13 African American Graphic Designers You Should Know

Posted inFeatured Design History

Back in the day, diversity in graphic design was far from visible. While studying in the early 90s, we learned of famous designers like Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, and more. Although these designers changed how graphic design is seen, we did not see graphic designers from the African diaspora proudly presented and applauded. With that in mind, let’s celebrate *African American graphic designers who have left an indelible mark on the field. Let’s check out those who flourished in the face of racial adversity, fighting to have their artistic voice heard, who created their own companies and excelled as Black entrepreneurs when this was unheard of, and those who continue to do so to this day.

*My criteria for choosing my top African American Designers were simple: a) I must love their work, and b) they must be older than I (born in 1966).

I do not intentionally exclude well-deserved and talented younglings. But I wrote this article as a call back to my younger self, to recognize that the path before me was designed Black and beautiful.

Now, read on and shine on.

Charles Dawson (1889 – 1981)

Best known for his illustrated advertisements, Charles Dawson (Charles Clarence Dawson) was an influential Chicago designer and artist through the 1920s and 30s.

He was born in 1898 in Georgia and went on to attend Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. After two years, he left when he became the first African American admitted into the Arts Students League of New York. Dawson abandoned the pervasive racism of the league when he gained acceptance to the Art Institute of Chicago, where, in his own words, their attitude was “entirely free of bias.” During his time there, Dawson was heavily involved and went on to become a founding member of the first Black artists collective in Chicago, The Arts & Letters Collective.

Charles Dawson (back row, fourth from left) and class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, c. 1916.

After graduation, he went on to serve in the segregated forces of WWI, where he faced combat in France. He returned to find a changed Chicago: one racially charged due to a slowed economy and trouble finding jobs. In 1922, Dawson began freelancing, producing work for other black entrepreneurs. Five years later, Dawson played a major role in the first exhibition of African American art at his alma mater called Negro In Art Week.

Dawson took part in two different Works Progress Administration programs under Roosevelt’s New Deal, including the National Youth Administration, where he designed the layout for the American Negro Exposition, a piece composed of 20 dioramas showcasing African American history.

He eventually returned to Tuskegee, where he became a curator for the institute’s museum and passed away at the ripe old age of 93 in Pennsylvania. Dawson will always be remembered for his great contributions to African American art, design, and advancement.

Aaron Douglas (1899 – 1979)

Known as a key artist in the Harlem Renaissance, Aaron Douglas was a pivotal figure in developing a distinctly African style of art through his blending of Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles with connections to African masks and dances. His illustrations, published in Alan Locke’s anthology, The New Negro Movement, showcased his detachment from European-style arts and evolution into his own style, clearly communicating African heritage.

Aaron Douglas – From Slavery Through Reconstruction, 1927

Douglas graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1922 with a BFA. He then taught high school art before moving to New York two years later to study under German artist Winold Reiss.

He became the most sought-after illustrator for black writers of his time after his covers for Opportunity and The Crisis, dubbed “Afro-Cubanism” by leading art critic Richard Powell. Among his other notable covers and illustrations are his designs for Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven and God’s Trombone, James Weldon Johnson’s epic poem.

Douglas was well-versed in Harlem nightlife, where he spent many nights gaining inspiration for his designs and depictions of the black urban scene. His murals, adorning the walls of various institutions, cemented his name as a major artist of the Harlem Renaissance. His best-known work is a series of murals called, Aspects of Negro Life, which Douglas created for the 135th St. branch of the New York Public Library.

He later left New York to become chair of the art department of Fisk University in Nashville, where he resided until his death in 1979.

Leroy Winbush (1915 – 2007)

One week after graduating high school, Winbush left Detroit for Chicago to become a graphic designer. His inspiration and mentors at the time were sign designers on Chicago’s South Side. He began creating signage, flyers, and murals for the Regal Theater, where he rubbed elbows with some of the most famous black musicians of the time.

Album cover designs by Leroy Winbush

Winbush then went on to join Goldblatt Department Store’s sign department, where he was the only black employee. In 1945, after years of working for others, Winbush started his own company, Winbush Associates, later Winbush Designs. Here, he landed accounts with various publishing houses, doing layouts for Ebony and Jet, among others. His ambition and charisma eventually helped him gain acceptance as a black designer and entrepreneur.

