with these images, but because they have been used over

the messages they craft will be influenced by their own

and over, they have become tired visual cliches.

cultural narratives. Employees from different racial

Hiring researchers is one way a designer can keep from

and cultural backgrounds can not only bring a fresh approach

making mistakes. If a designer doesn’t have the budget for

to a project but can also help a studio avoid offensive

research, then he can conduct his own research using the

missteps (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Internet and magazines like Vibe and Source (Lipton 109).

“If we don’t actively seek to reflect the changing racial and

Keep in mind that family and friends are not good sources

ethnic composition of our society, graphic design may

because of the personal baggage/relationships involved.

well find itself marginalized in a whole new way. Diversity,


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Right, Source and Vibe magazines covers. Bottom, an ad for Universal Studios’s Jurassic Park ride plays on the stereotype of the overbearing large black woman.

Ice Cube, YouTube screengrab, Google Images

especially race, is an issue that all designers need to be con-

designer, both in the process of collaboration and in forming

cerned with in terms of the future of our profession” (Stone).

adaptive, responsive approaches to problem-solving” (Grefé).

According to a recent AIGA survey, 86 percent of

Every designer, regardless of race, should ask them-

designers are white, which corresponds with the number

selves the following questions at the beginning of a project:

of graphic design students enrolled in college. The fact

What is the goal of the campaign? Does that goal require

that the number of students mirrors the labor statistics is

a diverse approach or can the product stand alone? What

hardly surprising. In fact, it’s a clear indication that in

value does this product have and how can that alone be

order to change the industry, one must start at the educa-

leveraged? Sometimes, however, a narrative will require

tional level. Diversity initiatives have certainly helped,

a cultural touch, which means knowing and paying atten-

but more could be done to reach out to students who haven’t

tion to the intricacies that certain cultures present.

considered graphic design as a profession (Stone). If the graphic design industry doesn’t address the lack

Asian cultures are examples of that as well-meaning designers can easily offend without knowing they are

of diversity within its profession, U.S. studios and agencies

doing so. In one ad, a pair of chopsticks sticks upright in

could find themselves with fewer jobs as the global market-

a bowl of sticky rice. It’s an innocent-looking picture that

place continues to thrive.

might not raise an eyebrow among a certain set of viewers,

“The profession as a whole must demonstrate the understanding and perspectives that can only come from the interplay among many different backgrounds, cultures and experiences. This is where inclusivity will change every

but for many in the Asian community, this image immediately offends. Why? Because the image symbolizes death. interTrend Communications, an Asian advertising agency in Long



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

If we don’t actively seek to reflect the changing racial Beach, Calif., knowingly created the ad in 2000 to tell potential clients that the company understands the nuances of the Asian market (Lipton 119).

and ethnic composition of our society, graphic

Like all communities, the Asian-American audience has its own set of symbols and values, many of which come from years of tradition and superstitions and can be very nuanced.

design may well find itself marginalized in a whole

An incorrect fold of a kimono, the wrong hand holding a tea ladle and the use of certain colors and numbers can all draw criticism from the very group a designer is trying to

new way. Diversity, especially race, is an issue that

capture and/or target. Of course, the degree of criticism and reaction depends on the viewer. The younger generation may not care about the superstitions and traditions

all designers need to be concerned with in terms of of their elders and most likely won’t react negatively to a campaign that veers from the expected. Also, those who emigrated early in life may not have had the time for those

the future of our profession.

values to become steeped to the point of insult. There’s no shame in not knowing all the traditions and nuances of every culture. In fact, it would be hard to keep up with every group and subgroup. But a designer can control his or her reaction to that lack of knowledge through education. Rather than taking the easy way out and turning to a brush script for a campaign to suggest an Asian feel, a designer would be better served doing some research and coming up with a campaign that speaks directly to the target audience rather than indirectly to a large group of people that may or may not include the target audience.

Photo by Christopher Chan

Sydney’s Chinese New Year parade with lanterns representing the Chinese Zodiac animals.


Some companies have started to use a variety of races in their campaigns. At left, Life cereal. At right, Toyota.

