2016

African American Culture and History: an AIGA Design Journey

AIGA, the professional association for design

Selected from AIGA's prestigious Design Archives and Design Journeys series, this collection celebrates African American history and culture throughout the last century of communication design.

African American Culture and History: an AIGA Design Journey
AIGA is proud to present this exhibition as part of its national Diversity & Inclusion Initiative, which encourages diversity in education, discourse, and practice to strengthen and expand the relevance of design in all areas of society. Selected from AIGA's prestigious Design Archives and Design Journeys series, this collection celebrates African American history and culture throughout the last century of communication design. It features African American designers as well as projects inspired by or relevant to African American history and communities. Explore the diverse artifacts presented here chronologically—including logos, posters, books, magazines, videos, and more—by designers both historical and contemporary, celebrated and unsung.

One of Chicago's leading black artists and designers in the 1920s and '30s, Charles Clarence Dawson is best known for his illustrated advertisements for beauty schools and products which were targeted to the city's burgeoning black population.

Daniel Schulman

Aaron Douglas was a leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement.

His style blended the geometric and angular shapes of Art Deco with the linear rhythm of Art Nouveau; it bore references to African masks and sculptural figures, as well as allusions to African dance.

Michele Washington

In 1926, Aaron Douglas loaned his talents to the first and only issue of Wallace Thurman's magazine FIRE!! and later designed the cover of Thurman's short-lived magazine Harlem.

Michele Washington

Through his covers for Opportunity and The Crisis, Aaron Douglas set forth a new vision for the black artist. His strong, geometric forms and Egyptian profiles resulted in a style later described by cultural critic and educator Richard Powell as “Afro-Cubism.”

Michele Washington

A noteworthy product of the early 1930s was Charles Dawson's children's book, ABCs of Great Negroes.

Daniel Schulman

The book, which Charles Dawson self-published, consists of portraits of 26 historically significant men and women of African descent, executed in bold and stylized linoleum cut prints.

Daniel Schulman

Charles Dawson also produced a poster for the Pageant of Negro Music, O, Sing A New Song, which took place at Soldier Field as part of the Fair in August 1934.

Daniel Schulman

Leroy Winbush moved to Chicago from Detroit as a teenager and became a graphic designer there in 1936, one week after he graduated from high school. At the time, the profession had only a few black practitioners.

Music was an important influence on Winbush's career as well as a beloved hobby: as a teenager, he performed at Chicago's Century of Progress exposition with his band the Melody Mixers, and he later designed album covers for the Ramsey Lewis Trio and other groups signed to Mercury Records.

Lauren Weinberg

Seymour Chwast supported the civil rights movement and its young martyrs. For this issue of Push Pin Graphic he published songs and images of the Old South juxtaposed as a counterpoint to photographs of activists (plus Emmitt Louis Till, an innocent teenager) killed by white racists. The entire issue was a bold commentary on the doctrine of “separate but equal” that prefigured the landmark civil rights legislation enacted during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. Push Pin’s members supported (and worked for) civil rights, yet this unique and poignant Graphic was one of the rare political statements made by a graphic design studio at that time.

AIGA Design Archives

Emory Douglas was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1943. At age 8, he and his family moved to the Bay Area. Art and design would not be serious pursuits for Douglas until his teens, when his criminal behavior landed him in the Youth Training School in Ontario, California. Sometime after he left the center, his counselor encouraged him to enroll in commercial art classes at the City College of San Francisco.

Douglas is recognized for his fearless and powerful use of graphic design in the Black Panther party’s struggle for civil rights and against racism, oppression, and social injustice.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad


From 1967 to roughly 1980, Emory Douglas oversaw the art direction and production of The Black Panther, the party's official newspaper. Douglas's 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.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Emory Douglas realized The Black Panther needed potent images to cut through the high illiteracy rates in poor communities. At his disposal were affordable graphic arts technologies—mimeographs, photostats, prefabricated presstypes and screentones, along with offset printing for the newspaper. Embracing inexpensive and available means of commercial art production, Douglas turned his artwork into a powerful visual megaphone.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Diane and Leo Dillon first crossed paths in 1953 while attending college together. They met at the beginning of a vital time for change; the following decades would precipitate a revolution towards progressive values, civil rights, and social equality—and the design profession would not be excluded. This was an era when all the faces in children’s books were white, but thanks to the Dillons, that was about to change.

Saundra Marcel


Diane and Leo Dillon are recognized for being among the most talented and versatile artists of their genre, and their work is praised for its vibrancy and ethno-racial diversity of subject matter.

