10 Black graphic designers who define design history

Today, a mere 3% of professional graphic designers identify as Black. Even fewer identify as Black female graphic designers. SketchDeck is proud to champion diversity in hiring and design. As we celebrate Black History Month, we recognize the significant contributions of Black graphic designers who define graphic design history. These courageous designers defined and continue to define graphic design history. From breaking barriers to setting new standards, they left a lasting mark on the industry and the world. Let’s explore the lives and works of 10 iconic Black graphic designers who have defined design history.

Trailblazing Black female graphic designers 

Gail Anderson

Black and white photo of prominent Black female graphic designer, Gail Anderson, with this quote: "It's never about you in the end -- designers solve problems, engage readers, and help create of market products... design is outward-facing. It's for and about other people, so collaborating seems quite natural, and, in the end, more fun too.". Also, the image features examples of her work on theater posters, featuring bold typographical work.

Gail Anderson is a powerhouse in the design world, renowned for her bold and dynamic creations. As a black female graphic designer, she shattered glass ceilings and inspired countless aspiring designers with her fearless creativity and unwavering passion for the craft. A New York-based designer, writer, and educator, Anderson’s exceptional typographic skill set her apart as one of the most influential Black designers in the field.

Anderson’s work is recognized and celebrated through many awards from prestigious organizations. These organizations include: the Type Directors Club, The Art Directors Club, and The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), where she was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Medal in 2008. Additionally, Anderson co-authored over sixteen books in her career so far. In 2018, she made history by becoming the first African American woman to receive the National Design Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Accolade. All of this is a testament to her enduring impact and contribution to the field.

Sylvia Harris (1953 – 2011)

Black and white photo of prominent Black female designer, Sylvia Harris, with her quote: "Design teaches us not to make assumptions.". Also features images of her groundbreaking work on voting campaigns, the ACLU logo, and the US census.

Slyvia Harris is known for her innovative approach to visualizing complex data. Her work had significant impact on the graphic design industry and society at large. A pioneer in information and social impact design, she is one of the most significant Black female graphic designers in history.

Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1953, Harris was deeply influenced by her family’s focus on the Civil Rights Movement and her first-hand experience of desegregation at school. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, she embarked on a career dedicated to using design for the public good. 

Harris’s commitment to creating accessible public systems and her innovative approach to information design left a lasting legacy. She founded Sylvia Harris LLC, a design and strategy company focused on using design to solve problems for civic agencies, universities, and hospitals. Her work on projects such as the 2000 Census form and the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia survey demonstrated her belief in the incredible impact of designers for social good. 

Harris’s untimely death in 2011 was a significant loss to the design community, but her legacy continues to inspire and pave the way for future generations of designers, particularly women of color and Black female graphic designers, in the field of social impact design.

Black graphic designers who broke barriers

Archie Boston

Black and white photo of Archie Boston, with his quote: "Design is hard work. Striving for design excellence is even harder.". Also features images of his groundbreaking work on ads for Pentel pens.

Archie Boston Jr. is a trailblazing figure in graphic design, known for his innovative approach to visual communication. His work reflects themes of social justice and cultural identity. Because of its deep purpose, Boston’s work continues to resonate as a reminder of design’s roll in questioning the status quo.

Born in segregated St. Petersburg, Florida, in the 1940s, Boston’s impact on the field of graphic design is multifaceted. He was one of the first Black designers to establish an advertising agency, Boston & Boston. As an agency leader, Boston confronted the predominantly white industry with provocative self-promotional ads. These ads boldly asserted their identity as a black-owned firm.

Boston’s innovative and socially-conscious designs provided valuable insight into the experiences of Black Americans. His work critiqued the entrenched racism of the design and advertising worlds. Boston’s commitment to excellence and unwavering dedication to his craft inspired future generations and reshaped the narrative of design history.

Georg Olden (1920 – 1975)

Black and white photo of prominent Black graphic designer, Georg Olden, with his quote: "As the first black American to achieve an executive position with a major corporation, my goal was the same as that of Jackie Robinson in baseball: to achieve maximum respect and recognition by my peers, the industry, and the public."

Georg Olden was a visionary designer. His work spanned multiple mediums, including television graphics and corporate branding. During his tenure as the director of graphic design at CBS, Olden’s groundbreaking designs set new standards in both the design and television industry. As director of graphic design, Olden was one of the first Black individuals to hold an executive position within a major corporation. His work earned him widespread acclaim as one of the most influential designers of his time.

Olden’s work was characterized by a fusion of modern art and design, incorporating elements of movement and animation. His innovative approach earned him several CLIO awards and left a lasting mark on the visual identity of CBS. Notably, in 1963, he designed a US stamp to commemorate the centennial of the emancipation proclamation. Olden was the first Black American to take on the task. Olden was committed to incorporating his cultural identity into his creative work. All in all, his groundbreaking achievements as a Black man in a predominantly white industry solidified his legacy as a transformative force in graphic design history.

Eugene Winslow (1885 – 1993)

Eugene Winslow was a master of typography and layout, known for his elegant and sophisticated designs. His meticulous attention to detail and unwavering commitment to excellence made him a legend in the world of graphic design. A pioneering artist, designer, and entrepreneur, Winslow made a significant impact on graphic design history. Through his multifaceted career and commitment to promoting racial integration, Winslow created a lasting legacy.

