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Sending Off Black History Month With 5 Designs from the AIGA Archives

The start of a new series highlighting the work of black designers in archives, libraries, and universities around the world.

As Black History Month comes to a close, we’re beginning something new on Eye on Design: asking archivists, librarians, curators, educators, and designers to pull out the works of black designers from their stacks—the ones that influenced them personally, as well as the graphic design community at large.

Our hope is that by asking the guardians of graphics collected, indexed, and preserved for posterity in very specific institutional and educational contexts, the series will eventually pull together a resource of works and list of designers that will show a broader history of black graphic design and aesthetic impact. By continually surfacing significant designers and displaying underrepresented styles, it will also unearth the origins of aesthetics that have been co-opted and become so pervasive to have become disconnected from their original source. And, as with all of the pieces in our archive series, we hope this series will provide inspiration for designers working today.

A piece called “Searching for the Black Aesthetic in American Graphic Design”, written by Sylvia Harris in the 1990s was our starting point for this project. In it Harris laments the fact that the aesthetic contributions of black designers are often left undocumented in graphic design history, and wonders how to construct a black design tradition. “Black contributions to America’s rich graphic design history have been overlooked, so far, by design historians who have focused either on European influences or on the current phenomenon of cultural hybridity,” she writes. “Buried in libraries and design journals is evidence of black graphic styles and influences stretching from the New Negro movement of the 1920s through the hip-hop aesthetics of the latest generation of designers. I believe that this material, if uncovered, has the potential to nurture a new generation of designers.”

Harris starts to provide this evidence in her essay, and we’re asking some experts to help us carry it forward. To kick us off, AIGA archivist Heather Strelecki has pulled out some works from our own archives to discuss. But look out for dispatches from the Interference Archive, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the New York Public Library, and more.

1
Song of the Boat, Leo and Diane Dillon

“Recognized as preeminent illustrators for young people, Leo and Diane Dillon made a decision early in their careers to include characters from underrepresented races and cultures in their work. They did extensive research to create accurate portrayals.

“Lorenz Graham was a prize-winning African American author of children’s books. He introduced authentic black characters into literature to educate readers about the reality of African life. Published in 1975, Song of the Boat—a story about an African villager whose canoe is destroyed by a crocodile and with his son, finds the perfect tree to build a new one—is illustrated with woodcuts by the husband and wife team.

“The following year, the book was recognized by AIGA for its design and illustrations in the Fifty Books of the Year exhibition. It was selected by a jury composed of Carl Zahn (chair), Bert Clarke, Ralph Coburn, and Allan Fleming from more than 600 entries by publishers across the U.S. and Canada. This book is now part of the AIGA collection at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University’s Butler Library.”

 

2
Black is Beautiful, Emmett McBain

“In 2017, Emmett McBain was was recognized posthumously by AIGA ‘for his revolutionary design leadership and profound social impact in cofounding Burrell-McBain Advertising.’

Ad for Lorillard’s Kent cigarettes, Emmett McBain.

 

“A pioneer in his field, what made McBain important was his assertion through mass media (specifically marketing to the African American community) that Black is Beautiful. This iconic 1968 ad for Chicago-based Vince Cullers Advertising, Inc., the first African-American owned full service advertising agency in the United States, was reproduced as part of a limited edition set and made available at the 2017 AIGA Awards Gala in New York City.

“An inventory of of his work has been created in McBain’s honor at the University of Illinois at Chicago Library in the Special Collections and University Archives, entitled ‘Emmett McBain Design Papers’ (1961–2000).”

3
Johnny Clegg’s War on Apartheid, Gail Anderson

“Johnny Clegg (also known as White Zulu) is a South African singer-songwriter and anti-apartheid icon.

“Graphic designer Gail Anderson’s family migrated to The Bronx from Jamaica. First-generation American, and first-generation college-educated, Anderson was 28 when a spread featuring her hand-drawn letters and thoughtful composition in a 1990 issue of Rolling Stone was recognized by AIGA in the Under 30 competition. The jury included Michael Manwaring, Art Chantry, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Joel Katz, and Helene Silverman. Anderson’s letterforms would go on to influence a generation of designers. Using traditional and non-traditional materials, her typography was an important graphic element across the pages of Rolling Stone magazine for another 12 years.

“In 2008, Anderson became the first African-American woman to receive the AIGA Medal. This spread is now part of the AIGA collection at the Denver Art Museum.”

4
Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day, Aaron Douglas

“In the 1930s, Aaron Douglas, a leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance, was known for his mural and dust jacket designs. AIGA honored his ongoing partnership with the author, songwriter, and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson when it named Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day an exemplar of the finest ‘typographical art’ produced during 1930. The book, with Douglas’s drawing on the binding, was included in the Fifty Books of the Year exhibition in 1931. It was selected by a jury composed of Will Bradley, Theodore Brown Hapgood, and Laurence Gomme from 700 books entered by 140 publishers, printers, and designers throughout the United States.

“Later that same year, in an essay published by the American Magazine of Art, Douglas was named ‘the pioneer of the African Style among the American Negro artists.’

“The book is now part of the AIGA collection at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University’s Butler Library in New York City.”

 

5
Black Panther newspaper poster, Emory Douglas

And a bonus pick from the Eye on Design team: this poster is from a 1971 The Black Panther newspaper, designed by none other than the party’s famed designer Emory Douglas. From 1967 to roughly 1980, Douglas oversaw the art direction and production of newspaper. “Douglas’ artwork in the paper played no small part in propagating its combative criticisms of the U.S. government, as well as any other institutions or persons the party viewed as perpetuators of racism, police brutality, poverty and global imperialism,” writes Pitchaya Sudbanthad in a 2008 article for AIGA.

“Embracing inexpensive and available means of commercial art production,” he continues, “Douglas turned his artwork into a powerful visual megaphone.”

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From the Archives