Jacinda Walker poses next to a poster showing some of the work done by students at Design Explorr.
Jacinda Walker’s designExplorr is a fully functioning and self-supporting design firm with clients around the city. Credit: Frank W. Lewis / Signal Cleveland

Jacinda Walker remembers the day her life changed. She was a 10th grader at Cleveland Heights High. Her favorite class was art — she loved painting in watercolors. That year, a new teacher, Mr. Applebaum, introduced the class to typography and other elements of graphic design.

“He came to my table one day, and he was like, ‘You’re really good at this, you should think about doing this when you get out of school,’” Walker recalls, then mimes the face of a teen who suspects a prank. “I was like, nobody’s gonna pay me to draw for a living. I need a real job.’ And he was like, ‘No, these are real jobs.’ But I didn’t believe him. And he was so hurt. I could see the hurt in his face because I was giving him lots of attitude. Because I just was like, how dare you tease me like this?”

That was 1988 or ’89. Walker would go on to the University of Akron and a successful career in design. This year, she won a Cleveland Arts Prize.

But as a teen, art was a hobby to her, not a career option. And college was not even on her radar. Her focus was on graduating and getting a “real” job so she could help her mother and five siblings.

But she couldn’t stop thinking about what Mr. Applebaum had said.

The next period, she visited the guidance office. “I asked, ‘Is there an art thing called design?’ I didn’t even know how to phrase it.” A counselor gave her some binders with information about schools with art programs. As she sifted through them and realized that the teacher had not been messing with her, a whole new view of her future clicked into place.

“I was like, wow, I could go to college,” Walker recalled recently. Today, she is helping Black and Latino kids and teens experience similar lightbulb moments.

Learning through experience

The Cleveland Arts Prize’s Mid-Career Artist Award recognizes Walker’s work with designExplorr, the organization she founded to address the diversity gap in the design industry. She traces this mission back to her time as a graphic designer for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and Cleveland Division of Water, between 2000 and 2013. In both places, she mentored younger colleagues and interns. In 2016, when she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at Ohio State, she made diversity the focus of her thesis. “Design is everywhere, but for many African American and Latino youth, the journey to a design career can be overwhelming,” she wrote. “Limited access and too few opportunities prevent the majority of these youth from even beginning the journey.”

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Walker ran designExplorr out of her home for a while, then moved into and quickly outgrew a couple of small spaces before settling at 3800 Euclid Avenue this year. The new experiential learning center is bright and comfortable, with high ceilings, exposed brick and new, colorfully painted drywall. A massive video screen looms over a modular conference table. The atmosphere is professional, because in addition to creating programs and products for youth, Design Explorr is a real, working design studio.

One wall is lined with posters showing examples of the students’ work for clients, including projects for the Buckeye Neighborhood Plan, the Ohio Debate Commission and the City Club (for Mayor Bibb’s State of the City addresses).

designExplorr is currently working with the Mayor’s Office of Capital Projects, the Greater Cleveland Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers Jr. (for high school students) and a local nonprofit focused on college and career readiness.

Clients pay for the work, and Walker uses those funds to compensate the students and support designExplorr’s mission.

‘I had to figure something out’

The first design scholarship to promote diversity was created by the American Institute of Architects in 1970. “So we’ve been talking about the lack of diversity in design for more than 50 years, and we still are at single-digit representation for Black and Latino youth,” Walker says.

“I didn’t see [efforts to change that] here in Cleveland. I didn’t see much of it nationally. So I knew that I had to figure something out. … If you don’t have a pathway [as a young person], if you don’t have someone standing at the end of the row, like, ‘Hey, go this way,’ or ‘No, don’t do that,’ it’s really hard to move forward. And I think sometimes as adult designers, we forget how challenging it is.”

Jacinda Walker admires photos of her young team members hanging on a wall in the Design Explorr office.
Photos of Walker’s young team members are hung in a prominent place in the designExplorr center. Credit: Frank W. Lewis / Signal Cleveland

In addition to her Cleveland team, Walker is mentoring students in several other states via phone calls and Zoom, a result of her frequent college speaking engagements.

Winning the Cleveland Arts Prize “is a huge honor,” Walker said. “I’m truly humbled.”

Director of the Editors’ Bureau (he/him)
Frank is an award-winning reporter and former editor at alternative newsweeklies in Cleveland and Philadelphia. He has worked with writers of all experience levels on beat reporting, features, investigative projects and books.