Winslow was a member of the revered Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. This service was a testament to the dedication and courage that defined his design career. Following the war, he pursued his passion for the arts and design. After studying design, Winslow co-founded the Am-Afro Publishing house in Chicago. In 1963, the publishing house released ‘Great American Negroes Past and Present,’ featuring Winslow’s illustrations. He also designed the seal commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Throughout his career, Winslow consistently sought to promote racial integration, leaving a legacy of resilience, creativity, and advocacy. Like few before him, Winslow’s work proved design could power social and cultural advancement.

Leroy Winbush (1915 – 2007)

Leroy Winbush was a groundbreaking designer who paved the way for future generations of Black graphic designers. His bold and dynamic creations challenged conventional notions of design and helped redefine the visual language of advertising and marketing.

Moving to Chicago from Detroit in 1936, Winbush began his career as a graphic designer and art director. By breaking racial barriers, he inspired a new generation of diverse designers. His work, including bank window displays and airbrush art, showcased his exceptional talent and creativity. His legacy as a pioneering Black designer continues to inspire and uplift aspiring designers of color. As a design leader, Winbush contributed to a more inclusive and diverse landscape within the graphic design industry.

Aaron Douglas (1899 – 1979)

Black and white photo of Aaron Douglas with his quote: "Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known."

Aaron Douglas is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished and influential visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance. As an artist, Douglas revolutionized Black art and made a profound impact on graphic design history. Inspired by cubism and modern art, his distinctive style blended geometric and angular shapes. With its innovative style, Douglas’s work helped bring the Harlem Renaissance to national prominence. 

Through his revolutionary approach to combining elements of modern art and African culture, Douglas created a broad range of work. At the heart of his work, Douglas celebrated the accomplishments and history of Black Americans. As a leader within the Harlem Renaissance, he worked to increase educational access and career opportunities for young, Black artists. His enduring influence as an artist, illustrator, and mentor continues to inspire and pave the way for future generations of designers and artists of color. This commitment to creative excellence and social progress solidifies his role as a transformative force in graphic design.

Emory Douglas

Emory Douglas is best known for his work as the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. As Minister of Culture, he created powerful and iconic imagery that captured the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. His bold and uncompromising designs continue to inspire activists and artists around the world.

Douglas played a pivotal role in shaping the aesthetics of protest and revolution during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. His iconic and politically charged graphic work for the Black Panther newspaper was characterized by bold outlines and powerful subject matter. In the Black Panther newspaper, his work conveyed a clear message of empowerment and solidarity with the Black community.

Throughout his career, Douglas’ work was a powerful tool in crafting a language of revolution that resonated with a new, American audience. As an artist and activist, he embodied unwavering commitment to using art as a means of challenging the status quo and advancing social change. Few artists can claim a greater impact on the visualization of modern politics and culture, further solidifying Emory Douglas’ place as a transformative figure in graphic design history.

Art Sims

A prominent graphic designer and art director, Art Sims’ work graces the covers of numerous magazines and albums. His distinctive style and keen eye for detail made him one of the most sought-after designers in the industry.

Born in Detroit, Sims is renowned for his prolific and influential designs for movies. Of all his work, Sims is particularly lauded for his collaboration with acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee. His visually striking and culturally resonant movie posters redefined the world of film graphics. As a designer, Sims’ innovative and evocative approach to visual storytelling contributed to the success of countless films. More importantly, his groundbreaking work cemented his reputation as one of the most notable design talents in the entertainment industry.

Emmett McBain (1935 – 2012)

From introducing the Ford Mustang to era-defining work for the Civil Rights Movement, Emmett McBain’s work spanned decades and industries. The boundary-breaking adman was born in Chicago in 1935. As a young man, he began his advertising career in 1957 at Vince Cullers and Associates. Vince Cullers and Associates was the first black-owned, full-service advertising agency.

As promotional art director at PlayBoy, McBain’s career took off when he designed the award-winning PlayBoy All Stars album cover. Afterwards, this cover led to work with Mercury Records through the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1971, McBain co-founded his own agency, Burrel – McBain Advertising. During his tenure there, he designed ads for powerhouse brands like McDonalds. This ad work reflected ongoing themes of his work: family and the pervasiveness of beauty.

He returned to Vine Cullers and created countless ads that helped define Black identity in a time of cultural shift for Black Americans. He designed voting campaigns to urge Black Americans to take advantage of their hard-won rights. All in all, McBain’s work is remembered for its impact, playing a crucial role in defining and celebrating Black identity in America.

Unknown Black graphic designers and the legacy of Black design

An image with the headline "Honoring uncredited Black creatives." featuring a collage of work including Madam C.J. Walkers' hair product packaging, men wearing signs that say "I am a man" marching in protest during the Civil Rights Movement, a "We march with Selma" banner from the Civil Rights movement, players wearing logoed uniforms during a 1940's Negro Baseball League game, a flag hanging from ACLU offices saying "A man was lynched yesterday" (civil rights era) and "A man was lynched by police yesterday" (today), and a graffitied banner saying "Black Lives Matter".

Like too much of Black history, countless Black graphic designers’ names go unknown or unremembered though their important work remains. From the product design of Madam C.J. Walker’s groundbreaking hair products to the logos for the Negro Baseball Leagues to the countless signs and banners designed for the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements, these unknown Black creatives continue to leave a lasting impact on society and graphic design history.

These 10 Black graphic designers not only shaped the course of design history but also paved the way for future generations of designers to follow in their footsteps. While trailblazers in their own rights, these designers are but a glimpse into the undeniable contribution Black graphic designers have made throughout graphic design history. As we celebrate Black History Month, let us honor their legacy and continue to champion diversity and inclusion in the world of graphic design.

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Ivy Croteau

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