The Black Experience in Graphic Design (1968)
Updated: Jul 9
By Dorothy Jackson
Five talented black designers candidly discuss the frustrations and opportunities in a field where “flesh-colored” means pink.
[Editor's Note: Read a 2020 update of this piece here.]
The graphics industry is constantly seeking fresh talent. Where does the black designer fit into this search? In a field where talent is the prime prerequisite, are black designers’ abilities being sought and developed?
The fact is, of course, that there are still just a relatively few black designers in the field. Perhaps this is due to poor quality of training, lack of perseverance (some just give up), discrimination, frustration, or lack of opportunity. The black designers whose opinions are presented here feel it is a combination of these factors, and more.
Yet the very existence of even these few designers would indicate that it is possible for young black people to receive adequate training in the design profession, even though the subsequent route to satisfactory employment may be circuitous, frustrating and sometimes stifling to a budding creative talent. Bill Howell, for example, remembers that he had to secure his first job via the intervention of the N.A.A.C.P. William Wacasey, faced some time ago with segregation in southern schools, studied art and advertising by means of correspondence courses; after graduating from high school, he went on to art school in Chicago and Detroit. Dorothy Hayes says, “I do not think that I have ever experienced so much discouragement and suppression of black artists in art instructors treat the black student as though he were some out-and-out freak and a tremendous threat to the instructor, when all the student is trying to do is develop talent.”
However talented he may be, the job-seeking black designer still runs into such embarrassing, if not humiliating, situations as being asked to do “brain-picking” homework, or, as Wacasey recalls, arriving to keep an appointment with an art direction and “having the receptionist hand me a package because she thought I was a delivery boy.”
To counter the effect of such situations, Alex Walker (one of the few black studio owner-operators in New York) ruefully advises the design school hopeful who is about to “offer him or herself to the graphic arts would to do so with the eyes wide open, plenty of Excedrin and a degree in another field—just in case.” Many black graphic arts students do, in fact, minor in education while getting their BA, and after long, fruitless periods of seeking design work that suits them, eventually give up and go into teaching.
But this is by no means always the case. Bill Howell is among those who persisted in the field, with no intention of giving up. His first job when he go out of art school required him to do the usual apprentice work—mechanicals and flapping and labeling finished art—a job which gave him useful experience in the basics of advertising design. Also, in delivering jobs to clients, he was afforded valuable exposure to the field.
Two years elapsed before Alex Walker found his first design job, after attending Pratt Institute at night. To fill the void, he became a freelance silkscreen film cutter. When that elusive first job did come, it was with a studio.
The gap between the black designer’s first job and his first creative position is considerable. Dorothy Hayes relates that “I was employed by a well-known broadcasting company and led to believe that I would hold a design position, yet I was never allowed to do anything but non-creative work. I was frankly told that my employment was simply a form of tokenism.”
Tokenism is still the order of the day in the graphic arts industry (having replaced a routine refusal or a smiling “I’ll call you”). However, there are signs that conditions are changing: advertising agencies in particular show a greater willingness to open up their bullpens to more black designers.
Poster for Pamoja Gallery designed by Bill Howell
There are certainly many more black art directors in agencies now than there were five or ten years ago. Then, there were so few that their numbers were statistically insignificant. Today, black designers constitute perhaps one or two per cent of the total—not exactly an overwhelming percentage. In an advertising agency employing approximately 40 art directors, one can expect that about one to three will be black. However, in an agency employing 200-300 art directors, you will usually find the same one to three who are black. Also, the salary of the black art director is far less ($2000 to $5000 less) than that of a white art director at the same level.
Futhermore, as Bill Howell points out, “The majority of black people who work as designers at advertising agencies never get to see the white clients. A black art director friend of mine had been working on a particular account for some time, but the client didn’t know he was black because all transactions had been conducted by telephone. When he appeared in person one day to revise a mechanical, the representatives of the company were genuinely shocked.”
With his sights set on on accumulating enough experience to ready himself for the hoped-for art director’s job, the black designer often sidetracks into freelance work; a few black designers in New York have sidetracked prematurely, opening up their own design studios. This was the case with William Wacasey. who worked his way through the usual channels of lettering and display man for retail outlets and packaging/product designer for an industrial design firm before opening Wacasey Associates—New York’s first black-owned design studio—only to discover initially that “because I was black I tended to get the smaller jobs or those with practically no budget.”
Top: Symbol for Island Record Co. Designed by Alex Walker; Bottom: Symbol sketch for Product Engineering magazine (unused)
Alex Walker opened his own design studio last year, after leaving a position with a studio which he had help for 13 years. This long stay with one firm is not unusual; when a black designer gets a job in the design field, he tends to keep it, knowing there is not an over-abundance of positions available to him. Looking back on his own experience, Walker states, “Unusually long periods of employment at one job tend to hamper one’s creative process. Most white designers who eventually become award-winning art directors or make lots of money spent short periods of time in various studios and agencies. With each move, their knowledge, contacts, and usually their income increased. This is one modus operandi that has left the black designer in the dust.” One reason black designers don’t move around more is that they lack the all-important contacts in the field through whom job openings are referred. In his anxiety simply to get any work in the field, a black designer may get tied down to a department store or supermarket advertising department. Stuck in this backwater, he never gets to meet people in the mainstream and thus is unable to find out what is expected of a designer in a large-agency art department.
