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Black creatives who shaped the course of design history

The role of Black creatives in the history of design can’t be overstated. But their work is rarely mentioned. That changes now.

Illustration by Anita Goldstein.

Profile picture of Michael Craig


5 min read

When we look at designers throughout history, we often learn about their groundbreaking and impactful work and how it influences our tastes and preferences. What is often missing from these narratives, however, is diversity. Many Black designers made astonishing achievements and cultural contributions, yet they seldom receive recognition in the design canon.

Now more than ever, inclusion and equality are on the minds of many, and it’s important that the history of design includes the Black creatives who made valuable contributions. A more complete narrative can help us paint a fuller picture of design over time and illuminate the stories that history tells. It can also provide valuable lessons for the work we do today and how it can shape the realities of tomorrow.

With this in mind, we looked at 7 Black graphic designers who left their mark in the history of the graphic design field.

Archie Boston

Archie Boston is a graphic designer born who received his formal education at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). Like other Blacks, Boston was often faced with racism; he responded with courageous and daring design pieces that have influenced the entire industry.

Some of those bold pieces include a promotional poster featuring the headline: “I don’t want to marry your daughter,” placing emphasis on establishing business relationships. In another poster Boston dressed up as a Black Uncle Sam, serving both as a marketing stunt and a racial statement.

Active in the design, advertising, and design education fields, some of Boston’s most enduring work is his packaging design for Pentel Pens. He also served as president of the Art Directors Club of Los Angeles for 2 terms, and was the first African American to win the AIGA Fellows Award.

“I worked hard to become a good designer, so that I would get hired at a good design firm that places value on good work, and not the color of one's skin.”

- Archie Boston

Self-promotional posters for Boston & Boston, 1966-1967. Image sources: AIGA, Design Week.

A poster reading: "I told Pentel what to do with their Pens. And they did it."
An ad for Pentel of America, 1971. Image source: Duke University Libraries

Gail Anderson

Gail Anderson is an accomplished designer, writer, and educator based in New York, with over 35 years of experience. After attending the School of Visual Arts in New York, Gail worked as a designer for various publishers from the New York Times to the Boston Globe to Rolling Stone.

Of Anderson’s many works, she is most proud of her design for the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation USPS postage stamp. She now serves as a member of the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee for USPS.

She’s a partner and co-founder of the award winning design agency Anderson Newton Design. Some of Anderson’s many achievements include awards from the Society of Publication Designers, the Type Directors Club, and the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Medal from AIGA.

A photo of Gail Anderson (left) and a poster design for Manhattan Theatre Club (right).

Photo by Declan Van Welie; source: Inside Design

The SVA Senior Library book design.

Charles Dawson

Charles Dawson (1889-1981) was a commercial artist based in Chicago. Working during the 1920s and 30s, Dawson was faced with a racist professional atmosphere and often didn’t receive credit for his own work. Despite these obstacles, Dawson became a well-known advertising and editorial illustrator, creating designs for beauty products, posters, and more.

Some of Dawson’s notable achievements include being the only Black artist in the 1933–1934 Century of Progress Fair, where he illustrated a mural depicting the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the Northern industrial cities. Contributing to the narrative of celebrating Black accomplishments, Charles self-published a book entitled The ABCs of Great Negroes, which highlighted people of African descent who played a key role in history with linoleum cut portraits.

A photo of Charles Dawson (left) and a poster design for Valmor Products, undated (right). Image sources: Design Observer, The University of Chicago Library.

"O, Sing a New Song" poster design, 1934 (left); Cover design for "The Negro in Art Week" program, 1927 (right). Image sources: Modern Mag, Laughton Creatves.

Aaron Douglas

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) was an illustrator and artist during the Harlem Renaissance era, a revival period of African-American art and culture. After winning a scholarship, Douglas studied as an apprentice with German Art Deco graphic designer Fritz Winold Reiss, who encouraged him to look to his African roots and heritage for visual inspiration.

From there, Douglas developed a distinct style mixing African and Egyptian inspiration with the geometric Art Deco. Some of Douglas’ most notable works included his Illustrations for the poem God’s Trombone, by James Johnson, and a number of large murals in North Carolina, Tennessee, Chicago, and New York City. Aaron Douglas is often called the “Father of Black American Art,” and his work is widely recognized today in museums and even postal stamps.

A photo of Aaron Douglas (left) and an illustrated bookplate by Aaron Douglas for Alain Locke's book, The New Negro , 1925 (right). Image sources: Omaha World-Herald, Rauner Special Collections Library.

Cover design for the journal Opportunity, 1926 (left) and "Emperor Jones", gouache on board painting by Aaron Douglas, c. 1926 (right). Image sources: Kentake Page, Artnet.

E. Simms Campbell

Elmer Simms Campbell (1906-1971) was a cartoonist and illustrator based in New York. Inspired by his mother who was a painter, Campbell started with drawing cartoons for his high school newspaper before formally studying art in Chicago and landing his first design job in St. Louis.

Campbell, who was also active during the Harlem Renaissance, published in prominent magazines like The New Yorker, Life, Cosmopolitan, and Ebony. Most notably, he worked for Esquire regularly and was the creator of their mascot, Esky. Campbell’s designs for Esquire made him the first African-American to have his designs circulated nationwide.

Two cartoons by E. Simms Campbell. Image sources: Waldina, PRINT Mag.

A cartoon (left) and a cover illustration for The New Yorker, 1934, by E. Simms Campbell. Image sources: Comics Kingdom, Condé Nast.

Georg Olden

Georg Olden (1920-1975) was a graphic designer mainly known for his pioneering work as one of the first Black creatives to work in television. Olden was the head art director of CBS Television, working on popular series like “I Love Lucy” and “Gunsmoke” from the young age of 24.

Olden was also awarded first place in the 1967 Cannes Film Festival, and was the designer of the Clio Award, which he then won 7 times himself. He was also the first African-American to design a postage stamp.

“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, thereby hopefully expanding acceptance of, and opportunities for, future black Americans in business.”

- Georg Olden

Graphics for CBS programs by Georg Olden. Image source: Stickers & Stuff.
Graphics for CBS programs by Georg Olden. Image source: Stickers & Stuff.

Thomas Miller

Thomas Miller (1920-2012) was a successful commercial designer and independent visual designer. Miller was interested in art from a young age, and while formal art education wasn’t readily available for him, he taught himself using a collection of art books and drawing inspiration from past masters, especially the work of Da Vinci. Miller served in World War II, during which he sold oil paintings while stationed abroad in different countries.<