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.

The gap between the black designer’s first job and their first creative position is considerable. Dorothy Hayes relates that “I was employed by a well-known broadcasting company and led to believe that I would hold a design position, yet I was never allowed to do anything but non-creative work. I was frankly told that my employment was simply a form of tokenism.”

Just over fifty years ago, at the apex of the civil rights movement in the US, Dorothy Jackson interviewed five Black designers about “the frustrations and opportunities in a field where ‘flesh-colored’ means pink”. The article for Print was perhaps the first in the mainstream trade press to directly address the impacts of racism in the profession and describe the experience of Black practitioners in their own words. What has changed since then? What remains the same?

The design industry is constantly seeking fresh talent. Where does the black designer fit into this search? In a field where talent is the prime prerequisite, are black designers’ abilities being sought and developed? The fact is, of course, that there are still just a relatively few black designers in the field. Perhaps this is due to poor quality of training, lack of perseverance (some just give up), discrimination, frustration, or lack of opportunity. The black designers whose opinions are presented here feel it is a combination of these factors, and more.

Most of the research in this article is taken from: https://www.printmag.com/design-culture/the-black-experience-1968/ & https://www.mauricecherry.com/press/eye-on-design-watbd-2021

01. Emory Douglas

Emory Douglas (born May 24, 1943) is an American graphic artist. He was a member of the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the Party disbanded in the 1980s. As a revolutionary artist and the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, Douglas created iconography to represent black-American oppression. Douglas was an integral part of the Black Panther Party and his artwork became potent symbols of the movement.

Though not a founding member, Emory first met Bobby Seale and Huey Newton three months after they had established the party, in January 1967. “Huey and Bobby were highly intellectual,” he remembers, “I was naive to all that, but I wanted to make change.” Having served time in a youth detention centre Emory, the son of a blind single mother, had a deep distrust of authority but also possessed some visual arts training. So the Panthers put him in charge of their newspaper and a ministerial position followed soon after. He illustrated and laid out the Black Panther newspaper, drawing images of empowered black folk, as well as representations of their oppressors, The Pig, an animal which stood for everyone from the local police to the president.

His work was pasted up around the black community and his posters were distributed internationally by the Cuban political group, OSPAAAL. “Huey P Newton’s metaphor of the panther as an animal that defends itself to death.” You can clearly see that Douglas’s designs were a big inspiration for the artist - Shepard Fairy.

02. Virgil Abloh (Rest In Peace)

Virgil Abloh (September 30, 1980 – November 28, 2021) was an American fashion designer and entrepreneur. He was the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection beginning in 2018 and was given increased creative responsibilities across the LVMH brand in early 2021. Abloh was also the chief executive officer of the Milan-based label Off-White, a fashion house he founded in 2013.

A trained architect, Abloh, who also worked in Chicago street fashion, entered the world of international fashion with an internship at Fendi in 2009, alongside American rapper Kanye West. The two then began an artistic collaboration that would launch Abloh’s career into founding Off-White. The first African-American to be artistic director at a French luxury fashion house, Abloh was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2018. Abloh’s design aesthetic which bridged streetwear and luxury clothing was described as transformative by The New York Times. According to The Wall Street Journal, he reached a level of global fame unusual for a designer, and an inspirational figure, according to the BBC.

03. Georg Elliott Olden

Georg Elliott Olden (November 13, 1920 – February 25, 1975) was an AIGA medal-winning graphic designer who worked in television and advertising. A Japanese magazine, Idea, once listed him among the top fifteen designers in the United States. Olden was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 13, 1920, as the grandson of a slave and the son of a Baptist preacher. In his youth he attended Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., then Virginia State College, before dropping out shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor to work as a graphic designer for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the CIA.

During his time at the OSS, Olden worked for some of America’s leading artists, designers and writers and made contacts that opened significant professional opportunities after the war. When the war ended in 1945, the head of the OSS communications division, Colonel Lawrence W. Lowman, who in civilian life became Vice President of CBS’s television division, was searching for someone who “had a full grasp of the whole range of commercial art techniques.” He found Olden, and from a one-man operation involved with six programs a week, Olden eventually headed a staff of 14 in charge of 60 weekly shows. When he joined the network in 1945, there were 16,000 television sets in the entire nation. By the time he left the network in 1960, there were 85 million sets, one for every two Americans.

