There aren’t many agencies out there with a goal of closing the wealth gap through design. In fact, we really only know about one: Saleah. And an agency with such a unique ethos unsurprisingly has a creative director and founder with a bit of an unexpected background.
The designer in question, Shar Biggers, had actually intended to go into medicine. While she had always been a creative person growing up, the pressure of pursuing a more traditional, secure job pushed her to start the PhD program for neuroscience at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
“I wanted to be a neuropsychologist because I always give good advice, so that’s how I ended up down that road,” she said. “I was doing an internship, and I had a wonderful opportunity to go to Ivy League for the summer and do a NASA program, and everybody in my family was proud of me. But I realized it just wasn’t for me. Even my leaders in the program were like, ‘It doesn’t feel like you love this.’”
So Shar pivoted, recognizing that she felt much more suited for business and entrepreneurship. She studied for an MBA and landed work in marketing and advertising. In doing this, she discovered how much she enjoyed strategizing, logo creation, and design campaigns, leading her to train as a graphic designer at Portfolio Center of Design.
Shar spent time creating a wide range of work, including with brands like Coca-Cola, Amazon, and the Hillary Clinton campaign, Hillary for America. That, combined with her experience as a woman of color in the advertising and design field, shaped the mission of her future agency. When she had transitioned from pursuing neuroscience—a relatively diverse field—into advertising, she was unsettled to see that no one else looked like her. Too often, she sat through meetings where the people in charge would scratch their heads and ask, “Where are the minorities? How can we get them to work with us?” But with Hillary for America, she saw people of all backgrounds involved in the work, and it was a nugget of inspiration she would eventually carry into Saleah.
Not only that, but in her previous work, her skills and talents didn’t seem to benefit those who could use them the most.
“I felt like we were having these inspirational morning kickoffs, feeling like we’re going to change the world through what we’re doing,” Shar said. “You know, we’re not surgeons, but I would hear those talks every morning working agency life, and then I would go do the work. And it was only helping the top 1%. We’re, in a sense, widening the gap where we’re just doing all this wonderful work and using our wonderful brains only for a select group.”
Of course, she would constantly see brilliant ideas from people from all walks of life, but the design could mean the difference between success and failure. Shar described branding as “the great equalizer”—an important tool that enhances an amazing business idea. “If you can make your product and service strong,” she said, “and you can make your brand strong, then now we’re getting into intangible assets, now we’re getting into equity, and now we’re getting somewhere where it’s hard to argue with. I see the power in that.”
But Shar also wanted to make exceptional design more accessible to the people who need it most, all while upholding its value. That means consulting those who come to her to ensure they’re set up for success and powerfully situating a brand so it has no option but to flourish. Isimemen Consulting, for example, is an eLearning program geared towards empowering women of color. You don’t have to look far on the internet for an inspirational career coach. But Saleah pulled from Isimemen’s own personality to develop an encouraging and vibrant brand that’s equal parts professional and elegant.
With Soapy Faith, Shar saw the brand hit a bit of a revenue ceiling before approaching Saleah for design help—something she said often happens to women and people of color. The brand needed to retain its fun vibe while highlighting some of the body care’s unique qualities, like being faith-based and vegan. The branding is light and playful, cleverly positioned as Godsent while using puns and wordplay to entertain consumers. The images also spotlight the products and how they’re simple and clean but certainly not your average soaps.
“Soapy Faith is scaling up, they have their own manufacturing, and they’re bringing in people who would have never had the opportunity to get involved in that space,” Shar said. “Then I watched where they were stuck before they started with me, and they got funded, and last I checked, they were getting ready to go into retail nationally.”
To help close the wealth gap through design, one of the biggest challenges Shar sees is communicating the value of design to the business world. In her favorite TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?, Sir Ken Robinson challenges the education system and how it sets us up to revere math and science careers but dismiss creative passions and endeavors.
“Anything creative isn’t considered a real career,” Shar explained. “And if that’s your space, then people immediately decide that your future isn’t worth much. I think that attitude is changing, but I still see the massive effects of that mindset, which affects business.
“The brand is the foundation,” she added. “As designers, we’re so insular and we talk to the business world when it concerns converting them to become our clients. But sometimes, I feel like we’re missing in action talking to the greater business world about being design-driven as an organization. It’s important to have a head of design and to make sure you don’t DIY, a.k.a. butcher your brand. Work with professionals in that space. Don’t go to AI to make a logo you can’t trademark. That’s foolish.”