The Only One in the Room
Or, what it’s like to work twice as hard to get half as far
February 23, 2023
Call to action for BIPOC creatives to participate in Michael Sinanan’s documentary project All Colour Is
When Michael Sinanan graduated from the graphic design program at Durham College back in the mid 90s, there were 27 of the original 90 students left in the class after 3 years. Of those 27, Michael was the only one who was black.
Being the only black person in the room has pretty much described the situations in which Michael found himself over almost 30 years of his career. Says Michael, “I grew up in Ajax in the 70s and 80s. There were literally two black families in the whole town. I've been the only person of color in rooms of 500 people. I remember being at a GDC event where there were 400 people in the room. I was the only one who was not white or Asian. One of the presenters knew me and pointed to me and said ‘there's Michael sitting in the back there, the only black guy in the room. You know, there are other people besides whites and Asians in this city who are designers!’”
Board graphics and collateral for Woburn snowboards
Michael cut his teeth at HM&E Design when he was still in school. In the course of a 4-month internship, he learned to love typography, got a taste of what it’s like to live the design life, working many late nights with studio founder Paul Haslip and designer Dominic Ayre (now head of Hambly & Woolley). He credits that experience with giving him the confidence and the motivation to embark on a successful career doing what he loves.
That motivation came in handy. While his resume has a lot of recognized names in it, it is also punctuated with setbacks that would cause a lesser man to have given up long ago. After a couple of years working at a catalogue company, Michael experienced his first layoff, and headed to Vancouver to take a job at Future Shop (now Best Buy). Laid off again after a year and a half, he then scored a role at luxury lifestyle magazine NUVO. After a year of being a junior designer there, the art director left and Michael applied for the AD role, and got it. Says Michael, “I'm 29 years old, I'm a black man living in a white and Asian town. And I've just been made art director of a national luxury magazine. I can't screw this up!” He was given one issue to prove himself, and he did.
Covers and spreads from NUVO magazine
He then spent several years working 7 days a week without a single break. He was art director, photo editor, graphic designer and production manager. He cranked out 4 issues a year, each numbering at least 120 pages. Burnout was inevitable. Added to that he was not only still the only black guy in the room, he was pretty much the only black guy in the city. After 5 years of this, his doctor told him that if he didn't leave his job, he'd probably have a heart attack. He was only 34.
Various covers for Clover Publishing, an imprint focused on self-published creative writing
This was followed by a couple of short gigs, and then another layoff in 2009 due to the Great Recession. The next ten years were rough. After a few short gigs, he landed in 2012 at a startup, for a much lower salary than he was accustomed to. He hung on by a thread for two years. “Honestly, I don’t even know how I survived that period”, says Sinahan. After that, things began to improve. He got a lot of freelance gigs in the financial sector. Then the pandemic hit. He managed to struggle through it.
Various gig posters. An avid amateur DJ, Sinanan’s handle is DJ Papa Smurf
Things have stabilized and he has more than enough work to keep him busy these days. He credits his stubbornness with keeping him going through it all. I would call it resilience. When asked if he believes he has suffered because of being black, he is unequivocal: “One hundred per cent. I can walk into an interview now, and within minutes I can tell if I’m making the room uncomfortable, and which way the meeting is likely to go. Still, after all these years.”
But Michael is not a quitter. He is a fighter. And rather than walk around under a cloud of anger and resentment, he has decided to make a documentary film about it. Focused on the challenges of carving out a career as a person of colour in a white, still very colonized world, the film is entitled All Colour Is. The film shares the stories of high achieving creative practitioners of colour, people like designer Del Terrelonge, design anthropologist Dori Tunstall, (the world's first black dean of design at a post-secondary institution - OCAD University), and NYC-based designer Michele Y. Washington, and the challenges they have overcome along the way.
We still have a long way to go to remove those obstacles and level the playing field of opportunity.
Will Novosedlik is a designer, writer, long-time contributor and former editor of Applied Arts Magazine. He is known for a critical perspective on the cultural and socio-economic impact of design, brand, business and innovation. Novosedlik |