Cheryl D. Miller is an acclaimed New York communications designer, artist, and theologian. She is the author of the memoir Black Coral: A Daughter’s Apology to Her Asian Island Mother and recently submitted a professional archive of her historic visual design work and writings, the Cheryl D. Miller Collection, to Stanford University Libraries. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.
Doreen Lorenzo: Coming from a multiracial and multicultural background, what led to you starting your own New York design firm in the 1980s when that was rare for a woman to do?
Cheryl D. Miller: I’m authentically BIPOC. I’m paternally African American in culture, and Danish West Indian and Ghanaian by maternal heritage. My maternal U.S. Virgin Islands family is from Ghanian chiefs, and I have European colonizers’ blood as well as a Filipino family of origin. My paternal grandfather is white and Native American. I have four different grandparents, four different places, four different races, four different ethnicities. Each one of them brings a very unique perspective, but growing up my father had political aspirations, so all my family could be was African American in Washington, D.C. But since I’m also my Filipino Danish West Indian mother’s daughter, I look different. I don’t look like my family.
And throughout all of this, I wanted to be an artist. I could have taught Bauhaus by the time I got to it in my education because I grew up with Danish Scandinavian design as a part of my home furnishings. Denmark once owned the Virgin Islands. So it’s a part of my upbringing. I started my freshman foundation studies at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] but I graduated from MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art]. By the time I found my way to New York City, I was an award-winning broadcast designer in Washington, D.C. for 10 years. I’d been with my husband since I was 16, and after he finished business school he got a job offer in New York and asked me if I wanted to move there. I said yes and then I was in New York.
As a corporate wife, I didn’t know how long I was going to be there, but I knew all the schools were in New York, so I thought, Let me go to school. I applied to Pratt [Institute], asked them to review my professional work for credit, and they gave me half a degree based on my experience. I was already a designer, so I focused on business in grad school.
A lot of the tips I learned in business management really helped me formulate a good business template for my New York firm that I established in 1987, Cheryl D. Miller Design Inc. It was a corporate communications design firm, but it has this backstory history of advocacy. I secured Fortune 500 companies in order to introduce people of color into their visual iconography. I designed the original on-air BET brand identity.
I [was] working in social responsibility, equal opportunity, and corporate communications during a period when New York practitioners were bearing down [on] the NAACP and the Urban League for change. But I always take pride in the fact that the reason my practice became so prolific is because I’m a good businesswoman.
DL: What do you do next after establishing a successful Black woman-owned New York design firm?
CDM: I accomplished all of that by the time I was 35. I found myself with this prolific career, and then I walked away from it. Seemingly, it was just a pause. I dissolved the corporation in 2000. I took a brave step and stopped practicing to raise my kids. I just had to stop if I was going to have anything else in my life besides this legacy story. My kids are such a blessing, and I loved every moment of being with them. I would have missed that if I hadn’t been brave enough to leave the future to its own path.
But this legacy work called me back, and I’m really honored that my work waited for me after the good Lord gave me a chance to raise a family. The sad part about this is that I literally took 20 years away from this advocacy and it was like marching in place. The needle of design justice didn’t move until the pandemic and George Floyd. I found myself right where I left off. I hadn’t missed anything. What’s a shame is that kids today experience what I experienced 50 years ago.
During my sophomore year at MICA, I kept going and going to class, putting my work up, and I wouldn’t get a critique. The professor just walked around my work. One day I decided I was going to come in early, put my work up, and then leave so he could not associate me with the work. He finally critiqued it. I got him after class and said, “What’s wrong with you?” He told me he’d never met anyone like me before. I told him, “Does that mean you have to ignore my work? Don’t do that to me again. Tell me if it’s good, bad, or indifferent and we’ll be just fine.” I’m not new to this, I’m true to this.
The fact that kids are still experiencing this today, getting passed over, well it’s not fair. What we’re in is a season of reparation. I’ve been through this before, riots and burnings. I haven’t been through a pandemic, but I’ve been through this season of social unrest. Luckily, there are allies now and this is a season where allies come together. In this world we have now, we can see so much. You can Google anything. You can see what good design is.
When I give online lectures I can feel all the students there from my living room. There is an educational ally movement, and it’s growing. On the educational level the reality is your admissions and tuition. I’m contending there needs to be some affirmative action. It’s like the abolitionist movement. The allies that are protesting with the Black designers at every corner, every age, every generation, they’re helping the needle move.
DL: You wrote an important thesis in grad school that in light of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement is still very relevant today. Could you tell us about it?
CDM: At the end of my graduate program at Pratt, the chair of the department, Etan Manasse, decided I wasn’t doing a design thesis project to finish out my degree. Instead, he wanted me to make a contribution to our industry. I knew exactly what that meant. I was going to have to write my way out of this. And I knew what to write about.
