Expansion Set: Rewriting Black Design in America

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Processing (,.,.,.,.,.,.,) is a column by Rick Griffith. Check back every month for a new installment.

You may also listen to this piece in audio form, read by the author, here:

This episode of Processing (.,.,.,.,.,), “Expansion Set,” is dedicated to my mother, Eucline Griffith, who died last week—whose encouragement in all this weird design stuff was rivaled only by her example and her love.

For a moment, all time and space occurred simultaneously. (That’s just the way I like my brain—full.)

If you are a designer, design educator or abolitionist with design curiosity fighting back against any of the common challenges like depression or pandemic fatigue, and even the possibility that things are getting worse (instead of post-election-better), the month of January could have set your soul on fire. If you didn’t have a soul yet, during January you could have been given the opportunity to find one, bring it, test-drive it, and still have it burning hot by the end of the month.

The late Victor Margolin, who I had the pleasure to meet and know briefly, reminded us in 2001 that, “In Philip Meggs’ seminal History of Graphic Design, only one black designer, Georg Olden, is mentioned. And Olden did not appear until the third edition.”

So if you didn’t get a chance to participate in January’s BIPOC history class “Black Design in America: African Americans and the African Diaspora in Graphic Design,” researched, presented and co-authored by Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton, Pierre Bowins and Silas Munro, and organized by a nimble team at Polymode, you might have missed a moment in design history like few others. (E.g., “The ABCs of [Triangle Square Circle]: The Bauhaus and Design Theory” symposia at Cooper Union in 1991 from Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton, or “African-American Designers: The Chicago Experience Then and Now,” February 2000, from Margolin.) In “Black Design in America,” there was an academically focused reckoning in 13 chapters—or 13 openings in space-time, a rift that enlightened and inspired the participants and will probably inform generations of designers and design educators to come. In fact, it just might be the kind of elevating instrument to measure all capstone undergrad and graduate research against before students are released back into society as practitioners and/or teachers. It seems just that important.

From “Visualizing Black America” (left to right): Plate 25—Assessed Value of Household and Kitchen Furniture Owned by Georgia Negros. Plate 16—Negro Teachers in Georgia Public Schools. Plate 1—title plate The Georgia Negro. Plate 14—Illiteracy.

Through these various rifts, we learned about the young W.E.B. Du Bois and the all-Black–funded expedition to Paris to bring a body of work so advanced (for its time) that today’s data scientists would be scratching their heads wondering why, if Edward Tufte’s influence on data visualization is so comprehensive, how come in four books and two pamphlet essays over 20 years, I don’t remember seeing this?

In Arceneaux-Sutton’s presentation The Great Migration: Harlem Artists Guild, and the 306 Group, we learned about the Black Avant-Garde of the 1920s, and Louise E. Jefferson’s seminal book, The Decorative Arts of Africa, which suggests that her interest in African decorative arts informed her own considerable career as a designer dancing with her graphic invention around Art Deco, Deco Modern and the like.

Left to right: “Ebony” special issue: The Black Revolution, August 1969. “Unite (First State),” 1969 (screenprint), © Barbara Jones-Hogu (AfriCOBRA artist). Bookjacket for “The Story of the American Negro” (Friendship Press); design by Louise Jefferson; courtesy of the Amistad Research Center. Jacob Lawrence, “Migration Series: In the North the Negro Had Better Educational Facilities,” Panel 58.

Leaning into Chicago’s fertile post-WWII design scene, Chris Dingwall’s Black Revolutions: Organizing the Production of Black Design was a deep dive into the Johnson Publishing group, its flagship magazine Ebony and its contrasting relationship with the equally entrepreneurial AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), a Chicago group that made arguably some of the most beautiful things ever created as a means to build a grassroots, cooperative economy for disseminating Black design to everyday Black people completely autonomous from White-controlled markets.

Somewhere between Jon Key and Munro’s Black Queer Stories in Print: 19th Century to the Harlem Renaissance and Arceneaux-Sutton, Bowins and Munro’s exploration of Funk, Blaxploitation & Hip Hop Aesthetics is a dose of real design street cred if you want it. But you have to want it—and you have to recognize just how much Black creators were putting into the atmosphere at those times. You can’t deny it or unlearn it once you get it. You’ll probably find yourself surrounded by the evidence of Black brilliance (reality), and as you begin to peel back your Bauhaus Blinders™ and focus in a new way, you could stay open to find just one thing you didn’t expect—a Black design aesthetic, a Black design approach, Black Grid™ or just a type of visual jazz which is undeniably familiar and resilient, just like the people who made it.

Left to right: “Outrage” advertisement notice, Feb. 27, 1837. Buddy Esquire, Kips Bay Boys Club, Feb. 13, 1982 flyer, Cornell Hip Hop Collection. Front cover of “Fire!!” (1926), with artwork by Aaron Douglas; Harry Ransom Center; University of Texas, Austin. Placard stating “I AM A MAN” carried by Arthur J. Schmidt in 1968 Memphis March.

