Leanne Armstrong, a Graphic and Creative Designer took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about her career and how her designs support a positive image of Black people.
Tell us about how you got started as a Graphic Designer? Were you creative as a child?
I have always been creative and loved dance, art and creative writing from a very young age. At college, I took Fine Art as an A Level. But it wasn’t until the second year of my A Levels, that I came across computer aided design (Graphic Design) as part of my Media Studies A Level. I fell in love with it! I then went on to do a Foundation Diploma in Graphic Design at the University of Arts. It was also a small part of my Dance & Media Cultural Studies degree.
After graduating, I felt that because I didn’t have a degree in Graphic Design itself. I was ‘under-qualified’ for a career as a graphic designer. But I tried to teach myself as much as I could. I completed courses and took inspiration from other designers. I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer at this point. So I took a chance and sent my designs and CV to many design agencies. Fortunately, a few months later I was given the opportunity to work full-time as an Artworker at an advertising agency. My career has grown from there. I am now a freelance Senior Designer with my own small business creating greeting cards and gifts.
For starting your business, did you have a business loan or a mentor?
I don’t have either at the moment. I fund my business myself, using savings I dedicate to producing new products. When I started my business, I was working full-time, so part of my wage would go towards building it. I don’t have a mentor but I try to network with like-minded people and gain inspiration from them. I’m always learning and exploring possibilities. I believe my background in media and marketing has helped me to grow my business organically.
After graduating, I felt that because I didn’t have a degree in Graphic Design itself. I was ‘under-qualified’ for a career as a graphic designer. But I tried to teach myself as much as I could. I completed courses and took inspiration from other designers. I took a chance and sent my designs and CV to many design agencies.
Who’s your ideal customer and what products do you provide for them?
For my card and gift business, my ideal customer is anyone who wants to celebrate black people and special occasions through visual art. My greeting cards and gifts aim to be representative, celebratory and empowering. So I think this can appeal to a wide range of people who appreciate bold and modern designs. I create cards, magnets, notebooks, coasters and more that are designed with high quality so can be cherished for years to come.
As a freelance designer, I am happy to work with a range of clients. I have worked with both large corporate companies and small independent businesses or individuals. I really enjoy illustrating children’s books, so I do love working with authors and bringing their stories to life.
What’s the message you’re giving to customers and black people with your products/service?
The theme of my most popular collection of cards is Royalty. I use this to portray the black (and asian) community as kings, queen, princes and princesses. With this, I aim to give people a sense of pride and I want to address the balance of diverse representation that we don’t see on the high street.
My cards aren’t just for birthdays, weddings or special occasions. I also have designs that can be sent just because a friend needs a boost. I want my customers to feel represented, included and empowered every time they buy or receive my work.
Where do you get your inspiration for your designs?
I get my inspiration from everyday people! When I go to events or meet new people, I sometimes pay attention to their hairstyles, skin tones and style. I try to incorporate an aspect of them into any new designs I produce. I want as many people in the black community to be able to relate to my products. So I think it’s important to pay attention to real people. The possibilities are endless but I’m working on it!
My ideal customer is anyone who wants to celebrate black people and special occasions through visual art. My greeting cards and gifts aim to be representative, celebratory and empowering.
Do you you have a creative flow?
I’m a bit of a night owl. So I tend to work best and get random flows of inspiration at late hours. The notes section on my phone is pretty full with ideas at the moment as I write them while in bed! As a freelancer, no two days are the same, so I wouldn’t say I have a set flow. But I definitely enjoy the randomness of my work. One day I will be working on a corporate logo for an energy company and the next I’ll be illustrating a children’s adventure book!
We aren’t aware of many Black women being Graphic and creative designers – is this changing ?
Yes, I think there aren’t as many well-known female graphic designers. On top of that, black designers aren’t always given opportunities on the same platforms as our white counterparts. But I do believe this is changing in the current climate. It seems strange when companies say they don’t know any black designers because, in my circle, I know quite a few. The companies just need to look harder. Although I think there are many more in the US than in the UK.
As the image of Black people is being talked about (Black Lives Matter protests and racism); How do your images and creativity support today’s black people and their image?
