09/08/2023

10 Black Graphic + Product Designers You Should Know


According to the 2019 design census created by AIGA and Google, Black people make up just 3% of the design industry. Yet, they represent 12.4% of the population.


In the evolving landscape of design, a persistent gap looms between the black designer’s initial job and their first creative role. Dorothy Hayes, reflecting on her own journey, shared that she was promised a design position at a renowned broadcasting company, only to find herself relegated to non-creative tasks, a stark example of tokenism in action. Over half a century ago, during the height of the US civil rights movement, Dorothy Jackson embarked on a groundbreaking endeavor, interviewing five Black designers about the nuanced frustrations and possibilities in an industry where “flesh-colored” paradoxically meant pink. Her article in Print marked a seminal moment, spotlighting racism’s impact on the profession and giving voice to the experiences of Black practitioners.

But where do we stand now? What progress has been made, and what challenges remain unchanged? The design world continually hungers for fresh talent, a ceaseless pursuit that raises a pivotal question: Where does the black designer find their place in this quest? Amid an arena where sheer talent is the requisite foundation, are the abilities of black designers truly recognized, cultivated, and unleashed? The undeniable reality persists—black designers, while making meaningful strides, remain a relatively sparse presence in the field. The reasons are manifold: it could be rooted in inadequate training, faltering perseverance leading some to abandon the path, overt discrimination, the weight of frustration, or the scarcity of opportunities. The candid voices of black designers whose perspectives we encounter here highlight a fusion of these factors and more.

As we navigate the currents of design’s evolution, these narratives compel us to reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. The journey of the black designer echoes the larger quest for equity, representation, and rightful acknowledgment, within the creative cosmos and beyond.

Amidst this context, my own experiences provide a personal testament to the challenges that black designers face. Graduating with a degree in Graphic Communications, I entered a world where the trajectories of my white peers differed starkly from my own. While they seamlessly transitioned into prime roles at renowned London design agencies, I found myself directed towards developer positions. The underlying sentiment seemed to be that “people of colour don’t design,” pushing me to forge my own path. Through coding, I inadvertently acquired a profound understanding of design, enabling me to replicate designs meticulously. This unexpected detour became a catalyst, illustrating the resilience and adaptability that black designers often employ in their pursuit of creative fulfillment.

01. Emory Douglas

The Revolutionary Artist behind the Black Panther Iconography


Born on May 24, 1943, Emory Douglas stands out as a seminal American graphic artist. He didn’t just contribute to the Black Panther Party; he shaped its visual identity from 1967 until its dissolution in the 1980s. Entrusted with the role of Minister of Culture, Douglas didn’t simply create art; he fashioned powerful symbols that vividly illustrated black-American oppression. His designs and artwork weren’t merely decorations; they became synonymous with the movement itself.


Douglas wasn’t among the original founders of the Party. Yet, just three months post its establishment, he met the co-founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in January 1967. Reflecting on their first meeting, Douglas recalls, “Huey and Bobby exuded intellect. While I was somewhat naive to the depths of their philosophies, my heart was set on instigating change.” Douglas, who had faced challenging times in a youth detention center and was the offspring of a sightless single mother, was deeply wary of authority figures. But he wasn’t just distrustful; he brought with him a knack for visual arts.


Recognizing his potential, the Panthers handed him the reins of their newspaper. This move wasn’t just administrative; it soon culminated in him assuming a ministerial role. As he spearheaded the layout and illustrations for the Black Panther newspaper, Douglas meticulously crafted images of resolute and defiant black individuals. He also gave form to their adversaries, epitomized by the characterization of “The Pig” – an emblem representing everyone from street-level police officers to the nation’s president.


Douglas’s artwork transcended the newspaper’s pages. They adorned walls across black communities and even found an international audience, thanks to distribution efforts by the Cuban political faction, OSPAAAL. The essence of his designs resonated with Huey P. Newton’s metaphor of the panther as a creature that fiercely defends its life. Observing the evolution and influence of Douglas’s work, it’s evident that he significantly inspired contemporary artists like Shepard Fairey.