Understanding commonalities and values is a step toward effective communication and representation. Completing that step is also recognizing that no group is homegeneous. Rather than catering to a single race, there has been

applauded, but when used just to meet a political agenda, it becomes insincere at best. With this in mind, designers should ask themselves a key question when taking this route: Does the use of all

trend toward showcasing a variety races in advertising and

races have meaning to the topic? By answering “yes,” a

design. It may have started out as innovative, but nowa-

designer has fulfilled his or her role of creation with meaning

days it’s a bit like throwing in the designer equivalent of the

and substance.

kitchen sink into a piece. There are a few reasons why a company would choose this direction, according to The Society Pages’ Sociological Images. One, by including people of color, the product becomes associated with the idea of color and flavor. Take the “Find Your Flavor” Absolut Peach vodka print ad, which shows two white people and two brown people set against a tropical background and other silhouttes. Life cereal used an assortment of models for its cereals. Regular Life features two young white girls hugging; Life cinnamon is represented by an African-American father and daughter; and Life Maple and Brown Sugar features two young African American children. Another reason is to show the idea of human variation. Polar Fitness included several women of different ages and races to sell its fitness monitor, the idea being that each person is different and requires a unique fitness plan. Toyota followed a similiar model for its “everyday” campaign. The print ad is made up of a grid of people of different ages, genders and races with the tagline. “For every expression, there’s a Toyota.” The implication is that Toyota is as unique as its customers. This aim at political correctness may have good intentions, but it is also reaching the point of overuse. Inclusiveness with meaning makes sense and should be


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

images linger and speak to a past that’s still, in some respects, evident today.

and print displays seen today are not as overt as they once were, but their

we have a long way to go before we can say that we look beyond color. The ads

As much as we’d like to say we’re living in a post-racial society, it’s clear that


Designers may argue that this is not their fight, that they

intersect? And when it does intersect, does that devalue

didn’t sign up to correct society’s ills. They do, however,

the social message, even if it is a social-raising issue?

have a responsibility to do no harm. As Milton Glaser said, “Design is good citizenship.” However, designers do need to shoulder some of the responsibility for how people view one another (Citizen Designer, ix). Meaning is the result of cultural and social experiences,

On the one hand, the mixture brings attention to a cause through media exposure. Plus it provides a certain amount of transparency to the company’s philosophy. On the other, it reduces social issues to a commodity and diminishes the selflessness of the act, calling in to

and the role of the designer is to put aside his or her own

question the original intent. In the end, the juxtaposition

experiences and focus on how the intended audience will

of social cause and advertising is just a means to sell

interpret a campaign’s message.

more button-downs.

It is their work and their concepts that are seen in print

The difference between Benetton and the other com-

ads, spread across billboards and aired nightly nationally

panies mentioned above is that Benetton knew that the

and even internationally. Images carry the power to influ-

ads would draw some criticism while the other companies

ence and affect change, so it’s easy to see how society can

did not think that their ads would offend. They were

start to view those who are different from them as “the

taken aback at the criticism they received and often spoke

other.” If designers continue to reinforce this with imagery

about how they crafted their messages with care. There’s

such as the cover of Vogue magazine or the Summer’s Eve

no doubt that the businesses in question cared about the

commercial spots, then they, too, must accept some of

product they were producing. Business don’t intend on

the responsibility. Intel, Summer’s Eve and Abercrombie and Fitch issued

spending money only to have a failure on their hands. However, one can care and be unaware at the same time, and

apologies, but the damage had already been done. Not

it is here—at the intersection of the design process and

only that, one has to question how these campaigns even

awareness—where the failure occurred.

made it off the ground, especially when so much money is involved. The apology from Summer’s Eve was lackluster

The program Sticks + Stones and AIGA’s competency list go a long way to correcting the issue. But the lessons

at best, with the company still stating that it thought the

learned will have to put in to practice in the boardroom.

ads were not stereotypical, thereby devaluing its customer

More and more, designers are being given a place at the

base. In the end, apologies aren’t good enough. Somewhere

table and are being brought in at the beginning of projects

along the way someone has take responsibility.

rather than near the end. It is here where they can steer

Toscani’s work for Benetton brings up an interesting question. The photographer used the clothing company as

the visual direction of a campaign and help educate the client as to what is, and isn’t, a stereotype.

a vehicle to address hot-button topics, including race. At what point should advertising and political commentary


Interview With Steven Heller

was so strong you could take the black off a black person, and so you’ve got to think about that. What is it saying

Steven Heller is an author of more than 100 books

about people in this country who were franchised or who

on design and culture and is also the co-chair

were disenfranchised? Advertising was not an engine

of the MFA Designer as Author Department at

thought of blacks as inferior, but they also saw them as

the School of Visual Arts, New York. He is a

being—at least some of them—being unthreatening and

former art director at the New York Times and

of thought. It was a reflection of thought, and so people

being what were called friendly trade characters. Do you think images using stereotypes have changed or

is an avid collector of racial artifacts. He

evolved since the early 20th century. How have they evolved?

answers questions about the intersection of

I think there’s the racial consciousness so things that are

design and stereotypes.

used anymore. There’s always an evolution of language,

perceived as insulting or degrading are certainly not and I think what we’re talking about is pictorial lan-

Advertisements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as

guage, and that evolved as people’s consciousness have

the one for Pears Soap, relied heavily on racist imagery to

evolved. We don’t see that many of the same kind of

communicate their messages. Why was this acceptable imagery?