My images, at face value, show black people as happy, positive, bold and beautiful. I try to show different skin tones and hair styles/textures to ‘normalise’ and celebrate our diversity with hopes of us being treated equally and not seen as a ‘token’. There is a lot of racial ignorance in the world and I hope my designs challenge this. I have also made sure I have some smiling images of black men and boys on my items in particular, because they are often portrayed as stern or troublesome. So I felt it was important to show black joy and try to change the narrative often shown in the media.
Supporting charities with her designs
Less obviously, I also support black-owned charities through my work. Two of my greeting cards have a percentage of the profits going towards the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust (ACLT). Another two support UK Black Pride. I decided to do this for the ACLT because my mum was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2018. They offer amazing support to the black community who need blood and organ donors. We need more black donors because we are less likely to find a match. If we don’t this could be life-threatening for many people. I also support UK Black Pride because I think it’s important to be inclusive and representative of underrepresented groups such as the LGBTQ+ community too. These examples are shown at: ACLT card and Pride card
There is a lot of racial ignorance in the world and I hope my designs challenge this. I have also made sure I have some smiling images of black men and boys on my items in particular, because they are often portrayed as stern or troublesome.
Thinking about our Black women of the past and today – how do you think our image has changed?
In the past, we’ve been portrayed as either the sassy, rude, loud woman, the hyper-sexualised ‘video honey’ or event the submissive, servant woman, which are all quite negative. Now I believe with the rise of the Black Girl Magic movement and artists such as Beyonce explicitly celebrating black women, there has been a shift. We are being portrayed as creative, powerful, beautiful and expressive people. We still have a long way to go but I do believe a shift is happening. We’re starting to see blackness being expressed in a more versatile way. We are complex, with rich and beautiful histories. I think this was dismissed for a very long time. So it’s about time our public image caught up with our reality.
How do you think your industry can support Black people in how we are portrayed in society?
I would love media giants to realise that there is a wealth of talent in the black community. They need to be aware that social constraints and institutional racism has made it harder for our voices to be heard. They need to look harder for us, but we are there, shouting!
It seems strange when companies say they don’t know any black designers, because, in my circle, I know quite a few – The companies just need to look harder
The card and gift industry have been excluding us or only showing us in one way for a very long time. I think they could definitely afford to broaden our representation and really learn about black culture, events and special occasions that should be recognised in the mainstream. It would be lucrative for them and empowering for us. We would feel included and have opportunities to be involved in ways we weren’t before.
For those of us who want to be more creative – do you have a few tips for us?
I’d say try not to be afraid of making mistakes. Sometimes the best creative works happen by accident, so take the pressure off and just experiment. Read and watch things you would normally, go for walks and look at textures, words, listen to sounds and let your mind wonder a little. It would also be great to talk to different people from different backgrounds because they can give you new perspectives and ideas that will spark ideas in you. Creativity can’t be taught so it’s something you have to develop yourself at your own pace.
I believe with the rise of the Black Girl Magic movement and artists such as Beyonce explicitly celebrating black women, there has been a shift and we are being portrayed as creative, powerful, beautiful and expressive people.
What advice would you give to Black women who are starting their careers in your industry?
In the illustration industry there will be people who love your work and people who don’t. It is often very subjective, so don’t let people’s opinions make you feel low. There are of course, practical needs that must be right in order to fulfil a brief. But for every person who doesn’t like your work there are hundreds who do, so keep pushing. Stay focused and always keep learning because the design industry is forever evolving and trends are changing. So in order to stay current and relevant, it’s important to do your research so you know the rules, and how to break them properly!
Advice for Black women who want to work in creative industry: Stay focussed and always keep learning because the design industry is forever evolving and trends are changing, so in order to stay current and relevant, it’s important to do your research.
What can we expect to see from your business in the future?
I’m very proud to say that my business is growing from strength to strength and I plan to continue this way. My range of products will continue to grow as I try to represent even more people. My goal is to be the go to place for people looking for items with afrocentric portraits and designs.
I will continue to write blogs and I will also be publishing more videos on my YouTube channel about my journey. I have some exciting collaborations in the pipeline too and more books that I have illustrated to be released.
Watch all of Leanne’s videos here
Find out more about Leanne & her designs at:
Youtube: Leanne Creative
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