Sylvia Harris

Sylvia Harris, also known as an “ambassador of design” and a “citizen designer”, was born in 1953 in Richmond, Virginia to her father, a legendary sports coach, and her mother, an art teacher and artist. From a young age, she started to see the effects society and its organizations had on people’s lives. She was an African American woman growing up in the South at a very climatic point in the United States history, so she knew good and well what these effects of society really did to people. She experienced desegregation, which gave her a unique perspective that is seen in her design work throughout her whole life. Against all odds Sylvia enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University. This is where she studied with Philip B. Meggs, an America Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) medalist. He spurred her interest in design further along until she graduated in 1975 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. After graduation she stepped out on a limb and moved to Boston, Massachusetts. In Boston, she worked as a designer for WGBH. While she was there, Chris Pullman, who also is an AIGA medalist, started to mentor Sylvia. Sylvia, an African American woman designer, was a rare sight during this time. Christ saw a lot of potential in Sylvia, though. And in learning from him, her passion for design only increased and ultimately propelled her into enrolling in the graphic design masters program at Yale University. While at Yale, she worked for The Architects Collaborative, where she gained a lot of insight into environmental graphics. She left her job at The Architects Collaborative when she graduated in 1980. She then co-founded Two Twelve Associates with two of her fellow classmates in New York City. The firm was known for its expression of the diversity of the education that Sylvia and her classmates had learned at Yale. They asked the important questions that hadn’t been asked before about how to design things that focused on the user. It was while working at Two Twelve Associates that Sylvia is known for coining the term, “public information design.” This term really embodies Sylvia’s work for the rest of her career. Two Twelve Designs landed a big client, Citibank, whom they helped design their first ATM. Another big client that they landed was the Central Park Zoo. They helped the zoo redo different displays, present information in a more effective way, etc. It was at Two Twelve Associates that Sylvia found a passion for designing public information systems in a comprehensive and effective way. In these beginning years of her career she sharpened her skills and gained new ones that would propel her to continue down the path to a successful and meaningful career. In 1994 she founded her own company, Sylvia Harris LLC. Her company, now named Citizen Reserach & Design, designs information systems that help the public. She led her company in a way that made the workers learn to truly care about the people they were designing for. Sylvia wanted the people she worked with to know that what they were designing really mattered and made a difference in people’s lives. They aren’t just stuck in the office all day, but they are out amongst the people learning from them and observing how they can help enhance these people’s lives. They want the information systems they design to be attractive, but also easy to use and effective in their purpose. They help hospitals, universities, and other civic agencies and organizations. One of these civic organizations that Sylvia has helped is the U.S. Census Bureau. The Bureau was facing some major challenges before sending out the census in 2000. They had an issue in encouraging people to fill out the survey, especially those populations that were underrepresented. Growing up during desegregation, Sylvia was able to offer a unique perspective on how the bureau should reach these underrepresented populations. So, Sylvia was hired as the creative director for the project. She led a team that consisted of Yale Graduate Design students, Two Twelve Associates, and Don Dillman in creating an effective and engaging survey that would produce quality results. Among working for various big name clients, Sylvia also was a faculty member in Yale University’s graphic design department. Here she inspired and encouraged design students with her “energy, passion, and intelligence.” Sylvia also created Yale’s first graduate-level information design class and led her students in helping her design the U.S. Census in 2000. She used these key characteristics to continue to encourage students as a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, Cooper Union, and Purchase College. She used her knowledge and experience as a designer matched with her passion for people to lecture and educate various design students from all backgrounds. Not only was Sylvia a great teacher, but she was also a strong advocate for the things she was passionate about. She, along with other designers, held the first Organization of Black Designers conference in Chicago, Illinois. Sylvia also served as a member of the U.S. Postal Service’s Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee and she served on the AIGA national board. It is clear throughout all of Sylvia’s work that she believed in clean and effective designs that would help the lives of the public. Sylvia passed away at the young age of 54 in 2011. Sylvia’s legacy, however, will continue to live long past her time here on earth. When described by those closest to her the words, elegant, vibrant, bold, and confident rolled right of their tongues. Sylvia was known for her big laugh that could put even the most prestigious clients at ease. She understood the impact that the big things could have on people, but she also understood the impact that even the smallest of things could have on people as well. She wanted to empower people to create a better public experience. To do this she tackled the complicated and boring projects that no one else wanted to even get close to. She led the people around her to realize that the research in figuring out how to design an effective public system was just as crucial as the design itself. Sylvia loved exploring the visual aspects of design, but the need for and purpose of a project at hand was never lost to her. She was engaged in the whole process from beginning to the end, she wasn’t just there for the outcome she was there for the whole thing. This is because Sylvia wanted things to be better. She wanted the complicated things to become clearer and she wanted the public to benefit. Sylvia also was an inspiration to many women designers, especially women of color. She was a feminist who was confident and bold in running her own successful design business and she knew that the work she did had a real impact on people’s lives. The world had never seen a designer quite like her before. A designer that cared so deeply about how their work was affecting the people around them. She wanted to leave the world a better place then when she arrived. She was always looking for ways to improve things that weren’t working properly so that they could help people better. When asked how she would want to be remembered in 100 years she said, “ A citizen designer who made a difference.” And oh, the difference she did make.


Biography by David Gibson. “Sylvia Harris.” AIGA | the Professional Association for Design,

Biography by Laura House  September 01. “Sylvia Harris’s Design Journey.” AIGA | the Professional Association for Design,

“Projects.” Citizen Research & Design,

“2.” 28 Days of Black Designers,

Article by AIGA  July 25. “Sylvia Harris: A Citizen Designer Who Made a Difference.” AIGA | the Professional Association for Design,

AIGAdesign. “Sylvia Harris: 2014 AIGA Medalist.” YouTube, YouTube, 11 Mar. 2016,

Sylvia Harris Biography,