Emory Douglas’s contributions are a testament to the power of art in shaping, representing, and driving political movements.

02. Virgil Abloh

Bridging Streetwear and Luxury in the Fashion World


Born on September 30, 1980, and leaving an indelible mark until his untimely passing on November 28, 2021, Virgil Abloh emerged as an iconic figure in the realm of fashion and entrepreneurship. In 2018, he undertook the pivotal role of artistic director for Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection—a position that was further elevated in 2021 when he was endowed with expansive creative liberties across the LVMH brand. But Louis Vuitton was not his sole domain. Abloh also helmed the Milan-based fashion label, Off-White, which he established in 2013 and served as its CEO.


Abloh’s journey in fashion was rooted in a rich tapestry of diverse experiences. With a background in architecture and a deep involvement in Chicago’s street fashion scene, his trajectory into global fashion stardom was anything but ordinary. In 2009, he took his first step into the international fashion arena with an internship at Fendi. It was here that he teamed up with renowned American rapper Kanye West. This alliance proved transformative, laying the foundation for Abloh’s venture into founding Off-White.


His contributions to fashion broke barriers; Virgil Abloh was the pioneering African-American artistic director at a French luxury fashion maison. His monumental influence wasn’t just recognized within the fashion community; in 2018, Time magazine heralded him as one of the 100 most influential figures globally. Abloh’s unique design perspective seamlessly melded streetwear with luxury—a synthesis that The New York Times lauded as groundbreaking. The Wall Street Journal attested to his unparalleled global acclaim as a designer, while the BBC portrayed him as a beacon of inspiration for many.


Virgil Abloh’s legacy in the fashion industry is testament to his visionary approach and his ability to redefine conventional boundaries.

03. Georg Elliott Olden

A Trailblazer in Graphic Design and Television


Georg Elliott Olden, born on November 13, 1920, in Birmingham, Alabama, rose to prominence as a celebrated AIGA medal-winning graphic designer. His profound contributions to both television and advertising didn’t go unnoticed, earning him a spot among the top fifteen designers in the US by Japanese magazine, Idea. As the grandson of a slave and the child of a Baptist preacher, Olden’s journey from the classrooms of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., and Virginia State College to the echelons of graphic design is remarkable.


Olden’s path pivoted dramatically post the Pearl Harbor attack. Leaving college, he immersed himself in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. This position provided him with the privilege of collaborating with preeminent American artists, designers, and writers. The OSS tenure was more than just a job; it was a gateway to unparalleled professional prospects post-war.


As World War II came to a close in 1945, Olden’s prowess caught the attention of Colonel Lawrence W. Lowman, the post-war Vice President of CBS’s television division. Beginning as a solitary designer for six weekly programs, Olden’s responsibilities soon expanded. Under his leadership, a 14-member team catered to 60 weekly shows. From 1945 to 1960, his collaboration with William Golden, the art director at CBS, positioned him as one of the pioneering African-Americans in television. His fervent advocacy for contemporary art manifested in commissioned on-air art and titles by avant-garde artists, and his contributions, like the iconic “To Tell the Truth man”, became synonymous with TV history.


In 1960, Olden transitioned to the realm of advertising, not just crafting the esteemed Clio Award but also being its seven-time recipient. His journey saw him assuming pivotal roles at BBDO and later at McCann Erickson. A significant highlight of his career was in 1963 when he became the first African-American to design a stamp for the US Postal Service. This stamp, commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation’s centennial, was unveiled by President John F. Kennedy in a White House ceremony.


However, 1970 brought challenges. Olden was let go from McCann Erickson, prompting his move to Los Angeles and a consequential lawsuit against the firm for alleged discrimination. Tragically, as the lawsuit was on the brink of commencing, Olden’s life was cut short under tragic circumstances.


Georg Elliott Olden’s legacy is a testament to his relentless pursuit of excellence, his pioneering spirit, and his undeniable impact on the worlds of graphic design and television.