Their range also included African folk tales, Scandinavian epics, fantasy, fiction, and science fiction. They chose their subject matter with intention, selecting books with a spiritualist quality and messages about acceptance and individuality.

Saundra Marcel

Ed Towles’ high school art teacher helped him get his first big break with a partial scholarship to the New York Phoenix School of Design, majoring in magazine and book illustration.

He became art director of Black Enterprise magazine in 1971, a role he held until 1982. It was a pivotal juncture in his career and an opportunity to develop a mainstream magazine for an African American market. “It allowed me to use all my skills as a designer and artist to create the editorial page,” Towles says. Under his direction, Black Enterprise became known for its high standards and for cultivating a talented group of emerging artists and photographers who helped the magazine win a host of awards and industry recognition.

Joseph Ford

Art Sims's career started modestly, with the “Draw Me” test featured in magazines and on TV back in the 1950s and '60s designed to uncover artistic talent. His mother, a grade-school teacher, nurtured his creativity, guiding him through school and instilling a love of learning. He excelled and earned a scholarship to Michigan State University.

Sims's work for Spike Lee included the iconic posters for Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, as well as the incendiary poster for Bamboozled in 2000, which was attacked for its racial stereotypes.

Holly Willis

This educational and inspirational poster was designed to be distributed to schools, African-American organizations, and publications across the country. There are two sides to every issue just as there is no correct way to look at this poster. The mirrored figure and integrated copy reflect the fact that inequalities and prejudices are a product of man. We are simply a reflection of how we see and treat one another.

AIGA Design Archives

The cover of this exhibition catalogue is a revealing cultural self-portrait by black artist Michael Ray Charles. A circus poster for the fictitious Liberty Bros. Permanent Daily Circus introduces a series of works that use inflammatory racial and sexual stereotypes as tools for exploring cultural identity.

AIGA Design Archives

“Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk” is a musical history of rhythm in African-American life told through dancer/choreographer Savion Glover’s explosive street-tap style.

Utilizing wood typefaces, the souvenir program is distinguished by the varied but cohesive graphic language that has become emblematic of the theater.

AIGA Design Archives

The 1996–1997 ad campaign for “Noise/Funk” on Broadway centers on tapping feet dancing over the play’s title. Poster imagery becomes more anonymous to allow other artists to play Glover’s role in the future.

AIGA Design Archives

Sam Cooke’s SAR Records Story was a tribute to Sam Cooke for his contributions as a songwriter, producer, and performer. SAR was born out of the vision of Sam Cooke and J.W. Alexander, who sought a way to broaden the appeal of gospel music while introducing the techniques of gospel into the world of pop.

The packaging incorporates a black-and-white illustration with minimal type on the exterior. The interior repeats the illustration and subtly includes Sam Cooke’s signature in black on black. The book continues with classic black-and-white photographs and screens of metallic bronze.

AIGA Design Archives

The Monkey Suit is a collection of fictionalized retellings of famous legal cases involving African Americans. Stories of senseless racism are told with the gentle, impressionistic tone of an oral history. With this design, the aim was to create something both elegant and shocking—to express the charm of the writing as well as the rage behind it.

AIGA Design Archives

During the early part of her career Gail Anderson was seen but not much heard, which doesn't mean she wasn't outspoken. In fact, typographically speaking she was incredibly eloquent. At Rolling Stone magazine, where she held numerous positions from 1987–2002, starting as an associate and becoming senior art director, Anderson lent her flair to much of the conceptual typography that defined the magazine's feature pages.

Steven Heller

Since Beacon Press is a publisher known for non-fiction, illustration was the best way to signal the transition to fiction. Leigh Wells was chosen as the designer because her samples showed a down-home, magic otherness with collage, line drawing, oil, and watercolor that matched the book.

AIGA Design Archives

This piece of writing was highly personal, cerebral and very abstract and seemed to be written in a manner that purposely left it fluid and uncategorizable. It also jumped freely between the past and present.

The layout is vague yet intriguing, using old photos with a modern design that give a sense of the cold northern territories and African American history.

AIGA Design Archives

The Miles Davis and John Coltrane album cover design captures New York at night, specifically 52nd Street circa 1940—bop’s breeding grounds: the dimly lit, smoke-filled clubs that made up the nocturnal life of jazz. This is achieved by using a monochromatic palette with duotones of black and red throughout. A metal box gives literal weight to the package, signifying the importance of these two musical titans.

