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‘They’ve stolen our history’: Why one designer has been fighting for inclusion for 50 years

Cheryl D. Miller is an acclaimed New York communications designer, artist, and theologian. She is the author of the memoir Black Coral: A Daughter’s Apology to Her Asian Island Mother and recently submitted a professional archive of her historic visual design work and writings, the Cheryl D. Miller Collection, to Stanford University Libraries. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.

Doreen Lorenzo: Coming from a multiracial and multicultural background, what led to you starting your own New York design firm in the 1980s when that was rare for a woman to do?

Cheryl D. Miller: I’m authentically BIPOC. I’m paternally African American in culture, and Danish West Indian and Ghanaian by maternal heritage. My maternal U.S. Virgin Islands family is from Ghanian chiefs, and I have European colonizers’ blood as well as a Filipino family of origin. My paternal grandfather is white and Native American. I have four different grandparents, four different places, four different races, four different ethnicities. Each one of them brings a very unique perspective, but growing up my father had political aspirations, so all my family could be was African American in Washington, D.C. But since I’m also my Filipino Danish West Indian mother’s daughter, I look different. I don’t look like my family.

And throughout all of this, I wanted to be an artist. I could have taught Bauhaus by the time I got to it in my education because I grew up with Danish Scandinavian design as a part of my home furnishings. Denmark once owned the Virgin Islands. So it’s a part of my upbringing. I started my freshman foundation studies at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] but I graduated from MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art]. By the time I found my way to New York City, I was an award-winning broadcast designer in Washington, D.C. for 10 years. I’d been with my husband since I was 16, and after he finished business school he got a job offer in New York and asked me if I wanted to move there. I said yes and then I was in New York.

As a corporate wife, I didn’t know how long I was going to be there, but I knew all the schools were in New York, so I thought, Let me go to school. I applied to Pratt [Institute], asked them to review my professional work for credit, and they gave me half a degree based on my experience. I was already a designer, so I focused on business in grad school.

A lot of the tips I learned in business management really helped me formulate a good business template for my New York firm that I established in 1987, Cheryl D. Miller Design Inc. It was a corporate communications design firm, but it has this backstory history of advocacy. I secured Fortune 500 companies in order to introduce people of color into their visual iconography. I designed the original on-air BET brand identity.

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