Black Designers: Forward in Action (Part IV)
A look at where we’ve been, where we find ourselves in the present moment—and the brilliant Black designers carrying us into the future.
Editor’s Note: In 1987, Cheryl D. Holmes-Miller wrote the seminal “Black Designers: Missing in Action” for PRINT. In 2016, we commissioned her to write a follow-up, “Black Designers: Still Missing in Action?” Now, she completes her trilogy in a four-part final volume exploring the subject from its many angles as she passes the baton to the next generation of designers.
Dedicated to Dorothy E. Hayes
Part IV: The History of Black Graphic Design
Throughout this series, you’ve read essential, groundbreaking truths from some of the best minds in the field.
Here’s another: “It’s time for the design industry to redesign itself,” as Microsoft’s Albert Shum writes in his clarion call to decolonize the graphic canon. Shum’s Fast Company op-ed challenges us to consider the 100-year-old Bauhaus theories and typical primers to design education as just that—100 years old. Decolonizing design history and developing new theories for design education and practice truly require revisionist work.
In my stay-at-home seclusion, I realized that as a Baby Boomer, I have lived two thirds of this Bauhaus history. So on LinkedIn, I started posting “decolonizing graphic design history” tidbits: “Did you know Herb Lubalin organized an exhibition with Dorothy E. Hayes, Midcentury Black female designer, and Georg Olden, the famed ‘first Black art director,’ at 303 Gallery, NYC, in 1970?” I asked. Their “Black Artist in Graphic Communication” exhibition traveled to Rhode Island School of Design in April 1970 and presented the output of 49 practicing Black designers. As Florian Hardwig detailed, Wikipedia, meanwhile, declined Hayes’ bio as “about a person not shown to meet notability guidelines.”
Then I posted, with all respect, my “Where are the Black designers?” reflection on the passing of Milton Glaser. “Did you know Reynold Ruffins, Glaser’s founding partner at Push Pin, was a Black designer?”
Then I committed the ultimate sin: “Glaser doing Mahalia Jackson, really?” I challenged if anyone considered finding any of Hayes’ cadre of 49 practicing New York City designers of the era for this job and others. Three white men attacked me as disrespectful.
Finally, I ruffled the feathers of the elite at a recent Zoom conference, “The Future Must Be Different From the Past,” hosted by Chris Rudd.
“Take down the Paul Rand look,” I said. “It’s my confederate flag, my confederate statue.” The Helvetica, flush-left, rag-right grid bearing white space all around the page was the look of the oppressor. If you were a Black designer back in the day and you wanted to be employed by one of the established elite studios, well, good luck with that. The Swiss Grid system and Helvetica were the white male’s design gospel. The look screamed in my memory bank, you don’t belong here; even if you can design like us, we don’t want you! Every time I see “the look,” I feel the oppressor on my neck.
The needle can’t be moved without history and scholarship. We can’t decolonize design education without something to decolonize with. The challenge with Black design history online is that it has missing pieces; it’s missing important voices. Many of our stories are sealed away in card catalogs, our memory banks and our oral traditions. So many weren’t digitized and didn’t make the leap across the technological divide.
When I survey what’s available on the internet, I realize that we do the same thing the white community does—keep recycling the same design heroes over and over as if no one else was around.
Brandon Waybright is a designer and educator based outside of Portland, OR. He serves on the board of AIGA Portland and is currently working on a podcast, Full Bleed, “that explores narrative gaps in design history, education and practice.”
A major player in those gaps: the prevailing literature of the field.
“[Philip B.] Meggs’ History of Graphic Design remains one of the most-used textbooks on design history, yet it fails to represent the broad range of makers found throughout the world,” he says. “We need to uncover and elevate the stories that are missing from our history. A few things I noticed along the way: The POC count was mostly on account of a section on the Olympics and a section on ‘world design’ that mostly listed out designers with quick lists. Many women referenced were similarly treated with inclusion in short lists without any information. It felt in many places like the editors were simply trying to get more names in the text.”