Dorothy Hayes raises an interesting—if painful—point. “When I came to New York ten years ago I couldn’t find anybody black in the commercial art field. Finally, after I found a job on my own, I did start toencounter black people. But in the course of trying to develop my talent I found that if I went to them for some direction, they just wouldn’t give it. Nobody wanted to take the time to show or tell me anything. I vowed then that if I made it I would never turn my back on any black person who came to me for advice and information and who really wanted to learn.” GAP (Group for Advertising Progress), a recently formed black organization, has been trying to alleviate this very problem by pooling members’ contacts in the advertising field and making the information at their disposal generally available to blacks. While GAP does not see its function as that of an employment agency, it has been successful in locating positions for several black art directors.
Dorothy Akubuiro, who now has a satisfying position in the art department of R. R. Bowker Company, states, “If I were to relate my earlier experience, it would probably reflect great bitterness—the bitterness being a result of three quite restricted years in the field . . . of being unable to do what I really wanted to do—creative work.” The job at Bowker, says Miss Akubuiro, “has been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I’m given quite a lot of freedom in my designing, as well as the opportunity to pursue my special interest, which is photography.”
Some black designers—Miss Hayes and Bill Howell among them—have never made a major swerve from a path that will directly prepare them for the job goal of art director. Both have held a variety of positions in which they were able to gain broad experience in all aspects of graphic design—in addition to doing a good bit of freelance work. At the same time, both strongly feel that the black designer should not be denied his blackness in order to operate successfully in the design world.
Type Talks cover designed by Dorothy Hayes
Black people are an integral part of the American social and economic scene—on all levels. They read Harper’s Bazaar as well as Ebony; they shop on Fifth Avenue as well as 125th Street; they buy the same furniture and groceries and lingerie and toothpaste as whites, to the tune of $4.32 billion per year. Despite this, Hayes and Howell contend, the advertising industry is geared almost exclusively to white attitudes and standards, white concepts of beauty, white modes of fashion. “Black mannequins and models and flesh-colored skin tones in shades of brown instead of shades of pink are rarely seen in an ad campaign,” Howell points out, “unless it is for a predominately black market—or when the ad relates to jazz or other ‘ black’ music.” Adds Miss Hayes: “Black male models are seldom used in TV commercials; female models are used somewhat more frequently. When black models are seen, it is usually fora split second only. The angle is often blurred, the composition unflattering.”
Black designers, Hayes and Howell feel, must push for a positive view of blacks in advertising, as well as for their appearance in advertising in proportion to their buying power.
But for black designers to exert this kind of influence requires that there be more of them in the field.
Whether or not their numbers do increase is, to some extent, up to those black designers who are already established black designers would seem to have a substantial stake in seeking out and encouraging these young people—guiding them when possible to situations where they can gain experience and exposure.
This can only be accomplished through direct, personal involvement—involvement such as Alex Walker’s participation in Ogilvy & Mather’s program for training minority youth interested in entering the advertising field. In this program the novice serves a six-month apprenticeship in Walker Studios, then goes into the agency as an assistant art director.
Regrettably, involvement of this kind by established black art directors in agencies occurs infrequently. In fact, young black freelancers trying to get a foothold in the field often find themselves hindered by the noncommittal, indifferent attitudes of black art directors and account executives who, though in a position to give them work, do not. (Since opening his studio, Walker reports, he has received but one referral to a national account by a black agency executive.)
Aside from their Madison Avenue involvements, a number of talented black designers are directing their creative energies toward the black community itself, in an effort to communicate the black ethnic heritage as a specific cultural entity. One such designer is Bill Howell, who has found the experience to be enormously rewarding in that it provides him the opportunity for total design freedom, and also “permits me to meet some great people.” Howell recently joined WEUSI (which means “blackness” in Swahili), an organization of black artists in Harlem. The group, which in 1963 mounted Harlem’s first outdoor art exhibit, is now working to gather and exhibit ethnic art in the community.
In assessing the black designer’s chances for achieving a satisfying career in the graphic design field, one must state that his chances are considerably better today than they were a few years ago. Every time a black designer gets a good creative job, his presence and talent serves to open the field further for other blacks—provided the established designer is willing to share his experience with talented but uninformed black youth, as well as with black designers on their way up (as we have seen, this willingness to share to share is not always forthcoming).
Design is a functional entity. There is no such thing as “black design,” only design by a black person. The problem—for everyone—is to get more black people into positions where they can make their own unique contribution as designers.
TW A ad. Agency: Foote, Cone & Belding; art director: Clyde Baris; designer: William Wacasey
House ads for R. R. Bowker Co. Art director/designer: Dorothy Akubuiro