2015 AIGA Medalist Emory Douglas

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Each year, AIGA selects a series of designers and visual artists to present with the AIGA Medal. A truly distinguished honor, the medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements, services or other contributions to the field of design and visual communication. emory-douglas-aiga-medalist-portrait

Emory Douglas, one of the five artists honored as a 2015 AIGA Medalist, spurred civil rights education and reform through his design work.

A revolutionary artist and minister of culture for the Black Panthers from 1967 to the early 1980s, Douglas’ work came to exemplify the Black Power movement. He designed compelling artwork, often featuring people from the community, for the Black Panther Party’s media outlets.

His often-controversial and satirical images appeared prominently in the party’s eponymous newspaper with bold messaging that communicated the party’s messaging, fueling the visibility and influence of the group.

Thanks to Douglas’ substantial contributions, the Black Panthers helped shape the Civil Rights Movement and provided aid to those in need, managing to feed more children than the American government at the time and promoting public support for fair housing policies.

When I spoke with Douglas, I noticed that he never talks about design without mentioning his primary focus – social justice. That’s truly his passion, and he used design as a means to communicate critical issues to the populous.

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When I spoke with Douglas, I noticed that he never talks about design without mentioning his primary focus – social justice. That’s truly his passion, and he used design as a means to communicate critical issues to the populous.

Q&A with Emory Douglas:

How would you describe your design work?
[I’d describe] my design work as social commentary, dealing with social issues and social and political concerns.

Who are some of your favorite designers or artists?
Basically, the work I’ve done over the years has been inspired by social movements around the world—inspired by artwork from around the world, not by any designer in particular.

Where did you find inspiration?
l_emory-douglas-aiga-medalist-american-peaceInspiration was always about the injustice and the 10-point platform program we had — the self-determination, housing, full employment — all these things we talked about back in the day and things that still continue to exist today. All those things were the inspiration. The people themselves pushed the art as it devolved. The people were the inspiration. That was the inspiration for the art.

Which medium (or media) are you most comfortable working in?
Any media that I have the opportunity to work with — acrylics, wash, pen and ink, markers, it doesn’t make a difference to me. It just depends on the type of feeI I want to get to the artwork itself. Therefore, I may work with the wash, maybe pen and ink, doesn’t make a difference to me. Sometimes I now integrate some of the images into a digital enhancement of my work as well.

Do you have a favorite among all the projects you’ve worked on?
Not really. Because sometimes you say, “Oh, I like this one.” Then you see something else and you say, “Ah, I appreciate how that one was done.” I don’t have a favorite.

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What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
Well, the biggest challenge is always trying to make the art relevant to your message. To me, art is a language, a way to communicate with folks and always, for me, [the challenge] is to make it relevant. Since I’m doing social commentary, political arts, that always challenges me to make it as clear as possible — to make it that even a child could get something out of the message.

What are you working on right now?
I’ve been traveling quite a bit. I’ve been working and doing collaborations off and on. I have designed a few things, but not in the last, say, six months to a year. I’ve been doing a lot of remixing some of the images, tweaking some of the images people have liked over the years and enhancing them, reinterpreting them. But also, I’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling and collaborating with other indigenous artists around the world.

I’ve collaborated with Aborigine artist named Richard Bell on the race issues in Australia. We collaborated on issues surrounding the 1968 Olympics. We’ve done a mural around that, and on Peter Norman, the white Aborigine artist who came in second in that race because [Bell] wanted me to collaborate with him on that particular project. It was trying to enlighten the people in Australia who didn’t know who [Norman] was or that he was from Australia. He was also in solidarity with John Carlos and Tommy Smith who put up the black power symbol at the 1968 Olympics and wore a sash [that said]: “Olympians for human rights” in solidarity with each other. That’s one of the things to bring attention to the many, many folks who didn’t know in Austrailia. We also did another one together dealing with peace and war.

What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
I hope my work will be enlightening, informing and educating people about the political and social issues of their concern—a guide to some type of positive, but constructive action that can help them be enlightened and thinking about change.

What advice would you give other designers and creatives?
Continue to be inspired. They have to know to put in the work. It’s hard work sometimes. But also enjoy it, what they’re doing. Sometimes it can be hard work, but they can have fun at the same time.

What advice would you give to other socially-conscious designers who are striving to make an impact and forward progress?
They have to stay informed. Don’t do it just for the fact that it’s a fun thing to do. Do it because it’s something relevant that needs to be done. Continue to understand the subject matter that you are trying to inform and enlighten [others] on, and enlighten yourself as you do the work. Know that there will be critics of your work. You’ll need to be able to explain it and accept the constructive evaluation that may come from it sometimes. If you need to make adjustments, make adjustments. You have to be able to articulate and express your work.

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Back in the 1960s, when you first started with the Black Power Program, what did the leaders say during that meeting to inspire you to use your art for social justice?
I was self-taught, but I went to City college of San Fransciso and took up commercial art. This was during the 60s, when the times were very tense. At the time, many African-Americans wished for self-determination and [the freedom to] define who they were, as opposed to being defined by someone else. When I got involved with the Black Panther Party, they were going to start the newspaper and they said they would make me the revolutionary artist. It was about telling our story from our perspective and our point of view. That was inspiring to me in regards to the fact they had a program dealing with social issues and social concerns, free programs, [and] free clinics. All those things were inspiring to me in relation to my contribution to the black party movement itself.­­

Learn more about Emory Douglas and the AIGA Medal here.

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