You can’t decolonize design education without writing a new edition of Meggs’ History of Graphic Design that includes a global representation beyond 500+ white men. In design, we were raised on white fathers, little to no white mothers and a few others. It’s time to really look at ourselves and this industry, and the expired Enfamil baby food we were fed. I contend sophomore year design studies need to be completely overhauled with new decolonizing professors and decolonizing pedagogy. We may never be able to overhaul the entire system, but sophomore year is where you educate and train the new design voices who will not experience the disenfranchising drama of that Midcentury quandary: “Where are the Black designers?”
Old histories don’t have to reproduce old results; history doesn’t have to repeat itself. We can do this new thing, together. We need a new record of graphic design history.
One thing I know about Black designers: We keep fractals, ephemera; we stash notes passed to us, hoping one day they will be valuable information. We all have cabinets of folders full of our history. Trust me, I remember everything I ever knew about Black graphic designers. And so do my friends. So suppose we put everything we have and know in one place?
In 2018, I met Regina Lee Roberts, Stanford University’s librarian for Anthropology, Communication & Journalism, Feminist Studies & Lusophone Africa. She was helping scholar Michael Grant, then a John S. Knight Fellow at the school, now a teaching fellow at Google News Lab, locate my Pratt thesis for his scholar’s reading group. Seeking me for copyright permission, she also stumbled upon a cache of my legacy work. I saved everything—every letter, invoice, proposal, interview, article draft and, of course, all of my studio folders, chock full of design thinking, layouts as well as finished samples of everything.
Roberts wanted it all for several schools of research. As she detailed, “In my work as a librarian, it [is] important to me to look for collections that highlight the positive stories of women, and especially women of color, who have broken barriers through their hard work, expertise and talent.”
She ultimately crossed the country and spent nearly five days and four nights, working 12 hours a day, packing my archives up to ship back to California. A tractor trailer met us at the top of my cul-de-sac, and my life’s work went off into the future. The Cheryl D. Miller Collection at Stanford University was shipped off in the form of 50 boxes, representing 50 years of my professional career.
But it doesn’t stop there.
The Civil Rights Era, Black Lives Matter and the COVID-19 pandemic have shown how fragile life is and how short life can be. During this time, I realized that if all of my design friends and colleagues were to go to glory, our collective Black graphic design history would go to the grave. I called Roberts.
“What if I contacted all of my friends and ask them to donate to a collected body of work?” I asked. “We all have a piece of history on a notepad, a clipping, something we have saved. Suppose we all collected our personal research in one place as open-source research data?”
Regina caught the vision.
“That would be amazing!” she said.
Now, 40 Black design historians who have been colleagues are collaborators gifting research, including the Dorothy E. Hayes estate. The History of Black Graphic Design collection is real. Stanford University is gathering our entries now; they have the resources to create a searchable academic database for all. It will take time, but it’s real.
Aside: Where Are They Now?
Catching up with a trio of the creatives featured in Holmes-Miller’s original 1987 article, “Black Designers: Missing in Action” and the 2016 follow-up, “Black Designers: Still Missing in Action?”
Danita Thompson Albert
Albert is currently working as a freelance designer in Huntersville, a suburb of Charlotte, NC. Having left New York City, the Boston University alum is creating her “second act”—in professional space organization, where she uses design to create “order from chaos.”
Previously, Albert worked as art director and graphic designer for Cheryl D. Miller Design. During the transitional technology years, she is best known for setting up the Mac environment for the firm’s projects.
“I encourage all young designers within this digital age—of websites and apps, phones and tablets, which need to be coded with user experience in mind—to maintain your passion and love of the pure creative process,” she says. “Designers of color, we believe new opportunities will abound with this new order—this new normal. Be woke, and above all, have fun!”
Michelle René Cobb
Cobb, who served as the first Black female art director of Sports Illustrated, is Chair of the Studio Art Department at Georgetown Day School in Washington D.C. She has designed, developed and implemented fine arts and multicultural curriculum for studio art, graphic design, advanced painting and drawing, photography, ceramics, sculpture, film/video and printmaking. An acclaimed painter, she has served as artist-in-residence in numerous locales around the world, including Italy, Ghana and France.
