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StoriesCheryl D. Miller

Expanding Design Beyond White Default

Lesley professor and design scholar Cheryl D. Holmes Miller pushes students to search deeper for real-world solutions in graphic design and to find their voice in the process.

What problem do you see that you have a solution for? Lesley professor Cheryl D. Holmes Miller challenges her undergraduate art & design students (and herself) with this simple question. 

In 1987, her influential Print article "Black Designers Missing in Action" made waves in the design industry, opening conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion that had never been discussed in the field. Now, she has pivoted from raising awareness to reviewing the graphic design canon for inclusive perspectives and advocating for anti-racist practices in the design industry. In 2021, she received an AIGA Medal, one of the highest distinctions in the field, for her "outsized influence within the profession to end the marginalization of BIPOC designers through her civil rights activism, industry exposé writing, research rigor, and archival vision."

Cheryl's graphic design career has been widely documented. From creating the brand identity for BET to running her own award-winning design studio in New York City, she brings an intimate understanding of the professional design world to her students at Lesley. "In the design world, you've got to get up early. You've got to do more," she says. 

In her two-semester senior capstone class for Graphic Design students, Cheryl emphasizes deadlines and a real-world attitude toward work. Her own capstone thesis launched her status as an emerging designer and advocating voice. Now, she guides students to discover their own voices by drawing on their cultural heritage, history, and problems that they hope to solve. 

Along with her extensive accomplishments, she remains invested in mentorship. As a young Black designer who felt alone and unmentored in the industry, Cheryl is the design mentor she never had. One of her Lesley students, Daniela German-George ’21, developed a magazine focused on showcasing street food for the capstone class. Cheryl credits Daniela's work as a prime example of how young designers can transform the landscape of the design industry. 

"There's a whole slew of travel and leisure magazines, and all are high-end white default. All you see are the white tablecloth versions of cuisine,” says Cheryl. “When I saw Daniela’s project, Street Food, I was like, 'Bring that forward.'" White default embodies a system which consistently others people of color—in graphic design, this can manifest itself in font choices, mid-century layouts, and more.  

Magazine layout
A spread from Daniela's magazine project. See more work by the BFA in Graphic Design seniors.

Occupying space in a traditionally white default industry requires tenacity and creativity, which Cheryl encourages in her students, whom she calls "scholars". Her teaching philosophy pushes students to look beyond their first instincts. 

"When I get a first solution, I say, 'Okay, that's nice. What else do you have? Look more. Look deeper.' I push scholars to be investigative on their own work, which can be painful. It can be tough love," she explains.  

Her mindset reflects a long and challenging history of championing Civil Rights Design in a historically white- and male-dominated industry. When asked about what has changed since her first Print article, Cheryl speaks openly. 

"I paused my major works and took 20 years – 20 years! – to raise a family. Though not servicing clients, I continued trade writing my advocacy. Once I returned, when it came to white supremacy, institutional racism, systemic racist practices in the industry, not much changed from the time I'd left. That's a sad commentary, that I could go raise a family and nothing has changed." 

Despite the slow pace of progress, Cheryl continues to effect change in the field. She wrote two additional volumes of articles for Print, following up on her original trailblazing piece. She gives decolonizing lectures that explore the foundational canon of graphic design with the context of how the technology was used—for example, in branding and promotions of the Transatlantic Slave Trade during the Renaissance era. 

As she wrote in her final article for Print in 2020, “Old histories don’t have to reproduce old results; history doesn’t have to repeat itself. We can do this new thing, together. We need a new record of graphic design history.” 

Crediting the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement for bringing these issues to the forefront, she sees hope in her students as new scholars and practitioners of the craft. 

"All of America is no longer white default, and if you're going to be in this business, you've got to accept that and address it. I'm training people to think around the palette, past white default," she says. “Be brave. Capture those stories.” 

Cheryl calls on all teachers and design industry leaders to confront the default to white perspectives, urging the next generation of designers to express their individually authentic perspectives. 

"My style is unconditional. I charge all of academia to let the students be,” she says. “Let them birth. New pedagogy—let it come forth. You never know what you're going to get." 

"Look beyond white default. Who are you going to be in this? What are you going to do?"
Cheryl D. Miller

"You're a new practitioner," she reminds her students, "You're going to be a new agent of imagery, of scholarship, of promotions and ads and what this business is about. What are you going to make? Demand yourself to create new solutions."

Zoom picture of the BFA in Graphic Design senior capstone class
Lesley BFA in Graphic Design senior capstone class

Cheryl's work

Learn more about Lesley's College of Art & Design

As a Graphic Design BFA major at Lesley University, you’ll have the opportunity to study with trailblazing faculty like Cheryl D. Miller. Our College of Art & Design is one of three AICAD schools situated within a university that also has a liberal arts college. Choose from several art & design majors and craft a creative degree plan by pairing your major with one of 25+ liberal arts majors or 45+ minors across all subjects.