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In Graphic Design, What Does It Mean to be Accessible?

A poster for Women in Design Conference at the Woman's Building designed by Sheila de Bretteville.
The Women in Design Conference poster honed into its graphic design and feminine motifs. | Courtesy of Woman's Building Slide Archive, Otis College of Art and Design Library
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A single graphic has the potential to spur movements and create dialog that can last generations. The image of a raised fist, the "We Can Do It!" Rosie the Riveter poster, the Guerilla Girls billboards, the Congresso de Artistas Chicanos en Aztlan "We Art Not A Minority" mural, Robbie Conal's political street posters to the cardboard signs at protest marches yesterday and today — these are graphics that stand out and stay with us.

Such iconic imagery cannot be removed from the historical events (from international conflicts to technological developments) that informed them, the creator's access to training and materials, the distribution channels and physical spaces available to them, and, perhaps most key, an environment where individuals have the freedom and encouragement to explore and experiment in the first place. Issues of accessibility are woven through all of these facets of artmaking. And in Los Angeles, specifically, many key designers and artists in the city during the late '60s and early '70 were driven to create more exhibition spaces, professional opportunities and support networks for communities who were historically marginalized in the art and design worlds.

Access to Opportunities

Graphic artist and educator Archie Boston, who was recently honored with the prestigious American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Medal, understands the many obstacles certain individuals can face. A 1965 honors graduate of the advertising design program at downtown L.A.'s Chouinard Art Institute (that later became CalArts), Boston is known for a lifetime of pioneering work influenced by the civil rights movement, including such impactful ads as "I don't want to marry your daughter" (1982) and "Uncle Tom Wants You" (1966), which featured photos of himself and took racism head-on. This was at a time, according to the 1968 Print magazine article "The Black Experience in Graphic Design," that Black designers represented just 1 to 2% of those working in the industry. As a successful African American advertising executive, and later launching one of the first African American–owned design firms in the country (Boston & Boston with his brother Brad), followed by a tenured position at Cal State Long Beach — Boston is well aware that he has been in a unique position many times over.

Archie Boston and his brother stand with for sale signs on their chests.
A controversial poster by Archie Boston advertising his and his brother's design services. | Archie Boston

That is precisely why when he thinks of accessibility and graphic design, Boston reflects on the need for access to opportunities in the field. (The number of Black/African American designers today is a mere 3.4%, according to the 2017 Design Census.) And even those in the field would not necessarily have the same access to clients as their white peers. The same 1968 Print article quoted designer Bill Howell as saying, "The majority of Black people who work as designers at advertising agencies never get to see the white clients." Boston had firsthand experience of this. "Advertising agencies were afraid of what clients think. They might hesitate to hire an African American or anybody who they thought would shake up the relationship," Boston says from his home in Baldwin Hills. "There was an account I worked on for a year, and was not given the opportunity to meet with them" until the "agency felt comfortable and the client really liked my work."

Throughout his career, Boston has worked to provide professional opportunities to those underrepresented in the commercial art world and in academia. "If I can help somebody to become a professor or to get on a tenure track and then become a professor like I did, then, why not?" he says. "Especially a minority… African American, Asian American, Hispanic American." Boston adds that being a prominent African American educator in the field of graphic design — just as appearing in his own advertisements — could encourage African Americans and other underrepresented in the industry to enter it and result in access to jobs down the line. "I felt committed to social justice, and also to inclusiveness. My students felt the same way after they graduated with me as their instructor. They were open to bringing in minorities too because their professor was a minority."

Archie Boston sits in his classroom with a student at California State University Long Beach.
Archie Boston as a professor at California State University Long Beach, 1982. | Archie Boston

A Place to Work

For Boyle Heights-based Self Help Graphics & Art (SHG), founded in 1973, accessibility has always meant having the space to create in a way that was uniquely theirs. It was the Chicano civil rights movement that motivated Mexican artists Carlos Bueno and Antonio Ibañez, and Chicano artists such as Frank Hernandez, and artist and Franciscan nun Sister Karen Boccalero to start their organization in East L.A. Boccalero, a student of Sister Corita at L.A.'s Immaculate Heart College, shared in a video interview in the 1980s: "People needed a place to work, and they needed to be able to express who they were and to mirror to the community their history, their heritage," recalled the artist, who passed away in 1997. "We did not have at that time access to public media, so it was a way of expressing the culture and who the artists were through their visual images, and they needed a place to work to do that."

