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9 min read

Promoting diversity in illustration: An interview with John D. Saunders

In his project ‘Black Illustrations,’ John D. Saunders set out to create more accurate representations of people of color.

Illustration of three people from John D. Saunders’ ‘Black Illustrations’

Illustration by John D. Saunders

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Black Illustrations has just released the free Movement Pack, which includes 10 illustrations made for social media and digital projects to help creators fight racial inequality.

"In an effort to help aid protestors, organizers and social media managers, we created The Movement Pack featuring Black Lives Matter illustrations for use with your digital designs," says John D. Saunders.

The web is for everyone. While this may seem like an obvious statement, it hasn't always been the case. Where once it was prohibitively expensive for many people to own a computer and maintain an internet connection, the widespread availability of cheaper mobile devices and internet access have democratized the web. In fact, the United Nations estimates that, by the end 2015, 3.2 billion people were online – two billion of those being from developing countries. The ethnicities and geographic locations of web users have never been so diverse. So, then, why doesn't the web look like it?

There is a general lack of representation of people of different ethnicities in online imagery. In parallel, there’s a growing force of designers trying to solve this. When Neosha Gardner couldn't find decent images of black women in stock imagery, for example, she created her own stock photography service in 2015 called CreateHER Stock, which has seen considerable success providing stock imagery that depicts black and brown women in various lifestyle, business, and everyday settings – especially useful for content creators.

Photo of two women with laptop from CreateHER Stock
A stock image from CreateHER Stock.

When it comes to web design, however, illustrations continue to rule the day. Websites of all kinds use them to portray brand values, tell stories, and explain workflows and product uses. Much like the problem with stock photography, identified by Neosha, there are similar diversity issues with stock illustration. It simply isn't meaningfully diverse.

Creating illustrations for web that are actually diverse: The case of Black Illustrations

John D. Saunders is a web designer, marketer, and founder of the agency 5Four Digital. In an interview for Shaping Design, he’s incredibly enthusiastic about his practice, speaking of his love for the human element that’s so central to his job. The web experiences he creates are for "all types of clients from all different ethnicities and walks of life," John says.

When it came to finding illustration assets for his diverse client base, however, John kept running into a wall. He simply could not find assets that accurately reflected the different ethnicities of his clients. To him, it was about so much more than skin tone.

"You might see an illustration of a 'person of color,' but it's literally just an illustration of a white person with the pigment changed. They don't necessarily have the hair texture, body type, and different features that a person of color would have,” explains John. “I thought to myself, I think there is something that we can do about this."

This is the key design challenge that sets stock photography apart from web illustration; in photography, the ethnicities of the models portrayed are an unquestionable part of the photo as a whole. For many distributed illustration packs, however, simply 'reskinning' illustrations with different pigments is often passed off as a solution.

John set out to provide a different product, one that would accurately represent black and brown people in commonly used web illustration contexts. This is where Black Illustrations, his passion project, was born.

Showing illustrations of people of diverse ethnicities, of diverse gender and sexual identities, and depicting people wit