New Faculty Research Spotlight
Omari Souza, School of Art and Design
Design for Social Good and Innovation
"While many of my classmates prepared for classes by packing or unpacking their supplies, I had to unpack and navigate the weight of my blackness in a homogenous space."
I am a design research enthusiast who is obsessed with design for social good and innovation. I’m new to Texas State and extremely impressed by the quality of faculty on campus. I look forward to being of service and collaborating with my colleagues. Here is the story of my journey from the Bronx to academia.
As a child, in complete admiration, I would often watch my mother draw. My mother, a quiet woman who seldom spoke, was often more expressive with her sketches than her words. My mother, a Jamaican immigrant, avoided subtlety and left nothing to interpretation. Her sketches, however, were quite nuanced and adventurous.
Many of the characters she drew would vary in feature and expression; her drawings would also differ in landscape and geography. Through these sketches, I was able to glimpse how my mother observed our community in the borough of the Bronx where she raised my two siblings and me.
As time progressed, I began sketching and sharing my illustrations hoping to impress my mother and elder cousin. They both were instrumental in pushing me to utilize my talents as a vehicle to achieve the American Dream.
My family members subscribed to the idea of America as the land of milk and honey: the illustrious melting pot. For this reason, they left a small island paradise so that their children could have a chance at American success. Subsequently, I was inspired to attend secondary schools which specialized in artistic training. I competed in local and national competitions, eventually earning a partial scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art, where I would graduate with a BFA in Digital Media.
My childhood in New York City made it hard to envision a world where anything short of the diverse prototypical “melting pot” existed, so my undergraduate experience in Cleveland, Ohio, was a rude awakening. Many of my classmates, who came to Cleveland from rural Midwestern towns, met their first person of color in the form of...me. These initial interactions illustrated to me the level of discomfort those within my immediate surroundings had both with me, or perhaps with their perceptions of who they assumed I would be from advertisements, movies, music, and television. While many of my classmates prepared for classes by packing or unpacking their supplies, I had to unpack and navigate the weight of my blackness in a homogenous space. These experiences would influence my studies as a designer, and, more specifically, lead me to consider the impact of the visual narratives we construct.
As Will Storr points out in his 2019 book Selfi, who we are as individuals, each habit and belief that we hold, is an extension of the rituals and structures of our various cultures. We are shaped by the language of visual symbols presented by those who wish to change or maintain those rituals and structures. Our society is steeped in visual narratives, which are often used by journalists, politicians, and other opinion leaders to perpetuate cultural myths about the products they offer and the consumers who “need” them. In this consumer-based society, designers play a vital role in crafting visual narratives and help determine how individuals view the world through the kaleidoscopic lens of the visual symbols of advertisement. These narratives are used to illustrate the dynamics of social power and ideology we use to create meaning.
Within the context of advertising, the concern is whether the industry is reinforcing or challenging the social hierarchy. Promotional industries use design to communicate expectations about race and ethnicity, just as they do about cars, clothing, or coffee shops. By examining examples of visual narratives from the Jim Crow era, my research explores how ads objectify African Americans or use racist symbols to sell commercial goods. This exploration provides greater understanding of how design contributes to Western biases against African Americans and other minority groups.
Historically the work of a designer has been centered largely on the “hows.” The focus has been on how to solve commercial problems for customers while overlooking the immense influence designers have on culture and society. Designers produce visual narratives and, thus, cultural myths of products and their respective consumers. Race, like any other cultural myth, is socially constructed. By dissecting the social, cultural, and historical meaning in images, we can explore the dynamics of social power and the ideology that produced them. While overt racist imagery in America was more prominent historically, cultural shifts have made blatant racism through this kind of imagery less acceptable. This does not mean these images no longer exist; rather, they live on as coded narratives, gestures, signs, and symbols to indicate difference. If the design community takes into account the social impact of the image narratives we create, this community can influence the way society understands and treats the humanity of others.