Later in life, Winbush began teaching visual communications and typography at various Chicago universities. He concurrently mastered the art of scuba diving, a feat that helped him land a position as part of the crew tasked with creating Epcot Center’s coral reef.

Leroy Winbush at work

Winbush was adamant in his desire to be remembered as a “good designer,” as opposed to a “Black designer,” but was well aware of the influence he could have on the progression of the Black community. He designed a sickle cell anemia exhibit and exhibitions of the Underground Railroad for different Chicago museums to illuminate Black history, past and present, to the public. His accomplishments throughout his lifetime make LeRoy Winbush a notable African American graphic designer worth checking out.

Eugene Winslow (1919 – 2001)

Born in Dayton, Ohio, into a family of seven children, Eugene Winslow’s parents stressed the importance of education and encouraged their children to study the arts. Winslow attended Dillard University, receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He then served in WWII as part of the revered Tuskegee Airmen.

Eugene Winslow: A Century of Negro Progress

After the war, Winslow nurtured his lifelong artistic interest by attending The Art Institute of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology. Winslow then went on to co-found the Am-Afro Publishing house based out of Chicago, where in 1963, they published Great American Negroes Past and Present with Winslow’s illustrations. That same year, he also designed the seal commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation for the Chicago Exposition. Throughout his career as an artist, designer, businessman, and entrepreneur, Winslow always sought to promote racial integration wherever possible.

Georg Olden (1920 – 1975)

Born in 1920 in Birmingham, Alabama, to the son of an escaped enslaved person and opera-singing mother, Georg Olden was a revolutionary designer who helped pave the way for African Americans in the field of design and the corporate world.

After a brief stint at Virginia State College, Olden dropped out of school to work as a graphic designer for the CIA’s predecessor, The Office of Strategic Services. From there, the connections he made helped him land a position at CBS in 1945 as Head of Network Division of On-Air Promotions. Here, he worked on programs such as Gunsmoke, and I Love Lucy and eventually went on to help create the vote-tallying scoreboard for the first televised Presidential Election in 1952.

Praised in his day and posthumously, Olden appeared multiple times in publications such as Graphis and Ebony. In 1963, he became the first African American to design a postage stamp. His design showcased chains breaking to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. By 1970, he had won seven Clio Awards for creative excellence in advertising and design and eventually won the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) award in 2007. Celebrated for his talent, charm, and business intelligence, Olden was a revolutionary African American graphic designer who made advancements in the industry and for all African Americans.

Thomas Miller (1920 – 2012)

Born in Bristol, Virginia, the grandson of enslaved people, Thomas Miller’s talent, hard work, and ambition helped him become one of the first Black designers to break into mainstream graphic design.

Miller graduated and earned a Bachelor of Education with a focus on the arts in 1941 from Virginia State College. Soon after, he enlisted in the army and served in WWII, achieving the rank of First Sergeant.

After the war, Miller was determined to learn about commercial design. He gained acceptance to The Ray Vogue School of Art in Chicago, where he and fellow student Emmett McBain were the only African Americans besides the janitors.

Morton Goldsholl Associates

After graduation, Miller searched for jobs and denied one offer in New York because he worked “behind the screen.” Unwilling to tolerate the company’s overt racism, Miller passed on the offer and eventually joined the progressive Chicago studio Morton Goldsholl Associates. It was here that Miller, as chief designer, worked on high-profile campaigns such as the design for 7-Up in the 1970s. As a supporting member of the design team, he also worked on the Motorola rebranding, the Peace Corps logo, and the Betty Crocker “Chicken Helper” branding, earning accolades for himself and the company.

Miller also freelanced, starting when he served in WWII and continuing through his work with Goldsholl. Through his independent work, Miller was commissioned to create a memorial to the DuSable Museum’s founders. This job resulted in one of his most well-known pieces, the Thomas Miller Mosaics, now featured in the museum’s lobby.

Miller’s hard work, dedication, and artistic talent helped him pave the way for many African-American artists and designers to come.

Emmett McBain (1935 – 2012)

Emmett McBain, born in Chicago in 1935, is lesser known than some other designers I’ve profiled. But McBain made major contributions to the advertising and design world and for all African Americans through his successes in the business world.