A screenprinted poster of Sister Karen Boccalero
A screenprinted poster of Sister Karen Boccalero, the Franciscan artist and nun that helped start Self Help Graphics & Art. | Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art

SHG executive director Betty Avila feels that this is still very true today in Los Angeles, where "having a studio is such a luxury." Her organization's physical space helps address this need, becoming "a kind of de facto studio space for people for artists all over L.A.," she says, adding, "There's that kind of accessibility in terms of space to create — and space to then show their work." They invite people of all abilities and ages to utilize their space, equipment and materials for free or affordable rates, including offering intensive summer art programs for kids as young as 12 in the past.

"I've spoken to numerous artists over the years who say without exaggeration that SHG saved their life," adds Avila.

Youth hold up their screen printed posters with Dewey Tafoya.
Dewey Tafoya conducts regualar screen printing workshops at Self Help Graphics & Art | Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art

A Place to Experiment

Happening simultaneously in 1973, not far from Boyle Heights, on 743 South Grand View St. (previously Chouinard Art Institute where Boston studied) in downtown Los Angeles, a trio of activists had a similar mission in mind for female artists and designers: a space for women to freely explore their identities and share their work with wider audiences at a time when they were being overlooked (or outright dismissed) by major art institutions. Together with Judy Chicago and Arlene Raven, graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville started the Feminist Studio Workshop and their location became known as the Woman's Building.

Woman's Building Fifth Anniversary poster designed by Sheila De Bretteville with an illustration by Phranc.
Sheila de Bretteville designed a fifth anniversary poster for the Woman's Building. | Courtesy of Woman's Building Slide Archive, Otis College of Art and Design Library

"I was interested in the diversity within us as a group of women, as much as what each chose to make had to do with being women…believing that their individual content and form was reflected in what they make and would be able to reach the audience in a particular place, any everyday type of audience," says de Bretteville, who has her own design studio and is the director of the graduate program in graphic design at Yale.

She and her collaborators also opened the Women's Graphic Center next to the Woman's Building, which was in operation until 1991, and prior to that, de Bretteville had launched the first women's design program in 1971 at CalArts. "Our intention and effort [for both] was to enable each woman to make and post her printed work at sites she chose, and to express what she expected and felt about that place," de Bretteville adds. "Each piece of work expressed their personal intentions — nobody got in the way of that taking place!" And she describes Los Angeles as a place "where not much was scripted," that "made it possible to do things that needed to be done, and in new ways I wanted to do them."

Some women sit on the floor, others stand, all are looking at a painting on a chair.
A feminist studio workshop critiques work submitted to the Woman's Building. | Courtesy of Woman's Building Slide Archive, Otis College of Art and Design Library

An Avenue for Self-Expression

Regardless of place, the belief that design is something within everyone's reach, accessible as a mode for expression, needs to start early and be sustained. "This society does not encourage the artist in all of us," says longtime activist Carol Wells, who founded the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in 1989. "In fact, it's the opposite… If somebody walked into a classroom of kindergarteners and asked, 'Who's an artist?' Every hand in the room goes up. Walk into a high-school classroom with the same question, maybe one or two" hands go up.

To that end, CSPG's archive of more than 90,000 human rights and protest posters and prints includes and welcomes artwork by people of all ages and skill levels from all over the world. "Everybody should have the ability and the time and the encouragement to be creative," stresses Wells. CSPG's collection is accessible to "movement makers," whether they call themselves artists, graphic designers, or students — to both study and contribute to.

Designer Sheila de Bretteville hanging up her "Pink" poster in the streets.
Designer Sheila de Bretteville hanging up her "Pink" poster in the streets. | Courtesy of Woman's Building Slide Archive, Otis College of Art and Design Library

But making graphic design more accessible is multilayered, and the important work Boston, Boccalero, and de Bretteville started decades ago is ongoing. While some may see hope in new distribution channels and tools that are available to people today versus 50 years ago, the same or new inequities can still surface. A graphic "can go all over the world in a matter of seconds for almost free," says Wells, "but the bad thing is you need internet access…you need a computer [or device] to be able to see them." And the professional opportunities at agencies and art and academic institutions for underrepresented groups that Boston fought for are still needed. Studio spaces for artists to work in Los Angeles are significantly more expensive than when Self Help Graphics & Art opened in Boyle Heights. Yet, there are many significant developments to celebrate. The Woman's Building may be long gone, but many L.A.-based women-run spaces and collectives have emerged to strengthen communities of female creators and creators of color far beyond city limits.

Boston is pleased to witness "young people taking up the banner and moving forward…trying to change the status quo," as he did in the '60s. Now they're able to connect across continents in real time, rallying around social justice movements and creating graphics (or reimagining/remixing ones from the past) to help embody and further their respective causes — then amplifying them. And there are no signs of them slowing down in production.

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