Designing for Time Life Books, she foresaw the future of design and technology, which she captured in her 1977 MFA thesis at The George Washington University, “Automatic Page Make Up and Design.” Cobb says that the school didn’t believe her forecast to be valid—but after a nearly 30-year battle of appeals, she was awarded her degree.
“I encourage young designers to master the skills, develop a very strong work ethic, and use their talent to be an agent of cultural change,” she says. “I wasn’t always the best designer, but I was always the one who worked the hardest.”
Today, Porter is happily retired from her graphic design career at The Washington Post. She began her career in broadcast design with WJLA-TV and ad agencies, before spending decades in the newspaper industry. A graduate of Moore College of Art and Design, Porter is a prolific artist who has traveled the globe painting and experiencing world cultures. Paris is her favorite landscape, and her watercolor passport is filled with entries from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
“Seeing the world and experiencing it through my own eyes is important because of the idea of authentic impressions and my own perceptions,” she says. “It is truly the best life I can live. Now, folks, you must write your own script. Aim high!”
Knowing our history is extremely important. So here, I present the origin of the Black graphic designer in North America.
On Jan. 8, Steven Heller posted “The Printing Cut That Tore the Union Asunder” on Design Observer. Very informative article; after all, it’s a Heller Essay. In it, he featured images of “Runaway Slave” woodcuts. As he writes, “Could it be that the artists that made the cuts and editors that placed them in the newspaper had no idea how complicit they were?”
The featured woodcuts are circa 19th century—but the pre–type ornament history of this iconography goes back further.
“Well ’sah,” like Mommy would say, I know where these runaway slaves ran from, where they ran to, and where they ran through. The runaway slaves have now completed their design journey. How do I know this visual history? I grew up with them in my house!
My runaway slave Black graphic design history begins in the 17th- and 18th-century records of the Danish Ghanaian slave trade. My friend Enrique F. Corneiro is absolutely passionate about the history of The U.S. Virgin Islands. He recently published the visual collection Runaway Virgins: Danish West Indian Slave Ads, 1770–1848, in which we find pages and pages of ads seeking slaves who escaped and were running for their lives.
My maternal family is of indigenous Danish, Ghanaian creole descent; I am mixed by my grandfather, who was in the Filipino U.S. Navy, deployed to the Danish West Indies (DWI) during the 1917 purchase of the territory, now the U.S. Virgin Islands. Mommy, having come to the states to attend Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing at Howard University in 1942, was a true island woman, and we had tons of DWI ephemera in our home. All kinds of booklets, pamphlets, cookbooks, history books; my grandmother would send regular packages with all types of Virgin Island goodies, with newspapers and island collateral lining the boxes.
Your “Runaway Slave” may have originated anywhere in West Africa. Mine ran from Ghana, to Coral Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, stopping off and possibly being purchased there, but definitely somewhere on the East Coast.
In my BIPOC story, my family’s Ghanaian tribal chief was the leader of the St. John Slave Insurrection of 1733. Our tribe were artisans, ship builders, wood carvers and decorative coffin makers; we remain artisans today. Imagery like this “Runaway Slave” woodcut is inspired by Ashanti illustrations from Ghana. Having been sold to the Danes, that’s who this characterization is running from. So the Danes start placing ads looking for him. A Ghanaian diaspora of slaves worked for the Danish printers, engraving and typesetting. At his master’s instruction, the slave artisan was thus forced to create the woodcuts for adverts for escaped slaves.
In other words: The slave artisan was the first Black graphic designer. He eventually began designing in North America with his visual memory DNA from West Africa. The history of the Black graphic designer in American starts in 1770, the beginning of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
As James E. Newton writes in “Slave Artisans and Craftsmen: The Roots of Afro-American Art”:
Black printers were used for cutting woodblocks for block engravings necessary for publishing almanacs, pamphlets and newspapers. … Black artisans were also able to leave their imprint in the artistic crafts, as evidenced by the extensive use by masters of early newspaper advertisements used to alert the colonists of the special skills of individual slave craft workers and also to identify runaway slaves possessing specialized skills in the trades. … Slave art was an art of anonymity … an art descended from the remoteness of African imagery.