19th-century racist images. In fact what we’ve seen is a

How do you think images using stereotypes have changed

kind of co-option of those images used either as satire

or evolved since the early 20th century?

or other forms of humor. We do see stereo-types emerging

Well, they were acceptable imagery because nobody knew anything better, because that was the vernacular of the day. They spoke in those terms of otherness. This was a melting pot country, but there was a lot of stuff that didn’t quite melt, and one of the ways to kind of cope with the fact that there were so many different people that were either coming here or dragged here was through racial and ethnic stereotypes. Now with African-American slaves, they were already enslaved, so they became even more enslaved through these images, and Pears Soap used quite a bit of racial imagery in a semiotic way. There were soap ads where the soap


of other people that are threatening to us, like Arab stereotypes. But I think the stereotypes are also not just racial and ethnic, but gender driven and sexual-preference driven. They’re social as well as racial. I’ve heard a couple schools of thought about the recurrence of racist themes in advertising and popular art, such as Aunt Jemima. One view is that she has lost her potency as a symbol of racism and is now just a nostalgic figure. Another is that she will always be a symbol of racism and therefore should be removed completely. Can racially charged imagery ever become separated enough from its root origins that it becomes safe and acceptable?

Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Aunt Jemima is very good case in point and so is Uncle

white household—a sort of goofy positive image. Fast-forward

Ben’s rice. These two characters come out of the slave tradi-

to present day when Asians are frequently stereotyped as

tion and they were made into friendly trade characters,

technology experts. It’s a stereotype with a positive message.

so they were born of a very dubious parentage. But they’ve

Is this offensive or harmful in the same way as negative

been changed considerably just as other trade characters

stereotypes? Why would that be?

have been changed. You know, you can say that they’re rac-

It’s actually a really good question. It’s a thesis in and

ist, but you have to define what racism is. There’s violent racism, exclusionary racism, and then there’s a comic racism. Sometimes those things overlap, and sometimes they’re very separate. One of the problems I had because I had been writing this book for many years called Victims of the Image: Ethnic and Racial Stereotypes in American Popular Art. It’s one of the few books I’ve never finished, and it’s because a lot of the material was just so funny that, you know, I would sit around laughing and thinking, “Oh boy, I must be a terrible person for looking at this material in such a careless manner.” And it was meant to be funny, and it was meant to be funny just as minstrel shows were meant to be entertainment. And then it gets complicated and wrapped up in this social and political baggage. Which is more than baggage. It’s a problem. But you know, you have to look at some of these things and cut a little slack. And I think ultimately Aunt Jemima, sure you could—just as Sambos became Denny’s and the Coon Chicken Inn stopped existing—you could says it’s time to retire this particular brand. But the brand is popular and doesn’t seem to offend that many people. So you let the market crowd source. I’m sure if there were a lot of protests, they would have taken it off the market a long time ago. You’ve mentioned that stereotypical images of the “other” were meant to be a friendly means of introducing the “other” to the

of itself. A stereotype is a printing term, and it just means multiple, making a mold that allows for multiples. A stereotype in and of itself is not inherently bad. It’s a multiple. A stereotype when it’s combined with a caricature, then it can be dubious. Then it could be used for bad or good purposes. A positive stereotype is a generalization. And the generalization is, “Okay, all Asians are really good at math.” Well, it doesn’t seem to hurt anybody except those who are not very good at math. Any overgeneralization is going to be a hard role to live up to. So you just have to look at it from that standpoint. If you’re going to hire somebody based on their race because presumably they dance better or they cook better or they do macramé better, you’re in trouble. I don’t think any HR person is going to work according to that stereotype. You said in an interview with Susan Choi that while advertising techniques and media have changed, the formulas haven’t, that advertising is still intent on creating memorable stereotypical characters that exude the essence of some product, that while we know that using stereotypes is just a means of perpetuating negative images, we’re still doing it. How can we as designers keep this from happening? Do we have ethical obligation to do so? Starting with the last part of the question, yes we have an ethical obligation to make sure we don’t hurt anybody. I


think that’s true of almost all professions. We have an ethical

really ruined the art, it was necessary to just have that as

responsibility to not perpetrate something that is inherently

a consciousness issue, and I see it less now. There was a

wrong. But it’s an ethical responsibility. It’s not a legal re-

point during which political correctness was a very explo-

sponsibility. And I think if designers don’t do it, somebody

sive push-button kind of thing.