04. Dorothy Hayes

Breaking Barriers in Graphic Design


Dorothy Hayes, a stalwart in the world of graphic design, emerged from the challenges of her journey to inspire countless others. Her experiences highlight the difficulties that black designers faced in the commercial art realm. Arriving in New York in the late 1950s, Hayes quickly discovered the dearth of black professionals in the field. Even when she managed to find black peers, she encountered reluctance on their part to mentor or guide her. Hayes’s resolve was only fortified by these experiences. She made a promise to herself: she would never shy away from assisting any black individual genuinely seeking advice or knowledge in the domain.


This spirit of collaboration and mentorship found resonance in organizations like GAP (Group for Advertising Progress). Committed to creating an inclusive and supportive network for black advertising professionals, GAP worked diligently to make industry information accessible to blacks. Though not an employment agency, the organization’s impact was evident in the several art director placements it achieved for black professionals.


Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1935, Hayes’s passion for graphic design was ignited during her high school years. Her move to the bustling city of New York in 1958 paved the way for her academic pursuit in graphic design, culminating in a graduation from the prestigious Cooper Union in 1967. Hayes was acutely aware of the double challenge she faced: being a black woman in a predominantly white, male-dominated industry. However, she approached these challenges with unwavering professionalism, leveraging them to win respect and recognition. As she once candidly expressed in 1971, the gender biases were evident, but presenting oneself as a professional forced others to acknowledge and respect the hard work and dues paid.


Dorothy Hayes left an indelible mark on the graphic design landscape, not just through her exceptional work but through her commitment to mentorship and fostering an inclusive community. Her legacy, which continued until her passing in 2015, remains a beacon for countless designers navigating the industry’s intricacies.

06. Maurice Cherry

Maurice Cherry: Champion of Black Design and Digital Creativity



From the heart of Atlanta emerges Maurice Cherry, a stalwart digital creator, seasoned educator, and the mastermind behind the acclaimed podcast, Revision Path. In an industry dominated by prevailing norms, Maurice stands as a beacon, illuminating the path for Black designers and celebrating their unparalleled talents.



Marking his early days as a digital pioneer, Maurice birthed the Black Weblog Awards, a seminal event that till today remains the digital realm’s most enduring celebration of Black bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters. His magnum opus, however, is undeniably Revision Path, a groundbreaking podcast that unfurls the narratives of the crème de la crème of Black graphic designers, web designers, and web developers spanning the globe.



Never one to be confined by a singular passion, Maurice also embarked on diverse ventures like 28 Days of the Web and The Year of Tea, a unique podcast experiment that chronicled his tea-tasting adventures throughout 2015. A nod to his unparalleled contributions came when Graphic Design USA magazine, a respected publication since 1963, earmarked him as one of the luminaries in its “People to Watch” list.



At the core of Maurice’s illustrious career lies Lunch, an award-winning multidisciplinary studio he founded in 2008. As its principal and creative director, he crafts evocative messages and narratives for prominent brands, ensuring they resonate deeply with their target audiences. His portfolio boasts collaborations with industry giants like Facebook, Mailchimp, NIKE, and The City of Atlanta, to name a few.



Through his relentless efforts, Maurice Cherry underscores the importance of inclusivity, representation, and the sheer brilliance that diverse voices bring to the world of design and beyond.

05. Bill Howell

Persistence Amidst Adversity


William “Bill” Lowell Howell, a formidable name in the graphic design world, defied societal constraints and racial bias to carve a niche for himself. His journey reflects not only his undeniable talent but also his resilience and determination to rise above the barriers of prejudice.


Howell, an African-American art director and graphic designer, was deeply intertwined with cultural evolution, serving as a member of the Weusi Artist Collective. He held prestigious roles as the art director for J.M. Fields Company, Black Theatre magazine, and the New Lafayette Theater. Yet, Howell’s early career was marred by systemic racism and bias. He was forced to rely on the intervention of the N.A.A.C.P. to secure his first job – a stark testament to the hurdles he faced in his pursuit of his passion.