AIGA Design Archives

A lifelong New Yorker, Gail Anderson embodies three virtues: inspiring art director, inspired designer and inspirational teacher. Despite being deceptively low key, she does everything with intense passion.

Steven Heller

Sylvia Harris was recognized for an unerring commitment to using design to improve the civic experience and for influencing a generation of designers as a teacher and mentor.

She was a remarkable advocate of good design for real people—a Citizen Designer.

David Gibson

Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) is a first-voice museum established in San Francisco whose focus is on the African Diaspora. The operative word, “diaspora,” is defined as both “to scatter” and “to sow,” and for the museum refers to the voluntary and involuntary dispersal of the African people from their ancestral homelands, as well as the subsequent new cultural forms that they have created around the world.

The many discussions and design investigations led to consensus on using an amalgamation of dots to viscerally convey the idea of the diaspora. The final design balances aesthetics and utility/readability at multiple scales.

AIGA Design Archives

The artist Kara Walker is best known for her provocative black cut-paper silhouettes that confront slavery, sex, violence, and racial stereotypes.

The formal language of Walker’s work consists primarily of compositions using intricately cut black shapes arranged in narratives. To complement this, the structure of the book’s typography is based on rectangular blocks: body copy sits in justified columns while overprinted black boxes with different finishes for display type. This allows the large background type to read as either figure or ground depending on the way the light hits it, making reference to Kara’s flip of the Victorian tradition of using white silhouettes.

AIGA Design Archives

Michele Washington's journey as a graphic designer, educator and writer reflects an omnivorous approach to life and learning, each area of her work informing and overlapping the others to form a unified whole.

Her work incorporates language and writing systems from other cultures—from Zimbabwean to Native American to Korean—in what she calls an “understated, indirect way.”

Angela Riechers

Common for the period, this novel was originally serialized as newspaper entries. It conveys the production history of the “first serialized novel by an African American woman,” while also referencing the narrative itself.

AIGA Design Archives

Stealth was designed to promote The Map Office (Map) at the opening of the 2007 summer-season exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a contemporary art institution that focuses on artists of African or African-American descent.

The poster’s folded form evokes that of the stealth bomber, which is a feat of engineering and design genius—a visually striking object that has been built to be invisible. What emerges as you look at the piece is a quote from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which relayed the feeling that Map was looking for in the piece—“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me”—highlighting the ideals of graphic design and the strength of its bond to the creation of identity.

AIGA Design Archives

Congo Square, believed to be the birthplace of jazz, is a historic site next to the French Quarter, where African slaves performed music and dance on Sunday afternoons for over a hundred years.

This musical celebration of Congo Square was composed by Wynton Marsalis and master drummer Yacub Addy. It was premiered at Louis Armstrong Park, the site of Congo Square, in New Orleans by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Ghanaian drum group Odadaa!

AIGA Design Archives

Maurice Woods once dreamed of playing in the NBA, a fact that's easy to believe when encountering the 6' 10“ designer. Far from imposing, he has a quiet demeanor and soft eyes that light up when the conversation turns to a subject he's passionate about. And the only passion greater for him than designing is using it to change peoples' lives.

David Gottwald

Envisioning Blackness in American Graphic Design, was a groundbreaking work that addressed the difficult question: Is there a design aesthetic that belongs to African Americans? There have been countless surveys of Japanese animation, German typography, French film and Danish furniture; Woods wanted to do the same for black designers in America. His thesis examined both fine and graphic art.

David Gottwald

From the self-published book Envisioning Blackness in American Graphic Design, the premise of this series of posters was to develop a visual language that could be shared as a general aesthetic for all black people.

David Gottwald

For the launch of Centric, an upscale channel targeting adult African-American and multicultural audiences, the goal was to create a brand experience that reflected the central role that African Americans have in the culture. The logo, which used an array of colors converging on a deep brown core, to the vignettes representing a slice of life of the audience, communicates the brand essence in an authentic and aspirational way without invoking clichés.

AIGA Design Archives

AIGA, the professional association for design
Credits: Story

Exhibition by Aidan O'Connor and Heather Strelecki as part of AIGA's national Diversity & Inclusion Initiative and the AIGA Design Archives.

Selections and descriptions are from the AIGA Design Archives as well as essays commissioned by AIGA for designers profiled in the AIGA Design Journeys series or awarded the AIGA Medal.

All works are the copyright of their respective owners.

Learn more about AIGA, the professional association for design and its mission at AIGA.org

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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