George Floyd’s death, and the subsequent BLM protests, caused a seismic shift in focus for diversity on the global agenda. Brands of all shapes and sizes are clamouring to engage with the cause and connect with a broader cross-section of society.
As a direct result, there has been a dramatic increase in the demand for brands to collaborate with diverse artists. But this isn’t just about appearing ‘woke’ and showing that the company cares about people from outside the mainstream.
Commissioning truly diverse creative work, from truly diverse creative people, doesn’t just redress the imbalance of support for amazing unseen artists. It brings creative diversity too, giving brands a totally fresh perspective on the world.
We have such a broad, eclectic mix of styles and ways of seeing and redrawing the world that we can really push the boundaries of a client’s vision
“This global movement has opened people’s hearts, eyes and ears and made them more aware of their own privileges and of the need for greater equality,” says Sachini Imbuldeniya, founder of Studio PI – a new photography and illustration agency set up by News UK, which only represents people from underrepresented backgrounds.
“But there’s a risk that artists are considered a reflection of a certain time, or movement – such as LGBTQ+ artists being commissioned around Pride, or female artists for International Women’s Day,” she adds. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
As Imbuldeniya points out, the biggest challenge is not only to ensure that all this momentum translates into a big, positive impact right now, but also that the groundwork is laid for sustainable diversity for future generations.
We previously explored how Studio PI links talented photographers from underrepresented backgrounds – including women, people of colour, people living with disabilities, and people from working class origins – with an industry hungry to commission them.
If we hold back certain groups from getting their voices heard, and getting their work seen, then it’s not just that artist that misses out
When it comes to illustration, the influence of diverse perspectives on both the style and subject matter of the work can be dramatic – and unlock moments of unexpected alchemy when working on a client brief.
“All artists bring their personality to their work, regardless of their age, sex, background or education,” says Imbuldeniya. “We have such a broad, eclectic mix of styles and ways of seeing and redrawing the world that we can really push the boundaries of a client’s vision.”
Artists can inspire us to see the world differently, and the boundaries of illustration are defined only by our imagination. “That’s why diversity in the creative industry is so important,” she adds.
“If we hold back certain groups from getting their voices heard, and getting their work seen, then it’s not just that artist that misses out. It’s us as creative directors and art directors; and ultimately it’s our clients and brands too.”
You can’t just expect a great diverse illustrator to paper over the cracks of cultural appropriation
Tokenism and cultural appropriation will never engage diverse audiences in a meaningful way: you need to draw on authentic lived experiences and an in-depth understanding of the nuances of a particular culture.
“That doesn’t mean you have to hire, say, a black illustrator to work on a streetwear campaign. That kind of stereotyping is equally derivative,” adds Imbuldeniya. “But brands must ensure that someone has been steeped in the culture you want to embody.”
“It could be the planners or marketers, or the owner of the company, or a voice on the Board,” she continues. “You can’t just expect a great diverse illustrator to paper over the cracks of cultural appropriation.”
Hailing from Sierra Leone, Ngadi Smart has also lived in Tunisia – and now mostly splits her time between the UK and Côte d’Ivoire. She works mainly for editorial clients, including The Atlantic, OneWorld and Reportagen.
Smart’s illustration and collage creations are colourful and unapologetic, exploring identity, culture and sexuality from an African perspective. She deconstructs mainstream society’s preconceptions of what is ‘normal’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘right’.
“With diversity and inclusion comes work that truly represents and reflects how multicultural and multifaceted our world actually is,” reflects Smart.
“When established organisations and publications don’t engage or seek a level playing field for artists from different racial and cultural backgrounds, it’s detrimental to us all,” she adds. “Children see opportunities for themselves in images.”
Filipino-born and raised in London, lifelong football fan Daryl Rainbow studied illustration at Camberwell. He combined these two passions to specialise in sports illustration, with commissions from football magazine Mundial, plus Adidas’ London Ready for Sport campaign, and a grassroots football project with men’s grooming brand Harry’s.
Rainbow’s clients include Netflix, the BBC, Chelsea FC, COPA90, Major League Soccer and style title MilkX. Through his colourful and distinctive technique, he also explores his other passions of politics, lifestyle and culture.
Growing up as a Filipino immigrant, the expectation was for Rainbow to get a “proper job” with financial security. His family took some convincing about illustration as a career choice. “The Filipino culture isn’t really known for producing illustrators who satirise European football,” he smiles.
Feminism plays an important part in the work of graphic illustrator Sinem Erkas, and she believes that her lived experience as a young woman has influenced at least half of her commissions she’s received.
Her first illustrated book – The Girl Guide – has been published in more than a dozen languages. Erkas has also created a series of 3D paper-cut children’s books called Work It, Girl, championing the achievements of modern women.
Erkas describes herself as a “stylistic sponge” that has soaked up diverse influences from all around the world: Japanese minimalism, European humour, Islamic geometry, African boldness and American pop art.
“People from minority backgrounds have culturally different ways of seeing and thinking to the established norms,” she observes. “Minorities and ‘misfits’ see life differently, and that tends to produce the more interesting work.”
Diverse cultural influences
With an animation background, LA-based illustrator and animator Janice Chang has a fluid style that is particularly effective at capturing movement and often uses humour to engage viewers with more complex topics.
“Much of my work focuses on using characters to tell stories, and engage in conversations around social and interpersonal issues,” she explains. “I pull a lot of my inspiration from my own lived experiences and of those around me.”
“I’m always thinking about how to represent different types of people, so that more people can relate and empathise with my work,” adds Chang, whose clients have included Apple, The New York Times, Wired, BuzzFeed and Vice. “Having grown up as a Taiwanese/American, I carry bits of that duality across.”
A multidisciplinary visual artist who splits his time between London and Istanbul, Selman Hosgor believes his Turkish upbringing influences his approach to illustration: “Diversity means colourfulness for me,” he explains. “Although things are crowded, there’s definitely an order in the chaos. I see this balance in my own work.”
Hosgor blends photography and typography in lively, colourful collages. His clients include Apple, Pirelli and Bulgari, as well as editorial work for Vanity Fair, Vogue Turkey, The Guardian, The Economist and Elle USA.
Inspired by her homeland of India, music, interiors, architecture and nature, Sneha Shanker is an illustrator and brand designer now based in London. Her work reflects themes of wellness, mental health and self-development, and her commercial clients include BBC Three and Vice.
Shanker’s characters are either based on herself, or specific women who inspire her. “It came naturally to me that they had South East Asian features,” she says. “I drew what I saw as normal. It was only later that I realised most advertising represented people that I did not connect or relate to.”
Shanker then set out to incorporate even more diversity and cultural flavour into her illustrations. “I try to accommodate different skin and hair colours, ethnicities, same-sex partners and so on in all my work,” she explains.
“I think the responsibility of fair and diverse representation lies on both the illustrator and the commissioner,” concludes Shanker. “As illustrators, we should extend the conversation into all our work until it becomes the norm. When we don’t have to talk about it as a topic, that’s when we’ve made it.”