else is going to do it. In editorial, there’s always somebody that kind of governs the standard, always somebody who’s going to say, “Well this is going to offend someone else,” and maybe they’re overly cautious, but sometimes it’s better to err on the side of caution than it is to let something go through. But I think invariably the way people’s mores change is that somebody tests them. And, you know, 20 years ago when you heard somebody say “nigger,” it reverberated in that horrid way, and now you hear rappers say “nigger” all the time and it’s become kind of a semi-inoffensive word. You hear a white person say it, and it’s a very offensive word. So things do change, and I think our obligation as citizens is to be aware of what we do. The bottom line is we can’t just

When you thought that political correctness ruined the art yet it was necessary to have it as a conscious issue, did that mean that you included everybody? It depended. What happened was illustrators began to find ways around doing crowd scenes. It’s like you could talk about it in terms of gender. Why is it that it’s always “every man” and not “every woman”? So these are things that are addressed, and at certain times they become more critical than others. I mean the biggest thing I ever encountered at the time was a drawing I did that had a rat committing suicide, and I was told I couldn’t run the rat committing suicide because it would be distasteful to readers who picked up the paper in the morning while eating breakfast. The

do things blindly because then we’re just idiots.

drawing was semi-realistic but it was really an abstract and

When you worked at the New York Times as an art director,

ships are there not for racial or ethnic reasons but more for

what rules governed the use of racially charged images? Were these recommendations or personal guidelines? How were disagreements over image usage handled? There were so many different levels at which images were filtered through, and sometimes things did get through, but if somebody thought something was questionable, they would raise the question. And then a debate would ensue, and it would be resolved one way or the other. There was always a sense that if you were going to do illustration that had more than one individual in it, you had to represent all races. So there became this kind of political correctness of inclusion. And my feeling was that while sometimes it


symbolic drawing. So you know those kinds of self-censorproprietary reasons. How do you draw the line between being culturally aware and falling into common stereotypes? Do you ever endorse culture symbols/practices (ie bright colors for Mexico) to appeal to certain ethnicities or cultures? I think … you’re talking about marketing there, and there are lots of ways of marketing to a particular demographic, whether they’re ethnic or gender or social. You pick up on certain things that are common to a particular audience and you’ll use them. I don’t see that there’s anything really wrong in that as long as it’s not offensive.

Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

If you’re doing it out of stupidity, very often artists will

let’s say, to make a piece. [“The student will say] well, that

take foreign languages, Cyrillic or Arabic or something,

doesn’t work because that’s actually a very sacred image.

and use the letterforms because they look good, and you end

You shouldn’t do that.” So that’s how it comes out. But it’s

up saying something stupid or offensive. The Japanese

not a matter, at least at this level, of pointing a finger and

do this all the time. They take English and they kind of rejig-

saying, “Don’t do that.” I think students are much more

ger it and every so often it comes off in an offensive manner.

aware of it now than they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago.

But around the world there are different standards and different cultures, and advertising is international enough where they try to appeal to those particular groups. That’s the kind of thing that is both questionable and acceptable depending on the context. When you work as an instructor at SVA and deal with students from different cultures, how do you advise your students on negotiating territories between visual metaphor and stereotypes?

We seem to be more aware of stereotypes used in advertising today than previously, but we still see so many appearing in advertising and design work. Your students are very aware of it, so why is there this difference between people who are aware and who aren’t? Stereotype is still a tool of advertising and popular art. You can’t get away from stereotypes. It’s just how the stereotype is used. The stereotype expands from the white family with two children and a car in the garage to a black family