Emmett McBain

Emmett McBain, a true visual thinker and communicator, attended The American Academy of Art and the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he became a talented watercolor artist. Post-graduation, McBain worked for several notable agencies and firms as a designer, art supervisor, and creative consultant before co-founding Burrell McBain Incorporated. This advertising agency, which later became the largest African-American-owned agency in the States, aimed to serve their accounts while gaining the trust and loyalty of the Black community. McBain was key in running the agency, landing valuable accounts, and constantly developing new and fresh ideas. His former partner, Thomas J. Burrell, praised his leadership skills and ability to think outside the box.

McBain left Burrell McBain in 1974 to focus on independent art and design in his Hyde Park, Chicago neighborhood, where he later passed away in 2012 at 78.

The University of Illinois at Chicago has a collection featuring his works entitled Emmett McBain Design Papers. You’ll find print ads, record album covers, and transparencies of Billboards, all McBain designed.

Playboy Jazz All-Stars, 1957, record cover, Emmett McBain

Archie Boston (born 1943)

Known for his blatant self-deprecation and humor, Archie Boston was a pioneer in challenging the racism of the 1960s and 70s through his designs and attitude.

Archie Boston

One of five children, Boston grew up poor but well aware of the importance of education. In 1961, his artistic talent landed him acceptance to Chouinard Art Institute. While at university, he interned with the advertising agency Carson/Roberts, where he cemented his desire to work in design and eventually returned to the agency years later.

After graduation, he worked at various advertising and design firms before forming Boston & Boston with his older brother, Bradford. It was here that they created provocative pieces showcasing their race, as well as creativity, in pieces such as “Catch a Nigger by The Toe” and by selecting the Jim Crow typeface for their logotype.

For the majority of his career, however, Boston was an educator. He landed a position as a full-time lecturer in the art department at California State University, Long Beach, before creating their design department and eventually becoming head of the visual communications design program. He influenced countless young designers there, inspiring them through his encouragement and standard for excellence.

ADCLA 30th Annual Western Advertising Art Expo, Call for Entries, Archie Boston

Emory Douglas (Born 1943)

The former Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, Emory Douglas’ career in commercial art has been centered around civil and equal rights propagation from its beginnings.

Emory Douglas helps lay out The Black Panther in Oakland, California, in 1970. John Seale to his left. photography by
Stephen Shames

Douglas’ first exposure to design came when his crimes landed him in the Youth Training School of Ontario, California. Here, he worked in the print shop and learned about typography, illustration, and logo design. Later, Douglas enrolled in commercial art classes at the City College of San Francisco after running into a former counselor from the center who encouraged him to do so

During this time, Douglas became active in the Black Panther Party after being introduced to the founding members, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Douglas offered up his design skills while watching Seale work on the first issue of the party’s paper, The Black Panther. He was well aware of the importance of having illustrations and artwork to help reach the many illiterate members of the communities the party was targeting. Much of his art and illustration for the paper initially focused on Black rights, but it soon expanded to include women, children, and community figures alongside the party’s focuses. While working on The Black Panther, Douglas coined and popularized the term “pigs” in reference to police officers.

In the 1980s, the Black Panther Party, as Douglas had once known it, was mostly dissolved by law enforcement efforts. Later, Douglas moved to care for his ailing mother and continued to pursue some independent design. His revolutionary artwork helped to educate and agitate repressed and suppressed communities of the time.

Sylvia Harris (1953 – 2011)

Noted for her unwavering desire to help others, Sylvia Harris was a graphic designer, teacher, and business owner who used her research and skill set to reach far and wide.

Born and raised in Richmond, VA, Harris experienced the desegregation of the 1960s directly. This experience provided the foundation for her interest in social systems and their effect. After receiving her BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, Harris moved to Boston, where she worked with various creative types. Through her work with WGBH and Chris Pullman, she realized the design field’s breadth and depth. After much prodding from her mentor, Harris enrolled in Yale’s Masters in Graphic Design program.

Two Twelve Associates was created with two of her former classmates in 1980 after graduation. Here, Harris began to explore how to use and grow her skill set to develop large-scale public information systems. Her work with Citibank set an early precedent for human-centered automated customer service.

In 1994, Harris left Two Twelve to create Sylvia Harris LLC, where she changed gears and began focusing more on design planning and strategies. Harris helped guide some of the largest public institutions, hospitals, and universities with systems planning. As creative director for the US Census Bureau’s Census 2000, Harris’ rebranding efforts helped encourage previously underrepresented citizens to participate.

