Diversity in design book publishing

A project by Leonardo de Vasconcelos shows how few design books from leading publishers involve BIPOC writers and editors. Here, Vasconcelos, Gail Anderson and Adrian Shaughnessy discuss the state of publishing and the implications this has for the design ecosystem

Last month, Brazilian-born, London-based designer Leonardo de Vasconcelos launched a self-initiated data visualisation project called Judging by the Cover, which draws attention to the gap between white and BIPOC authors, editors and contributors of design books published by a selection of leading international publishing houses.

The study lays out the number of design books published by these companies where authors, editors and contributors (usually additional writers who contributed essays) are found to be Black, white or of “other ethnicities”, excluding books where these details couldn’t be found.

So far, the project involves research on ten publishers: GGili, Lars Muller Publishers, Laurence King Publishing, MIT Press, Niggli Verlag, Phaidon, Princeton Architectural Press, Sternberg Press, Taschen and Thames & Hudson. The outcome is bleak, with several of the companies having published no books with Black authors, contributors or editors, according to the research.

Vasconcelos hasn’t engaged with the publishers involved in the study, however since it launched, many publishers have followed the project on Instagram. He believes it is a wake-up call and hopes the publishers will learn from the project and ultimately leverage their power to change the landscape: “There are so many incredible BIPOC designers out here waiting for an opportunity to be published.”

The lack of diversity across the entire creative industries has come under the microscope over the past year, however Vasconcelos believes that book publishing is particularly lagging behind in this respect. “Book publishers had a hard time dealing with the increase of digital books, pirate copies and the threat that physical books would eventually die,” he says. “I think that this is one reason the book publishing market seems so conservative in terms of change. Because it’s easier to invest in ready recipes instead of shooting at new horizons since economic factors are at stake. But this is no justification to not have a more proactive approach in fighting inequity since their customers are from different backgrounds.”

Designer and Unit Editions co-founder Adrian Shaughnessy agrees that publishing houses often lean on economic reasons, which perhaps explains why design books can see the same names and movements crop up time and time again. He believes that the publishers can learn from how fiction imprints have broadened their output: “I think it’s been really interesting the way publishers of fiction have embraced non-western voices and voices from marginal communities. All publishing is risky, so I admire anyone who publishes non-standard material,” he tells us. “The design publishing world has been slow to follow the example of the fiction imprints. It’s easy to hide behind the economics. Even with books dealing with established and popular figures from the western canon, it is punishingly hard to make money. So, to dip into non-established figures and movements is not easy. But, I think we have a duty to make sure that marginalised and neglected voices are heard.”