Judging by the Cover is a data visualisation project highlighting race bias in design book publishing

Founded by Leonardo de Vasconcelos, a Brazilian designer based in London, the project shows the gap between white and BIPOC professionals who have had work published in design books.

8 February 2021

Judging by the Cover is a data visualisation project founded by Brazilian designer Leonardo de Vasconcelos, with an aim to highlight race bias in the design book publishing sphere.

Focusing on Black people and the books they’ve designed or collaborated on, the project shows the gap between white and BIPOC professionals in design books; that of which is predominantly white. The publishers included in the project are GGili, Lars Müller Publishers, Laurence King Publishing, MIT Press, Niggli Verlag, Phaidon, Princeton Architectural Press, Sternberg Press, Taschen and Thames & Hudson. Each has an international stance in the book publishing world.

A one-person, non-profit project with no financial support, Judging by the Cover is fuelled by the lack of Black figures in the design publishing field, paying attention to the design section found on the publishers’ website. For example, if you navigate through to the GGili page of the project – a publisher based in Barcelona with branches in Mexico City and São Paulo – it states how there are no books published with Black professionals. A chart illustrates how there are 124 books from white professionals, and 17 from other ethnicities. Lars Müller Publishers, internationally known and based in Zürich, has one book published with a Black professional, titled How Life Unfolds (2018). The findings are presented through data visualisation and two typefaces designed by “the only two Black type designers found on Adobe Fonts”: Adriane Text by Marconi Lima and Halyard Display by Joshua Darden.

GalleryLeonardo de Vasconcelos: Judging by the Cover (Copyright © Judging by the Cover, 2021)

De Vasconcelos is a designer from Rio de Janeiro, who received a BA in Industrial Design at Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial, the first institution to offer higher education in design in the country. He’s worked as a graphic designer for art institutions and design studios, and moved to London last year. “Being a Black student at a public university in Brazil is tricky,” he tells It’s Nice That. “You celebrate the victory to have a chance for a better future, but are forced to deal, in my case, with a full white faculty. All this is happening in a country with a 54% Black population. From the English books read in class to the movies about planned obsolescence and famous typographies, all we consume are from Western design culture. International publishers have an important role in that. Books published by them are usually translated and distributed by minor publishers around Latin America. We never had the chance to break the cycle of colonialism as this process repeats itself.”

Following the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and 14 year-old João Pedro in Brazil, de Vasconcelos was inspired to take action – a move provoked by the influx of black squares on social media and the confrontation of racism in the workplace. “I see the lack of references found beyond white European design as the biggest reason young students and designers are learning about their own culture and discussing it in their work,” he says. “This project was borne out of the absence of Black people in practically all the areas of design, but with a cut to publishing as a section that has an international impact on students, professionals and university subjects.”

De Vasconcelos' research involves creating a spreadsheet with information on Black authors, as well as editors and collaborators. All of which is fact checked through LinkedIn, Goodreads, Forebears, as well as through using social media or directly contacting the professional for confirmation.

Coming from experience, the designer's project is a response to the discomfort felt “even before becoming a designer,” he says, with a main goal of presenting “thriving references” in order to combat prejudice and the worry felt by the university students at the early stages of their career. “When you are Black and come from a working class family, the struggle to not fit turns into an uninvited company in diverse moments of your life. I’m using my knowledge and skills to continue the work made by other Black people before me.”

De Vasconcelos adds that there’s much to change in the coming years, particular in terms of projects related to Black culture and other minorities: “Publishing a project like this is a victory in itself, but we have a long way to go.”

GalleryLeonardo de Vasconcelos: Judging by the Cover (Copyright © Judging by the Cover, 2021)

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Leonardo de Vasconcelos: Judging by the Cover (Copyright © Judging by the Cover, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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