I don’t. I have a lecture where I talk about this material from

with two children and a car in the garage. It really depends

a historical standpoint. The fact of the matter is in all

on context. In order to appeal to a broad audience, you still

the time that I’ve had the MFA design program as co-chair,

have to become more universal and often stereotypical. If

I haven’t come across any of that. It’s funny. People just

you use the word stereotype in a negative way, then it’s

kind of ... Either they have a very good reason for what they

going to be…“I’m looking at all this stuff that is bad.” If you

do, and if they have a very good reason, then I’m content

look at simply in a dispassionate way, as these are mu-

to see something done and then let the public become the

tiples, these are assumptions, these are generalizations, then

arbiter, or it just never happens. It’s strange, it’s just not

you take them each on their own merit.

as a big of an issue. I have one class where I ask students to bring in images that they would find offensive and they’re able to find them, but they find them as objects of humor that have just gone awry, where the person who did it just doesn’t have the skills to make the joke work. And a lot of what they come up with is really in more ignorance than it is malicious. We have so many foreign students, they can see what is wrong when a native-born student uses one of their images,


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Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

Heller, Steven. “The Science of Stereotyping: An Interview With Elizabeth and Stuart Ewen.” Voice: Journal of Design. Dec. 2006. Print. Heller, Steven. “Victims of the Image: Ethnic and Racial Stereotyping in American Popular Art—Part 1.” MFA Designer as Author: Paul Rand Lecture Series. School of Visual Arts. Oct. 2011. Video. Jefferson, Cord. “Why the Old Spice Guy Is Good for Black America.” The Root. July 14, 2010. Web. Kennedy, Randall. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. New York: Pantheon Books. 2003. Print. LaRose, R. “Buffalo Springfield’s anthemic protest song made lasting mark; club closure sparked release of the classic ‘For What It’s Worth.’ ” The Vancouver Sun. 3 Aug. 2011. C11. Print. “Leopard Thong.” 27 July 2007. Online video clip. Lippmann, Walter. Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922. Print. Lipton, Ronnie. Designing Across Cultures. New York: How Design Books, 2002. Print. Lloyd, Lauren. “Ice Cube Talks Architecture, The Eames House & L.A. Freeways.” Dec. 8, 2011. Video. Malykhina, Elena. “Meet the ‘Gerber Generation.’ ” 15 Jan. 2010. Web. Martin, María. “Taco Bell and Latino Stereotypes.” Latino 1999. Web.

“One Message, or Many? The Uses and Limitations of Ethnic Ads.” The Economist. 31 Dec. 2011. Web. “Romantic Dinner.” YouTube. 20 May 2006. Online video clip Shaw, Paul. “Stereotypes,” Print magazine. August 2008 Print. Shea, Danny. “Uncovered: Possible Inspiration For Controversial LeBron James Vogue Cover.” Huffington Post. 5 April 2008. Web. Showker, Fred. “Never Use Racist Images.” 26 May 2006. Web. Staples 2011 New Tech commercial. YouTube. 4 Feb. 2011. Online video clip. Stewart, Kristin. “Ad for at-risk teen program creates a buzz, gets bashed.” Salt Lake Tribune, 22 Sept. 2005. Web. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” 18 June 2010. Web. Stone, Terry Lee. “White Space: Examiming racial diversity in the design industry.” August 2006. Web. Tam, Christopher, “Against Racial Caricature: History and Activism in the Protests Against Abercrombie & Fitch.” May 15, 2002. Print. Verizon commercial. YouTube . 17 Sept. 2011. Online video clip. “Weber State students win award for letting people say things things behind their backs” Deseret News. 26 July 2011. Web. 10 Jan. 2012.

Nudd, Tim. “Summer’s Eve Talking-Vagina Ads Aren’t Racist, Says Agency.” 21 July 2011. Web. Nudd, Tim. “DirecTV Grey’s Asian high roller doesn't stack up to Gregor the Russian billionaire.” 5 Aug. 2011. Web


Dedication spread


Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design

dedication spread

Acknowledgments This project is the result of a year’s worth of research and wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many. Many thanks to my thesis professors Antonio Alcalá and Alice Powers for their guidance, dedication and patience. They never did flinch when large volumes of pages landed in their hands. This project was helped enormously by the generous folks at Global Printing, namely Mark Smith and Kyle Cole, who gave a wonderful introduction to the world of printing. Thanks also to Francheska Guerrero, who was always available to answer questions and provide guidance. And to my fellow students and friends, Katherine Carberry, Ronald Cortez, Derek Long, Mike Theodoran and Ken Zinser, for their spot-on critiques, understanding and many Starbucks runs.



Think Before You Type | The Persistence and Evolution of Racial Stereotypes in Contemporary Design


Think Before You Type by Nancy Palm  

Think Before You Type by Nancy Palm. 2012 Thesis