From 1945 to 1960, Olden worked with William Golden, art director for CBS, and as such was one of the first African-Americans to work in television. At CBS, he was an ardent champion of contemporary art, commissioning on-air art and title cards by modern artists. “The door is open for artists on TV,” he proclaimed in 1954. One example was the creation of the “To Tell the Truth man” icon that was used during the 1956-1978 seasons of that show. In 1960, he began to work in advertising and went on to design the Clio Award as well as receiving seven of them. In 1960, he moved to BBDO as the TV group art supervisor. In 1963, he became the VP-senior art director at the major firm, McCann Erickson.

In 1963, he was the first African-American to design a postage stamp for the United States Postal Service. The design commemorated the centennial of the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation with a simple design of a broken chain in black on a blue background. He attended a White House ceremony where the stamp was introduced by President John F. Kennedy.

In 1970, McCann Erickson laid him off with the reason being cited as the economic downturn of the time. After moving to Los Angeles, California, Olden started a class-action lawsuit against McCann Erickson for discrimination on behalf of himself and other black designers who were victims of discrimination but was shot to death by a live-in girlfriend who was arrested and tried a few days before the class action lawsuit was scheduled to begin. She plead not guilty and was acquitted in court.

04. Dorothy Hayes

Dorothy Hayes raises an interesting—if painful—point. “When I came to New York ten years ago I couldn’t find anybody black in the commercial art field. Finally, after I found a job on my own, I did start toencounter black people. But in the course of trying to develop my talent I found that if I went to them for some direction, they just wouldn’t give it. Nobody wanted to take the time to show or tell me anything. I vowed then that if I made it I would never turn my back on any black person who came to me for advice and information and who really wanted to learn.” GAP (Group for Advertising Progress), a recently formed black organization, has been trying to alleviate this very problem by pooling members’ contacts in the advertising field and making the information at their disposal generally available to blacks. While GAP does not see its function as that of an employment agency, it has been successful in locating positions for several black art directors.

Dorthy Hayes was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1935 and decided on graphic design while in high school. She moved to New York in 1958 graduating in graphic design from Cooper Union in 1967. She determined to be ultra-professional and win respect as both a woman and a designer. In 1971 she told a journalist, “You can’t get around being a woman. They’re going to see it the moment you walk in the door, and they’re going to have to go through their man thing with you, the idea that you’re theirs, that you’ll do whatever they say, like an office wife. It’s beautiful, though: if you present yourself as a professional, they really respect you for it. They know you’ve paid you’ve paid your dues just like they had to.” She died in 2015.

05. Bill Howell

William “Bill” Lowell Howell (September 12, 1942 – July 25, 1975) was an African-American art director, graphic designer, and member of the Weusi Artist Collective. He served as art director for J.M. Fields Company, Black Theatre magazine, and the New Lafayette Theater.

Bill Howell remembers that he had to secure his first job via the intervention of the N.A.A.C.P. William Wacasey, who faced some time ago with segregation in southern schools, studied art and advertising by means of correspondence courses; after graduating from high school, he went on to art school in Chicago and Detroit. Dorothy Hayes says, “I do not think that I have ever experienced so much discouragement and suppression of black artists in art instructors treat the black student as though he were some out-and-out freak and a tremendous threat to the instructor, when all the student is trying to do is develop talent.”

Bill Howell is among those who persisted in the field, with no intention of giving up. His first job when he go out of art school required him to do the usual apprentice work - mechanicals and flapping and labelling finished art - a job which gave him useful experience in the basics of advertising design. Also, in delivering jobs to clients, he was afforded valuable exposure to the field.

However talented he may be, the job-seeking black designer still runs into such embarrassing, if not humiliating, situations as being asked to do “brain-picking” homework, or arriving to keep an appointment with an art direction and “having the receptionist hand me a package because she thought I was a delivery boy.”

06. Maurice Cherry

Atlanta-based digital creator, educator, and founder of the award-winning podcast, Revision Path. No doubt, the design industry owes a great deal to Maurice Cherry’s efforts in championing black designers. He’s the pioneering creator of the Black Weblog Awards, the web’s longest-running event celebrating black bloggers, video bloggers, and podcasters. He’s also the creator of the award-winning podcast Revision Path, which showcases “some of the best Black graphic designers, web designers, and web developers from all over the world.” Other projects include 28 Days of the Web and The Year of Tea, a short daily podcast in which Cherry sampled and reviewed a new tea each day of 2015. Most recently, he was selected as one of this year’s “People to Watch” by the Graphic Design USA magazine, a publication for creative professionals since 1963.