Both the audience and the many lecturers made space for the possibility that our predecessors didn’t just leave out BIPOC designers and creators from the history of graphic design, but also that there are entire narratives that have been distorted and technologies—written, spoken, visual, environmental—from the global South,
and particularly Africa, that have been either omitted or stolen or misfiled under the category of anthropological curiosity, illustrating the blindness of scholars through history to any kind of Black or indigenous wisdom that could be competitive with White, Western hegemony (which seems to go a long way in explaining how Black people have been so consistently marginalized and exploited). In many cases, it was easy to find evidence that would suggest that post-industrial Whiteness in America has been a type of intellectual and cultural manifest destiny informed by a deep belief in superiority, which just could not allow for Black intelligence to rise in any significant way, and explains why much Black intellectualism is still gated by White people whose protectionist instincts have already had the most damaging effect.

From “Afrikan Alphabets”: Shü-mom writing system invented by King Hjoya in 1896 (two of six versions developed over 30 years). At left: Lerawa neit. Middle: A Ka u Ku. These two versions show a transition from an elaborate script to a simplified cursive script. At right: A page of Shü-mom, Ibrahim Njoya, Pencil on paper (4.75 x 7.5″), courtesy of Bamum Palace Museum.

So many of the participants, talented scholars in their own right, agreed that there had been very little encouragement to rewrite design history, and so little existing scholarship to dissect and explore—a problem further compounded by recent (COVID-related) overworking and a lack of professional support and mentorship. Some had expressed that they felt (historically) discouraged from researching new trunks of design history. This is why even more gratitude is due towards this bold group of researchers, many of whom seem to all have three (or less) degrees of separation from the first speaker in the series, Saki Mafundikwa, the Zimbabwean designer and founder of ZIVA, the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts, who came from Africa to the U.S. in the late ’80s to study at Yale’s Graduate School and worked professionally in New York in the following years. He also authored the only book we know with an extensive history of African writing systems and syllabaries, Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika. I own this book, and it is not only an extraordinary document rich with examples of Afrikan art and culture, but also the histories of colonial oppression (and destruction), which explain why so many of these technologies have become hard to find.

There is a thesis here for the designer if they are paying attention: How the hell does a country concerned with freedom take (steal and profit) so much culturally from a group of people that it would seek to marginalize for hundreds of years? And that there is hardly a part of Black history that hasn’t been made into a commodity in American culture, and yet Black people have had so little to show for it in the area of prosperity, including what is only “good form” in the academy —credit and acknowledgment.

For the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the “Black Design in America” team offered a generous free lecture, Strikethrough: Typography Messages of Protest for Civil Rights, from Colette Gaiter, professor at the University of Delaware in Africana Studies and the Department of Art of Design, whose impeccable delivery and consistently thoughtful context to a familiar story was deeply moving on such an important day for reflection.

If you find yourself still asking “Where are the Black designers?” I would offer (for the second time) that they, we, are right here. Not plentiful in numbers or influence, but truly here. We are working, knowing that the work is its own reward and that we have reality on our side because it’s moments like this when—after the controversy clears—we show up to elevate those who came before us, to talk about how they made what they made, why they did what they did, how they suffered, studied and persevered to publish, create and contribute what we would eventually call the new history of graphic design. What I’ve nicknamed (a cycle of) Design History Futures.

There is more to come; this is a new template. Independent, entrepreneurial and exciting. Soon you’ll hear more LatinX design history, more Queer design history, and probably from more Black designers. This is just another beginning—and if you’re truly interested in Design History Futures, you can find it coming from a number of directions simultaneously.

If you want to know what is newly real and undisputed—that you may need to be aware of—here’s a short list; the rest is up to you.

  • Black (African) Technologies are real

  • Black (African) Writing Systems are centuries old and less governed by colonial maps but of tribal and cultural self-identification of African persons

  • Black (Ethno) mathematics is real (and real old, too).

From here you may find the invention of Black (Design) Grids. Which is to say—systems of concern, pointing to different priorities and hierarchies than you may be used to. You may also discover more gaps in the histories we have embraced, literary histories, and gaps in science and mathematics. Your journey is your own, but if you are curious, this is a good time for you because there’s a whole OLD world out there.

If you have to ask how? And where? I will point you to a reading list the length of your arm. Asynchronous viewing of the lectures mentioned above is available, including the free session from Gaiter. You can buy access to the individual recorded lectures or a (whole) class pass, all on a sliding scale. (Sign up here.)

If you find yourself enjoying it too, I suggest that you help other people get access to it in a similar way. Whether they are your employees, or partner, or high-school adjacent child, it’s great stuff, and until there is better and more, this is as good as it gets for people who care about design history.

The story of the Black designer in America is just getting started, especially if this approach to bringing the contributions of Black people to graphic design catches the wave it deserves.

Thanks for reading.

—Rick Griffith

Here is Victor Margolin’s 2001 article which really got me excited.

Here is the full reading list to accompany this article.

And if you like citizen-sourced and crowdsourced design history, try these on for size:

Rick Griffith produces a limited-edition print to accompany every issue of Processing (,.,.,.,.,.,.,). Get the latest here.