In The History of Printing in America (1810), a Boston printer named Thomas Fleet describes three Negroes who were “bred to press.” He credits his woodcuts to his slave artisan, an “ingenious man” who “cut, on wooden blocks, all the pictures which decorated the ballads and small books of his master.”
The examples are seeded throughout history’s pages.
As James A. Porter writes in his essay “Negro Craftsmen and Artists of Pre-Civil War Days” in The Other Slaves:
In early American newspapers we occasionally find specific reference to a slave’s talent for graphic expression, and even definite affirmation of his skill as a finished artisan.
In “The Negro Artisan,” edited by W.E.B. Du Bois and published in 1902, the author discusses the white man’s fear of competing with the Black man. The threat: taking food off of their tables. The fear of Caucasians losing opportunities is at the core of white supremacy. How many jobs could a white artisan potentially lose if the Negro artisan seized the opportunity first? How much can Black designers make now, if the white man’s goal was always to keep them from making money? The white man has been making money on Black graphic designers for a very long time—since the 1700s—and taking the credit.
And those fears even pre-date the Civil War. As Sterling D. Spero and Abram L. Harris write in their essay “The Slave Regime: Competition Between Negro and White Labor,” in The Other Slaves:
The fear of Negro competition among certain groups of white workmen in the North was so great as to lead them to oppose emancipation. In Pennsylvania race prejudice ran so high that the legislature was urged in 1860, on the very eve of the Civil War, to reenact the laws permitting Negro slavery.
W.L. Mackenzie King continues the thread in the 1897 piece “The International Typographical Union”:
At the conclusion of the great Civil War there was precipitated into the field of free labor a large population of emancipated slaves. Their long servitude had accustomed them to a species of oppression which was calculated to give the scantiest wage a fictitious value, and to make it appear in their eyes an ample reward for services rendered. This new class was now for the first time brought into competition with the great body of labor everywhere. Could it be effectually kept in subjection by having withheld from it the advantages which organized labor enjoyed? Thus reasoned the unions, and many decided to close their doors to the colored race—a policy of exclusion, and, as far as possible, of destruction also. But ere long it became evident that negro labor could not be thus ignored.
White folks feared competing with a new class of workers. Are things any different today? The literature suggests “Afro-American” “Negro” artists have been inspired by the slave designer, and they collectively keep the West African design heritage style alive. So many creatives today have taken their design cues from the slave artisan. To know your history is to know your future!
Independent scholar Phyllis Ross is working on a manuscript tentatively titled “The Fabric of Activism, Design Works,” about the Design Works studio and the career of Sherl Nero (see Aside below). As she details, “The recognition Sherl garnered as head designer at Design Works was in sharp contrast to her experience working on Seventh Avenue in fashion design. At Sinclair Mills, where she worked as an assistant designer in the early 1960s, only the head designer, Tom Brigance, received publicity; Sherl’s contribution remained anonymous.”
The Black designer’s work has long been revered, sought after, profitable—and it’s time for it to gross its full value. Always remember that white masters wanted Negro artisans to work for free.
Aside: A Black Female Textile Designer to Remember
Sherl Nero (1939–2006), born Shirley Annette Brower, was an African American fashion and textile designer who in 1971 became head of design at Design Works of Bedford-Stuyvesant—a Black-owned business that was part of the economic development program of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. The outreach project was launched by Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1967, and the community design project was the brainchild of textile designers Leslie and D.D. (Doris) Tillett, and Jaqueline Kennedy.
Design Works was a community-based design studio and production workshop focused on silk-screened fabric and licensing designs to manufacturers of consumer goods, from bed linens to clothing to ceramics. Located in the majority Black community of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Design Works was committed to an aesthetic program that took inspiration from African culture, and the flora and fauna of the African continent. Its output was often based on research gathered from Nero’s research trips to Benin, Nigeria, Ghana and Togo.