Maurice Cherry is a designer, strategist and podcaster located in Atlanta, GA. He is principal and creative director at Lunch, an award-winning multidisciplinary studio he created in 2008 that helps creative brands craft messages and tell stories for their targeted audiences, including fostering relationships with underrepresented communities. Past clients and collaborators included Facebook, Mailchimp, Vox Media, NIKE, Mediabistro, Site5, SitePoint, and The City of Atlanta.

07. Alex Walker

Alex Walker opened his own design studio in 2015, after leaving a position with a studio which he had helped for 13 years. This long stay with one firm is not unusual; when a black designer gets a job in the design field, he tends to keep it, knowing there is not an over-abundance of positions available to him. Looking back on his own experience, Walker states, “Unusually long periods of employment at one job tend to hamper one’s creative process. Most white designers who eventually become award-winning art directors or make lots of money spent short periods of time in various studios and agencies. With each move, their knowledge, contacts, and usually their income increased. This is one modus operandi that has left the black designer in the dust.” One reason black designers don’t move around more is that they lack the all-important contacts in the field through whom job openings are referred. In his anxiety simply to get any work in the field, a black designer may get tied down to a department store or supermarket advertising department. Stuck in this backwater, he never gets to meet people in the mainstream and thus is unable to find out what is expected of a designer in a large-agency art department.

Alex Walker is one of the few black studio owner-operators in New York ruefully advises the design school hopeful who is about to “offer him or herself to the graphic arts would to do so with the eyes wide open, plenty of Excedrin and a degree in another field—just in case.” Many black graphic arts students do, in fact, minor in education while getting their BA, and after long, fruitless periods of seeking design work that suits them, eventually give up and go into teaching.

08. Kaleena Sales

Kaleena Sales is a writer, illustrator, and graphic design educator at Tennessee State University, an HBCU in Nashville, TN. Her research focuses on Black culture and aesthetics, and her recent illustration work has been selected for inclusion in the 2021 Communication Arts Illustration Annual. Kaleena is co-author of the book, Extra-Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti-Racist, Non-Binary Field Guild for Graphic Designers, alongside Ellen Lupton and a diverse group of other designers. Kaleena actively presents at national and international design conferences, including AIGA, CAA, SECAC, and RGD. Through her service on AIGA’s Design Educators Community Steering Committee, Kaleena has advocated for a more inclusive view of design history through her Beyond the Bauhaus writing series. She also serves as Director of Diversity and Inclusion for AIGA Nashville.

Kaleena Sales is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design in the Department of Art and Design at Tennessee State University. Her research focuses on culture and aesthetics; specifically centring around the implications of identity on the aesthetic preferences of Black designers. She currently serves on the Steering Committee of the AIGA Design Educators Community, and is also a board member for AIGA Nashville, serving as Director of Diversity & Inclusion.

09. Ian Spalter

With over 20 years of design experience, Ian Spalter’s storied career has taken him all around the globe. He got his start at R/GA, where he was the creative lead for the Nike+ digital sport business. As the former head of design at Foursquare, UX lead at YouTube, and head of design at Instagram, Ian has worked with iconic brands that influence how people share, travel, and express creativity.

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.

When asked what’s changed at Instagram since he joined in 2015, he summed it up succinctly. “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.” In my work at GV advising portfolio founders on design, I often notice the same thing: Startups are often focused on what to design, when how we design is just as critical.

10. Maurice Woods

Maurice Woods, is the Executive Director and Founder of the Inneract Project, a nonprofit that empowers Black and Brown youth through design education and links them to opportunities to explore design in career and in life. As a professional designer, his work experience spans over 15 years across advertising, a design agency, and startup and large tech companies such as BSSP, Pentagram Design, and Yahoo. Maurice is a Principal Designer at Microsoft, and before entering design, played professional basketball in Europe and Asia for seven seasons. In 2006, he wrote a series of essays called “Envisioning Blackness in American Graphic Design”. In 2016, he received the AIGA San Francisco Fellow Award.