I had come out of the mid-Atlantic, and I had seen despair. I saw a fine arts community which was extremely disillusioned. There were all these strong MFA programs out of Washington, D.C. But Washington, D.C., is not a corporate town, it’s a government town, so to get government work or a job as a designer, there was a protocol. You had to pass a civil service exam to even get into the system, to even get your name in a lineup. Then you had to have specialized training.
All these aspiring artists were running around Washington with MFAs trying to get commercial work, and I saw this disconnect between the academic environment and the job market. The two weren’t lining up for the mid-Atlantic geography. The jobs were going to go to those who were trained, and the most disenfranchised of this community were going to be the Black kids looking for jobs. I’m like, “We have a problem.”
I wrote my capstone thesis, “Transcending the Problems of the Black Designer to Success in the Marketplace,” in 1985. The thesis is rich in cross-references and quotes in areas outside of design, like sociology and history. It’s full of scholarship that analyzes the African American community and professional-type census. I unpack the problem and offer suggestions. The editor of Print magazine, Martin Fox, got a hold of it and told me, “I’d like to make this a magazine feature article.” After a contract and a check, Print published my first article about the thesis in 1987 called “Black Designers: Missing in Action.”
DL: When did you realize just how impactful this thesis, your contribution, was to society?
CDM: That thesis and article are the thesis and article that just absolutely keep giving. I had stopped servicing design and was having a blast in Connecticut as a mom, not thinking about any of this. Then in 2016, Print dug me up for a quote for Black History Month. I offered to write an update to my original piece instead. That’s when Print published my second article, “Black Designers: Still Missing in Action?” where I revisited Black designers that I had featured 30 years before the update to show where they were now.
That led Michael Grant, a young design scholar at Stanford who now works for Google Labs, to ask the director of the special collections at the Stanford Library, Regina Roberts [pictured with Miller below], about getting the original thesis. She found the thesis at Pratt, and then had to find me for the copyright because this whole group of scholars wanted to read it. After I met her she told me, “By the way, when we searched for your thesis, it popped up in engineering and all these different disciplines.” I had no idea. It was only supposed to be an art thesis. Little did I know, the thesis and article had become an annotated cross-reference across disciplines.
Next thing I knew, [Roberts] came across the country to pick up 50 years worth of my work that Stanford wanted to archive for their anthropology, feminist studies, American history, political studies, and design schools. Design was the least of it! I had captured so much history through the work I had saved. Now all of my firm’s corporate work, the interviews, cassette tapes, drafts, everything for my thesis and the article is now in the Cheryl D. Miller Collection at Stanford University.
Then here we are today. Print asked me to write a third article because, as [the designer] Maurice Cherry asked, we’re all still wondering “Where Are the Black Designers?” They contracted me to write 1,500 words, and I submitted 14,000. They broke down my third article, “Black Designers: Forward in Action,” into four parts. At the end of the article I answer once and for all: Where are the Black designers? Why aren’t they in the history books? What happened? And I’ll tell you, when I found where the Black designers were, I found where the women designers were, too.
DL: Where were the Black designers? Where were the women in design?
CDM: My research led me into Union notes. We’re talking about a period of time right at the conclusion of the Civil War. I’m reading these Typographic Union footnotes, and they wanted to rescind emancipation. Why? Because the Black man had become competition, a threat to their livelihoods. There was an image in these runaway slave ads that transforms all the way through the type ornament books and becomes woodcuts.
Turns out the slave artisan is making his own runaway slave ads. This is why he’s missing from Hollis and Meggs’s [classic reference book] History of Graphic Design. He’s in slavery. The history is in slavery. The slave artisan had been in the back of the print shops making his own ads since the transatlantic slave trade, but our history of typesetting and design runs parallel to those same countries who are colonizing the Afro-Caribbean/West Indian slave diaspora. They’ve stolen our history. And you can’t decolonize unless you have the content to decolonize with.
In these Union notes, the white men are having a fit because they think slaves are going to take food off their tables. In these discussions, they’re asking “What are we going to do with the free slaves who have become competition here?” At least they discussed the slaves. In the paragraphs before that, they brought up the women. In the footnotes about women they start with, “We’re not discussing them at all. The women are not in this at all.” It was like one or two sentences. They shut them out. The free slaves got more conversation and consideration than the women. It’s right there after slavery, at emancipation, where the unions are trying to figure out what to do with the women and the slaves.
Fast-forward all the way to 1994, I was in New York and I went to meet with the legendary [designer] Paul Rand, and he told me the future of design is with women. He said, “The girls in my classes are better than the boys. . . . It’s always been like that. . . . Girls can be real terrific designers.” (Transcribed from the actual recorded interview now found in the Cheryl D. Miller Collection at Stanford University.)
DL: Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
CDM: No. After raising my two kids with my husband and this journey of advocacy, I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. My motto is, to live your life is your story, to live your life for others is your legacy. Leave a legacy.