Harris was awarded the AIGA medal posthumously in 2014, three years after her untimely death at the age of 57. Harris will always be remembered for her contributions to the design field and far beyond.

Art Sims (Born 1954)

From his first foray into the art world with the “Draw Me” test from magazines and TV of the 50s and 60s, Sims excelled. He attended Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, known for its dedication to the arts. From there, Sims gained acceptance to the University of Michigan on a full scholarship. During the summer between his junior and senior years, Sims landed a job with Columbia Records to produce a series of album covers. After graduation, the Sunshine State called his name, and Sims headed to LA.

Sims scored a job with EMI, but he was ultimately let go for pursuing freelance work. He went on to work for CBS, where he continued building his independent portfolio. When he was let go this time, Sims was prepared and already had the office space for his firm, 11:24 Advertising Design.

After seeing one of Spike Lee’s films, Sims knew he had to work with the director. He went on to design posters for Lee’s New Jack City, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and most controversially, Bamboozled.

Ever the entrepreneur, Sims is developing a greeting card line and writing screenplays while teaching graphic design to African American middle schoolers. Art Sims is the epitome of talent, drive, and ambition, someone every graphic designer should know.

Gail Anderson (Born 1962)

Known for her uncanny ability to create expressive, dynamic typefaces perfectly suited to their subject, Gail Anderson is a designer and teacher with an impressive tenure in the field.

Gail Anderson, photographed by Darren Cox

Born and raised in New York, Anderson’s ever-burning curiosity about design began with the teen magazines of her adolescent years. It was cemented while studying at the School of Visual Arts in NY. Here, Anderson began to develop her methodologies and no-holds-barred approach to design.

After college, Anderson eventually landed at The Boston Globe for two years, working with those responsible for pioneering the new newspaper design of the late 1980s. Moving on to Rolling Stone in 1987, Anderson worked seamlessly with AIGA medalist Fred Woodward, where their creative process always included lots of music, low lighting, and late nights. Her work with Woodward was always exploring new and exciting materials and instruments to create Rolling Stone’s eclectic design. They utilized everything from hot metal to bits of twigs to bottle caps to create their vision.

Gail Anderson, spread for Rolling Stone, featuring Chris Rock

After working her way up from associate to senior art director, Anderson left Rolling Stone in 2002 to join SpotCo, where her focus shifted from design to advertising. At SpotCo, she’s been the designer behind innumerable Broadway and off-Broadway posters, including that of Avenue Q and Eve Ensler’s The Good Body.

Praised as the quintessential collaborator for her inclusive, expressive, and encouraging attitude towards working together, Anderson also admits that many of her “high-octane” designs occurred at night, solo. Whether it’s her collaborative work, solo projects, magazine layouts, or theatrical posters, Anderson designs work with and for her subjects, always emphasizing their highest potential.

The Unknown & Overlooked Designers

They are many, often invisible, but we feel the impact of their work throughout history, and we should acknowledge them. Many African American graphic designers worked behind the scenes and did not receive credit for their work due to the racist norms of the times. 

These include:

  • The logo creators for the uniforms of the Negro baseball and basketball leagues;
  • Trail-blazing entrepreneurs like Madam C.J. Walker, Annie MaloneCarmen C. MurphyMae ReevesAnthony OvertonFrederick Patterson, and many more;
  • The unknown graphic designer who painted the bold and sobering “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY” flag, hung by the NAACP from their New York offices whenever they learned of a hanging;
  • Those presently active (Black Lives Matter) are creating banners, posters, signs, and media protesting discrimination of all kinds. Graphic design, after all, is about communicating a message effectively.

The truth of all history cannot be understated. As a designer of the African diaspora (African-Jamaican-Canadian), I believe in knowing those who paved the way. These men and women boldly pushed past racial inequality with their talent and perseverance to help create the way for all.

Glenford Laughton is founder of Toronto-based agency Laughton Creatves, a design studio that believes design is a highly-collaborative endeavor (hence the missing ‘i’). This article was written and researched by Glenford Laughton and originally published on the Laughton Creatves website. Republished with permission of the author.

Sources: AIGA, The Design Observer, The University of Chicago Library, Atlanta Blackstar, The History Makers, Wikipedia, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Design Archive, and The Root.