Similar sentiments were echoed by his contemporaries. William Wacasey, confronting segregation in southern schools, took the unconventional route of correspondence courses to educate himself in art and advertising. His determination propelled him to art schools in Chicago and Detroit, where he faced further bias. Dorothy Hayes’s experiences parallel Howell’s, recounting art instructors treating black students with undue suspicion and prejudice, stifling their talents and aspirations.


Yet, Howell’s spirit remained unbroken. After completing his art school, his first job demanded the rudimentary tasks expected of a novice - creating mechanicals, flapping, and labelling finished art. Despite the mundane nature of the role, Howell recognized the foundational experience he was gaining in advertising design. Moreover, delivering tasks to clients provided him with essential exposure to the industry. But even his talent couldn’t shield him from the underlying racism embedded in society. Instances where he was mistaken for a delivery boy upon arriving for a professional meeting, or being asked to do “brain-picking” tasks, were not uncommon.


Yet, William “Bill” Lowell Howell’s legacy is not defined by these challenges, but by his ability to rise above them. He embodied resilience, proving that determination and skill can conquer prejudice. Howell’s journey serves as an inspiration for countless individuals who face societal hurdles, urging them to persevere and never compromise on their dreams.

07. Alex Walker

The Enduring Path


In the ever-evolving tapestry of the design industry, tales of resilience like that of Alex Walker’s are both inspiring and a candid reflection of systemic challenges. After a long 13-year tenure at a design firm, a tenure longer than many, Alex took a leap of faith, setting up his own design studio in 2015.



The journey of many black designers, Alex included, differs from their counterparts in significant ways. Holding onto a job for an extended period isn’t just a matter of loyalty; it’s often a necessity, rooted in the knowledge that opportunities in the field are limited. As Alex reflects, “Unusually long periods of employment at one job tend to hamper one’s creative process.” The career trajectory often celebrated in the design world — moving between firms, expanding connections, and climbing the income ladder — remains a distant dream for many black designers.



Why this disparity? One glaring reason is the lack of vital connections and networks, which often act as gateways to new opportunities. Many black designers find themselves relegated to roles that don’t truly tap into their potential. They’re trapped, not by choice, but by circumstance, often in environments like department store ad departments that don’t expose them to the broader design community.



The weight of these challenges hasn’t escaped Alex’s keen observation. His poignant advice to young hopefuls in the design world speaks volumes: “Offer him or herself to the graphic arts world with the eyes wide open, plenty of Excedrin, and a degree in another field—just in case.” This underscores an alarming trend: talented black designers, disheartened by their futile search for meaningful roles, pivoting to entirely different careers, like teaching.



Alex Walker’s journey, from his long stint at a single firm to the establishment of his own studio in New York, stands as a testament to tenacity in the face of adversity. As one of the few black studio owner-operators in the city, he not only shines as an emblem of success but also underscores the urgent need for the design community to embrace true diversity and inclusivity.

08. Kaleena Sales

Advocating for Inclusivity in Design


Renowned for her multifaceted prowess, Kaleena Sales shines as a writer, illustrator, and an influential graphic design educator at Tennessee State University, a respected HBCU in Nashville, TN. Her intricate research dives deep into the essence of Black culture and aesthetics, creating a rich tapestry of insights and perspectives.



In recognition of her exceptional talents, her recent illustration endeavors were rightfully chosen for the prestigious 2021 Communication Arts Illustration Annual. However, her literary acumen doesn’t end there. She stands as a proud co-author of the enlightening book, Extra-Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti-Racist, Non-Binary Field Guide for Graphic Designers, penned in collaboration with Ellen Lupton and a diverse array of skilled designers.



Kaleena’s voice resonates in various national and international design platforms, with notable appearances at conferences such as AIGA, CAA, SECAC, and RGD. Her active role in the AIGA’s Design Educators Community Steering Committee further accentuates her commitment to the design community. Through her poignant Beyond the Bauhaus writing series, she advocates for a richer, more inclusive view of design history.



