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In June, Instagram’s @design team announced the inaugural #BlackDesignVisionaries grant program, presented in partnership with the Brooklyn Museum. An effort to empower, center and invest in the Black design community, the program will award three $10,000 grants to Black emerging designers and one $100,000 grant to a Black-led small design businesses.
Two designers, Toni C. and Frances S., partnered to develop the program’s visual design — work guided by creative directors Kingsley H. and Cynthia P. — as well as the @design team and leading Black designers at Instagram. Toni, an experience designer at Facebook, and Frances, who works in design leadership at Instagram, used a capital “B” as the foundation to declare a shared identity and design community worthy of elevation and celebration.
The capitalization of the “B” in “Black” has been widely adopted by the media only recently, a long overdue stylistic change to recognize the difference between a culture and a color. Toni and Frances’ design focuses on a question that has been circulating within the design community, led by advocates like Mitzi Okou: “Where are the Black designers?” Their answer: “We’re here.” We sat down with them to find out more.
Q: This work is a lot different than the work both of you typically do at Facebook. Why did you get involved?
Frances: I like to work on internal activations that promote mentorship. I am the only Afro-Latinx person on my team and I’m trying to fix that. I know it’s a problem with a lot of companies, including brand agencies. Any time I see a moment like this that ties a passion I hold outside of work, inward, I jump at the opportunity!
This system had to be built out so that we could hand it off. The input was valuable; it made me feel like I worked at a design agency.
Q: Tell us about your experience approaching #BlackDesignVisionaries as a design challenge. Ultimately, you worked collaboratively using a program called Figma.
Frances: The concept sets up how a design will do the speaking for you. There are a ton of social media templates out there, and I didn’t want it to feel like that. I tried to find examples of design that weren’t social-forward: posters from the ’90s, print design, things that weren’t necessarily digital. I was immersing myself in that world.
Toni: That’s how we got to the concept — something digital, but tangible. The mood-boarding phase was so important. Doing the work to understand, “Does this make sense for what I’m trying to accomplish, or am I just doing this for fun?” There has to be a reason for it. You have to get those ideas out.
Frances: Toni, I feel like that is very much a Facebook way: Beta testing internally. That’s why I love Figma, because it makes it more possible to test and learn.
Q: One of your challenges was to reference Black design history in a way that was not cliché — creating a thoughtful interpretation. How did that inspire you?
Frances: I thought about A Tribe Called Quest. They sample something from our histories in almost everything they do and make it new. That’s how I wanted to approach this project — I wanted to tie history into this program that is meant for the future of Black designers.
Q: Originally, you were both working on separate design systems for this program. When did that change?
Frances: Once Toni added the “B,” a lightbulb went on. That was a happy accident that framed a lot of the work.
Toni: There was a moment where I felt like Frances and I had the same brain. That was the moment we realized we were doing this together, even though we started in different worlds.
Q: How do you feel as a designer about the question, “Where are the Black designers?”
Toni: “We’re here; we’ve always been here.” It’s about acknowledging it. This is what drew us to this program, the fact that it’s taking the time to highlight people who are important outside of Black History Month. We are here and people need to know that.
Frances: I want to be more assertive in the fact that we’ve been here, and we’re continuing to be here. I think exposure to that for the future of design is very important, especially when you see all these amazing Black creators on Instagram. Design doesn’t always look like what you think it will — you don’t have to go to design school, you don’t need to know all the Adobe tools to be called a designer. All these conversations are pushing that. The way we look at design is very much euro-centric/white. I think reframing this and giving the power back to Black designers is why I feel so passionate about this program.
Q: How did you get your start in tech?
Toni: I’m originally from Louisville, Kentucky, and the majority of my career has been spent in traditional graphic design roles. When I moved to the Bay Area in 2015, I saw the impact that could be achieved in tech and decided to take the opportunity to grow my career in a different direction. So I found a role at a small tech company developing their corporate brand and events; and that’s how I got in.
Frances: I went to school for film and I panicked after graduation. I got into law school, but I realized after a week that I needed to be creative. I started as an art director in South Florida, doing branding for hospitality, then joined Vice as a senior designer on their advertising branch, Virtue. I thought Vice was a dream at the time, but Instagram and Facebook quickly became my “dream job.” Four years later, I’m still proud to be a part of this company. You really can raise your hand and be an advocate for the outside world.
Q: What has been a defining moment in your career so far?
Toni: In college, right before my senior capstone project, I felt like I wasted four years of my life. I thought, “Let me just finish this last project.” But then I created an experiential sleep exhibit, and from that, I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is design too.” That reinvigorated me.
Frances: I was a film student, and my team at Creative Shop partnered with the Ad Council and the Save the Food campaign. I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan, and we got to partner with McKinnon and Saunders, who did Fantastic Mr. Fox. This project married the film world I had dreamed of being in and this nonprofit space that I had seen myself in as well. The other highlight, speaking of impact and social work, was a campaign we did for opioid stigma called Stop Opioid Silence. We got to work with an amazing production company, Pretty Bird.
Q: How do you stay inspired and engaged in your craft?
Toni: Food. I love looking at restaurants: I love the branding, the presentation, the ingredients. I love menus! I do a memory screenshot: the colors of the furniture, the way the sunlight comes in. Thinking about design, space, and environment — that’s my jam.
Frances: I describe myself as a multidisciplinary creative. I’m not only going to be a designer for the rest of my career, but it’s a part of who I am. I get inspiration from learning new things. Recently, I enrolled in the UCLA program for screenwriting online. I get access to their renowned professors and learn how to outline a screenplay, and write a feature film.
Q: Is there any advice you would give a younger version of yourself — or aspiring designers today?
Toni: This is not the end! I would tell myself that you can be whatever you want to be, and if you change your mind, that’s okay. Never lose the urge to grow and find time to do what makes you happiest.
Frances: When I was 10, I told my mom I wanted to go to Harvard Law School, because I thought that was what my parents wanted. I would tell my younger self what I tell my niece: You can be an artist and pay your bills. The notion that art should only be a hobby and you need to pick a serious career? I try to push this stereotype. Also, this role didn’t exist when I was 10. I’d say that once you know what you want, the universe will find a way for you to get there.
Q: Speaking of the universe: What would you be doing in an alternate one?
Toni: An urban planner. I’ve always wanted to plan a city — and it’s still on the table for me. I like thinking about, “How can people efficiently get from one place to the other?” and putting all those details together, like a puzzle.
Frances: I always thought being a YA author would be really cool. Getting into screenwriting has reminded me of my love of storytelling.
See this article and others like it at the Facebook Design website.
‘We’re here’: A powerful message and visual expression from two Black designers was originally published in Facebook Design on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.