How one question led to new Stanford archive

A new archive at the Stanford University Libraries chronicles the work of successful multiracial designer and diversity advocate Cheryl D. Miller.

When Stanford John S. Knight Journalism Fellow Michael Grant was researching the lack of diversity in journalism, he stumbled upon a 1987 article online, titled " Black Designers: Missing in Action."

The piece, written by successful multiracial designer and diversity advocate Cheryl D. Miller , captivated Grant, the creative director of the San Francisco Business Times and a 2017-18 participant in Stanford’s John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships program.

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The search for a thesis written by famed graphic designer Cheryl D. Miller resulted in her donation of her personal archive to Stanford Libraries.

In the article, Miller pointed out that underrepresentation of black people in advertising and other design materials is one reason why so few of them become designers. What she described more than 30 years ago paralleled what Grant experienced while pursuing his career in journalism design.

"I was intrigued because I saw that she was asking the same types of questions that are still being discussed today," Grant said. As part of his fellowship at Stanford, Grant is exploring ways to encourage more people of color to work in digital media.

Hoping to read more about Miller and her research, Grant asked Regina Roberts , a Stanford librarian, to help him track down the thesis Miller wrote while she was enrolled as a graduate student in visual communications at Pratt Institute in New York.

Grant’s request led Roberts to the doorsteps of Miller’s home in Stamford, Connecticut, and to an entire new collection for the Stanford University Libraries.

Miller not only gave permission to share her full thesis, she also decided to donate more than a dozen boxes of materials on her research, advocacy and design work.

"Cheryl has meticulously documented her career and offers a window into the evolution of the graphic design industry," said Roberts, who oversees collections on anthropology and archaeology, communication and journalism, and feminist studies at Stanford Libraries. "Her archive offers a unique perspective of an entrepreneurial woman and person of color during this time in U.S. history."

Diversifying design

Miller designed for civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund and several Fortune 500 companies between the 1970s and 1990s.

Born to a Filipina mother and an African American father, Miller also wrote about a lack of people of color in the design industry and the difficulties they face when trying to enter the profession. Miller’s solution to those obstacles was to create her own independent design firm. She became a leader in the movement to reframe how people of color were represented in marketing and advertising.

The new Stanford collection includes a wide range of Miller’s design work, photographs, research notes, and personal and business correspondence from her firm as well as taped interviews she conducted with prominent black designers and other design professionals.

Cheryl is someone who singlehandedly helped increase the representation of black culture in her field.

Michael Grant

Stanford John S. Knight Journalism Fellow

Stanford theater and performance studies Professor Jennifer DeVere Brody said the new archive presents great research opportunities for faculty and students in the humanities, arts and social sciences.

"There is a whole way in which race is mediated and thought through in commercial ventures," said DeVere Brody, who is also the director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. "Cheryl Miller had a unique career, and it’s important to preserve materials that document what she has done. There are many ways this collection will be valuable."

While analyzing the documents in the new collection, Grant said he was struck to discover that Miller designed the cover of Malcolm X’s autobiography, a copy of which sits on his own bookshelves.

Other pieces in the collection include a NASA-commissioned poster of Mae Jemison, who became the first African American woman to travel in space, as well as research notes and the manuscript for Miller’s memoir about her experience growing up in a multiracial household.

Inspired by Miller and her work, Grant is now using his design skills to help create an online survival kit for journalists of color to foster productive conversations about race and diversity in news organizations around the country. Still in its early stages, the website includes various scenarios that journalists of color have experienced - such as editors questioning their story ideas more aggressively than those of white reporters - and offers practical suggestions to resolve these situations.

"With any company that is creating something for use by people of color, if you don’t have different communities represented, you risk having blind spots," Grant said. "Cheryl is someone who singlehandedly helped increase the representation of black culture in her field. Aside from her accomplishments and stellar reputation in the design industry, researchers will benefit from the first-hand accounts she has provided the Stanford Libraries."

The Cheryl D. Miller collection is being processed, and scholars interested in the archive should contact Roberts.