Besides her academic endeavors, Kaleena Sales serves as an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design in the Department of Art and Design at Tennessee State University. Her meticulous research uniquely captures the nuances of identity and its profound implications on the aesthetic preferences of Black designers. Her commitment to inclusivity and diversity shines through her roles on the AIGA Design Educators Community Steering Committee and her distinguished position as the Director of Diversity & Inclusion for AIGA Nashville.



Through her persistent efforts and undeniable talent, Kaleena Sales not only contributes to the realm of design but also pushes its boundaries, ensuring it’s more inclusive and representative of diverse voices.

09. Ian Spalter

The Evolutionary Journey


With a rich tapestry of experience spanning over two decades, Ian Spalter’s design journey is both illustrious and inspiring. His odyssey commenced at R/GA, where his creative prowess played a pivotal role in shaping the Nike+ digital sport business. From there, the voyage continued to iconic brands that have redefined digital landscapes - be it helming the design at Foursquare, driving user experience at YouTube, or as the head of design at the behemoth, Instagram.



For Ian, the essence of design transcends mere visuals or aesthetics; it delves deep into collaborative strategy and holistic team efforts. Reflecting on his tenure at Instagram since 2015, he encapsulates the shift in design philosophy, stating, “We’ve gone from what we should build to how we should build — not just thinking about design as a standalone, but about the team as a whole.” This perspective resonates deeply in the startup ecosystem. As a design advisor at GV, I often observe a similar trajectory among portfolio founders. While the focus predominantly remains on what to design, the methodology - the ‘how’ of design - is equally, if not more, paramount.



Through the lens of Ian Spalter, one comprehends that in the intricate dance of design, the steps are as significant as the choreography. And the symphony emerges not just from individual notes, but from the harmony of the entire orchestra.

10. Maurice Woods

Pioneer and Visionary Leader



At the intersection of design, mentorship, and social impact stands Maurice Woods. As the dynamic force behind the Inneract Project, Maurice dons the dual hats of Executive Director and Founder. This groundbreaking nonprofit initiative is dedicated to equipping Black and Brown youth with design education, paving the way for them to harness design both as a career and a transformative life tool.



Maurice’s design acumen is deeply rooted in his extensive professional journey of over 15 years. His portfolio spans a diverse array of industries, ranging from advertising and design agencies like BSSP and Pentagram Design, to tech giants such as Yahoo. Currently, as a Principal Designer at Microsoft, he continues to redefine design paradigms and set new benchmarks.



However, design isn’t the only realm where Maurice has showcased his prowess. Before embarking on his design journey, he graced basketball courts across Europe and Asia, representing various teams in a professional capacity for an impressive seven seasons.



In his endeavor to shed light on the representation and role of Black individuals in the design sphere, Maurice penned a thought-provoking series in 2006 titled “Envisioning Blackness in American Graphic Design.” His invaluable contributions to design and community empowerment culminated in a significant accolade in 2016, when he was honored with the AIGA San Francisco Fellow Award.



Maurice Woods stands testament to the power of passion, perseverance, and purpose, proving that with the right intent and dedication, one can indeed design a brighter future for all.

Conclusion

It’s in the pulsating heart of cities, the quiet corners of rural landscapes, and the rich tapestries of various cultures where the true essence of design thrives. Yet, despite their remarkable contributions, they remain anomalies in a realm that’s painted predominantly in monochrome shades.


It’s not just about recognizing the faces in the crowd, but about truly hearing the stories, passions, and dreams behind each one. Each of these individuals carries with them a legacy—a blend of history, struggle, and sheer determination—that doesn’t just warrant recognition, but celebration.


We are not mere tokens of diversity or superficial hires. We are designers who can transcend societal expectations, delivering more than the confines of stereotypes. Our dreams are simple, not grandiose; they resonate with the same hopes and aspirations shared by every race.


In an industry where rejection can become all too familiar, it’s paramount to persevere. Keep refining your craft, persistently reach out to new prospects, and continuously nurture your portfolio. Amidst the setbacks and obstacles, let the rejections fuel your passion rather than quench it. As the saying goes, “Aim for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Let us remember this adage as we navigate the cosmos of design, striving for a universe where talent shines brighter than skin color.

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