With the freedom to create meaningful designs that reached a broad base of consumers, Nero thrived in this setting. She used her tremendous knowledge of craft traditions and techniques, such as batik and block printing, to imbue mass-produced goods with the character of handcraft. With the national marketing of the Bakuba collection of sheets and towels for Martex in 1973, Nero and Design Works gained wide exposure. A graduate of Parsons School of Design, her professional papers are archived at The New School Library.
The Tilletts hailed from the George Tillett textile family of England. Jim Tillett established Tillett Gardens, St. Thomas U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1959, and now we find son Eric, along with Eric’s wife, Abby, once again establishing the family business after weathering the 2017 storm of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Aggie Toppins’ Eye On Design essay asks, “Can We Teach Graphic Design History Without the Cult of Hero Worship?” She pulls the cover back on the situation clearly:
Early design historians sought to promote graphic design as a profession. They wanted to distinguish it from commercial art or the printing industry. To do this, they created legacy histories with a cast of brilliant characters to inspire future generations.
I grew up through this era, which separated the “design thinking” buzzword process from the production process. It created the profession and moved it out from the trade unions.
Meanwhile, the trade unions were where Blacks were left, in the applied art room of drafting tables and T squares, cleaning up the printing press and printers’ ink and inhaling lacquer thinner without masks. As for the educational system: “The National Association of Schools of Art and Design—NASAD—started 1944, when accredited art schools started to separate the ‘elite’ design schools and separated BFA degrees from technical, vocational training in high school and associate degrees in community colleges,” design educator Kristina Lamour Sansone told me, as I filed it into the legacy chronology of white supremacy.
But out of the trade unions now, Black designers can be found soaring across every imaginable platform and subset of the industry. The 21st-century Black graphic designer hails from a fierce, robust cadre of professionals. When the oppressor pushes the oppressed, they become stronger, wiser, brighter, faster; the systemically racist DNA of graphic design’s history has pushed the Black graphic designer to respond with an unmeasurable level of excellence. Look at Exodus 1:12—the Pharaoh oppressed biblical Israel; they were afflicted, multiplied and grew.
“Where are the Black designers?”
We’re here, and we’ve been here all along. Found in action. Forward in action.
“Runaway Slave,” this is your history.
To the next generation of Black designers, I say: To live your life is your story; to live your life for others is your legacy. Leave a legacy.
As in all my writings, I leave you with the following quote:
“I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he [/she] has overcome while trying to succeed. Looked at from this standpoint, I almost reach the conclusion that often the Negro boy [/girl’s] birth and connection with an unpopular race is an advantage, so far as real life is concerned. With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his [/her] tasks even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition. But out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he [/she] is compelled to pass, he [/she] gets a strength, a conﬁdence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.” —Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington
If you missed the earlier installments of “Black Designers: Forward in Action,” catch up on Part I (“Where Are the Black Designers, They Asked?”), Part II (“Being Part of the Club”) and Part III (“Miseducation”).
Cheryl D. Holmes-Miller holds a master of science in communications design from the Pratt Institute, and a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, with foundational studies held at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her former business, Cheryl D. Miller Design Inc., serviced corporate communications to a Fortune 500 clientele. She has won countless awards from institutions and organizations including AIGA, The Art Directors Club, Desi Awards, Peabody Awards, Crystal Awards, the CEBA Award and more.
She further holds a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary, and attributes her design systematic liberation theology to being exposed to the liberation theories of Cornel West, James H. Cone, James Washington, Delores S. Williams and Katie Cannon.
For a guided tour of her portfolio, click here.
Holmes-Miller says she didn’t start working with PRINT 35 years ago when her first article was published—she started five decades ago as PRINT published Dorothy Jackson’s piece “The Black Experience in Graphic Design” featuring Dorothy E. Hayes in 1968. For a look at how PRINT became the first industry magazine to approach design and critical real-world issues in its editorial coverage, read Steven Heller’s piece “The Politics of PRINT,” published on the occasion of the magazine’s 75th anniversary.