In a 2017 AIGA poll of 9,602 global designers, 73 percent of those surveyed were white, while only three percent were African-American. Three years later, amid a global push to eradicate systemic racism, the question remains: Where are the black designers?

We spoke with Rudy Manning, co-founder and chief creative officer of Pastilla Inc., a data-driven creative and marketing agency in Pasadena that has worked with brands like Microsoft, ESPN and Disney, to name a few. Manning, who’s been teaching design classes at ArtCenter College of Design since 2014, shares how he’s applying his experience as one of the few Afro-Latino agency founders and teachers in design to increase BIPOC representation and design awareness among black youth, an undertaking he and Ayzenberg are working to address together.

Tell us about your role as chief creative officer of Pastilla.

I’m the original founder on Pastilla’s side for the first 14 years of the company. I merged with Kremsa Digital two years ago. As a CCO of a smaller agency, at least in the beginning, I was in charge of the business operations, as well as the strategic creative vision of the agency and how I want to position ourselves as an agency and a team. In our industry, everything is driven by your team. Ultimately what makes the agency is its people, so that’s at the forefront of everything I do.

When Pastilla opened, running the agency was my focus. But over the past three years, I started thinking about my role as a designer of color and how I can create more awareness about design and advertising in the black community, because in my career I’ve rarely received a portfolio from a black designer.

How has Black Lives Matter and the pandemic affected your role as co-founder and CCO?

The pandemic has set the stage for what’s next as to how I look at the agency as a person of color. Starting an agency and sustaining its growth is a difficult thing. The focus for the first 12 years was getting it to run. The sad part is that that became the focus, which is great. But I have a voice, an experience and a mentoring attitude so now my goal is to expose black youth to the design field and to the fact that it can be a great career that gives a lot back to you. That story needs to be told so I’m hoping to do that more.

The first step is hiring diverse talent. Finding more designers of color requires you to be conscious of your hiring process. If you’re not conscious, like in the first year of running Pastilla, you don’t have a chance to stop and see if you’ve fostered a diverse and inclusive team. Now that Pastilla is running sufficiently, it’s easier for me to analyze it.

What did your path to co-founding Pastilla look like?

My first memory of graphic design was a third grade contest for which I had to create a logo for a science expo. I lived in Germany as a little kid. My dad was an artist, he studied architecture and so forth. We worked on this logo together and our logo won. I still didn’t really understand what it was, I was only eight. But I knew when I walked around school, everyone was wearing this logo I made, and that gave me confidence.

Around that time as well, my dad bought me a Commodore VIC-20. At nine years old, I had to basically code my own games. Those two things were the perfect combination early on that continue to be a conversation in my house. I’m thankful to have parents who understood there was an opportunity in the creative field even though they didn’t know what graphic design was. That was the spark.

What are some barriers to growing black leaders in design and advertising?

Educating the parents is a big part of making a dent in growing more black designers. Graphic design in general is an abstract term to a lot of people. Knowing that it’s a viable career choice is even harder. On top of that, going to college is expensive. Even if you do have college opportunities, it would almost be strange to choose to study art over all these other things. That level of understanding among the black community isn’t there. They’re not privy to the number of careers you can have within the arts. So then it doesn’t become a choice. The family pushes away that choice from the child even if it’s something they like because school is so expensive already, so why pick art?

When I was young, my mother started a janitorial business with her husband that scaled really quickly and provided really well for my brother and I. Seeing her entrepreneurial spirit and drive has inspired me. When I got out of school, I wanted to do art. Jose Caballer and I went to ArtCenter around the same time. He is a Puerto Rican Latino who speaks Spanish, so he’s someone I could relate to. He told me he’s going to study graphic design. At the time, I didn’t know what graphic design was. He described it as doing logos for MTV. That comment sparked my interest. And we’re still friends to this day.

Pastilla has created many different types of work in design. Can you tell us more about the agency’s vision?

Right out of school, I wanted to do it all—packaging, motion and interactive design. My portfolio showed it. When I started the studio, I wanted to continue that movement and think of design holistically as much as possible, like the Eames couple who saw art and design as one unit. We were doing commercials and documentaries, then we did a print campaign for Surface. Then we would do brand strategy for Microsoft Band. When you go too broad, you start to wonder, what is the thing that a client will remember you by? That started becoming a topic as we scaled. So the thread there ended up being branding, which funnels into many applications.

How do we give black youth the same type of exposure and connection to opportunities in design and advertising that you experienced organically?

As a mentor, I see students come in and out. Sometimes I think a student needs a lot of work and I’m not sure if they should even be in design or if they have passion for it. There have been times where that same student returns to my classes a year later, completely different. If they found it within themselves to continue to grow, they definitely grew. 

When you’re mentoring, you have to see it like you’re giving into something that isn’t going to have a direct return. Mentoring takes time. It’s incremental and cumulative. Someone somewhere else is going to take the baton. At some point, the dots are going to connect for the student. The problem is there aren’t enough black mentors in design that can serve as an example to black youth and show them if he can do it, I can do it too. It’s no different from seeing so many African American basketball players—kids grow up and think that’s the only option for them. That’s just one avenue, but the reason they look there is because they see themselves there most often.

Do you remember when you first realized black designers in advertising were underrepresented and have you noticed the same lack of diversity in your work environments?

I think it started at ArtCenter. I was one of two people of color. There were maybe a handful of people who were Latino. One student was from Kenya. Over the three years I was there, she and I were the only ones.

I can count on one hand how many people of color I worked with over 20 years in graphic design, maybe less. Some were in animation and other disciplines around graphic design. One person who I should mention was Denise Gonzales Crisp, who taught night classes while I was at ArtCenter. She’s now at North Carolina State University College of Design. I took those classes to prepare my portfolio for ArtCenter and she brought in this student to show his work. In comes this student with an afro haircut and I look at him and gasp, thinking oh my gosh, he’s black. He was a student at the time but she wanted us to see his work. I remember going, that’s amazing, he’s talented and he looks like me. His name is Tryone Drake, and he now teaches at ArtCenter as the only black graphic design instructor other than me. 

You recently joined the Slack channel, ‘Where are the Black Designers?” How did you discover it and what’s the channel’s mission?

Where are the Black Designers? is an initiative and platform for black designers. They have a Slack channel where black designers, educators and creators go to connect, learn about jobs and mentor other black designers. I just joined and I’ve been mentoring people. I just spoke with the founder of a new brand strategy consultancy. She’s been running the company for six months and I shared with her my thoughts.

I want to do more of that. Pastilla is looking for a project manager so I’m being more conscious of not looking in the typical network that I usually do, because I’ll probably get similar types of people. As an agency owner, I have to make a conscious effort to think about who we hire and where we look for potential hires. 

Can you share more about the work you’re starting with Price School?

Frederick K.C. Price III Schools is a value-based, college preparatory school in Los Angeles that Pastilla did some creative and marketing for. Two years ago, my wife created a beautiful short documentary film that ended up becoming a commercial for the school. When we first started working with them, the school was closing. We ended up helping keep it open. The school is primarily an African American school, and it has a 100% graduate rate and college acceptance rate. I didn’t see any graphic design programs there or discussion of arts programs other than theater and music. I knew in the back of my mind, I wanted to find a way to get more involved there with the arts program.

So I connected the ArtCenter with Price School and we’re coming up with ways to have designers like myself, Tyrone and other Latino instructors create curriculum, do tours, career workshops, design workshops and ultimately plant those seeds in students that might be creative. It’s about finding ways to have design related to them from the brands they buy to the shoes they wear to the music they listen to. I want to show them that graphic design is everywhere around them and there are opportunities beyond playing a sport, like designing the entire brand identity system or marketing campaign for a sports team.

What’s your ultimate goal for partnering with Ayzenberg to expose local black youth in Pasadena to design?

The overarching goal is to find ways to introduce more people of color to the possibility of design and art as a career. On a granular level, it’s about getting the percentage of black leaders in design and advertising closer to the percentage of the black population in the US. If around 10 percent of the US population is black, can we get that to five or seven percent? And how do we measure that?  Because if you look at other industries like music and sports, BIPOC representation is way higher.