Black History of Design: Black Designers in Mass Media and Popular Culture



Part 3: 21st Century Legends

Before the advent of digitized media and the regular dissemination of information via the internet, designers relied heavily on printed matter in a bevy of forms to communicate. Whether it be through posters, print publications, or even something as dry as the Census form, Black designers have been there to shape our view of the world. In this installment of our series on the history of Black design, we will look at three designers whose impact on mass media is still felt today.

Movie Man Art Sims

Born in Detroit and raised amongst the sounds of Motown, graphic designer and art director Art Sims is one of entertainment’s most noted design talents. Beginning his career as an art director at Columbia Records during the summer before his last year at Michigan State University, he later graduated and moved to Los Angeles and EMI, though was let go after four years for pursuing freelance work. He established his design firm 11:24 Design Advertising alongside working at CBS Television, eventually moving to designing for the movie industry.

After the release of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, Sims pursued collaboration with Lee, resulting in some of his most well-known and iconic works. The pair shared a creative kinship in their focus on Black American stories, as well as confrontational approaches to dealing with race, history, and trauma.

For Lee, Sims would design posters for Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, He Got Game, Jungle Fever, and many others. These alone demonstrate the breadth of Sims’ eye.

A Black man holds a pizza box at right, and a white man stands with his arms crossed at left, both looking at the viewer. A Black child writes with chalk on the ground, which is part of the movie's title.
Poster for Do the Right Thing, designed by Art Sims, 1989

In an online lecture while discussing the images Sims created for Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, design anthropologist Dr. Dori Tunstall asserted, “These posters are important because they establish two dimensions of what could be defined as a hip-hop aesthetic infused in graphic design. The Do the Right Thing poster evokes the light, saturated color palette aligned with the music videos of TLC or the fashion brand Cross Colors. The dark and stark graphics of the Malcolm X poster evokes a blacked-out militant aesthetic of Public Enemy, which Spike Lee lampoons actually in his movie Bamboozled.”

A silver X filling a black background. At the middle base is a smaller text that reads, "November."

Poster for Malcolm X, designed by Art Sims, 1992

In an article for Cooper Union, graphic designer, academic, and curator Jerome Harris broke down the typography-focused Malcolm X poster, a work he calls a departure for Sims — who would often utilize photography of a movie’s cast — and trends in ‘90s Hollywood movie posters at large. Interpreting Sims’ choice in typography, Harris connects the large slab serif X to turn-of-the-19th-century Egyptomania and the typeface family also referred to as “Egyptian.” Harris points out that the smaller opening date at bottom center is in Caslon, the first typeface used to letterpress the Declaration of Independence.

“This document has a complex history, as it celebrated America’s independence from Britain, while many African-Americans were still enslaved,” Harris writes. “The placement of the large ‘Egyptian’ X over small type in Caslon evokes the Black Separatist and Supremacist sentiments of Malcolm X’s agenda — all of this while utilizing the device, X, that detached him from his slave-owner given surname.”

A Black hand and a white hand with red painted nails hold each other. The title "Jungle Fever" is printed across the fingers.

Poster for Jungle Fever, designed by Art Sims, 1991

On the influence of race on his work Sims has said, “I love doing work for and about African Americans. I feel I am reshaping history to show our beauty.” Sims also reckons with history, drawing attention to its ugliness as well.

The poster for Bamboozled would be Sims and Lee’s most stirring collaboration, with its intentional use of the racist stereotype of the pickaninny. The film is a satire which critiques the marketability of minstrelsy in entertainment. While touring an exhibition of his posters at his alma mater, Michigan State University, Sims recounted that the poster provoked outrage, even getting the attention of a Los Angeles-based group from the Nation of Islam demanding a boycott of the movie. Sims said he went on to do interviews about the work and suggested that all changed once the public recognized that the poster was created by a Black artist. “We are not just trying to upset people,” Sims said. “This is about what really happened in America.”

A Black man wearing sunglasses and a beret smokes a cigarette and holds a gun pointed downward in the foreground. Three smaller scale men are placed under him.

Poster for New Jack City, designed by Art Sims, 1991

A Black man and a Black woman kissing while they both hodl up a basketball.

Poster for Love & Basketball, designed by Art Sims, 2000

A illustrated silhouette of a woman in profile sitting on a rocking chair.

Poster for The Color Purple, designed by Art Sims, 1985

Beyond his creative partnership with Spike Lee, Sims has also notably created images for The Color Purple, Black Panther, Love & Basketball, and New Jack City. He's been honored by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures by having four of his classic movie posters added to their collection. Sims continues to work, telling the America Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) in 2015 that retirement is not in the cards for him. “If I'm on this earth, I'm going to be doing something expressive, or creative, and I'm going to be giving back. You won't see Art Sims lying on the beach with a mint julep, pondering his life. There's too much to do.”

Typographic Champion Gail Anderson

A legend in editorial and entertainment design, Gail Anderson’s first design projects were self-made magazines featuring The Partridge Family and The Jackson 5. They were crafted in the spirit of teen magazines like 16 and Spec, Anderson’s favorites, with “kissable centerfolds” and bearing content like, “Donny or Michael? Who do you luv?” This early work would chart a course for Anderson’s career in graphic design, focusing on art and pop culture. She would even design a Rolling Stone cover featuring Michael Jackson himself.

Anderson studied at the School of Visual Art (SVA) under Paula Scher, one of the most noted women graphic designers working today, and would later return as a teacher, overseeing the in-house design studio.

After school, Anderson held positions at the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine and the Penguin Random House imprint, Vintage Books. In 1987, she began working at the iconic Rolling Stone, shifting through a host of positions, including associate art director, deputy art director, and finally, as the magazine’s senior art director. It was here that she came to push her love for typography into an ever more expressive and experimental way.

Page one places a spoon with pasta letters reading "AL PACINO" above a shallow bowl. Page two shows a close up portrait of a white man in black and white. Rolling Stone magazine spread featuring Al Pacino, designed by Gail Anderson (Art director: Fred Woodward), 1996

Page one features tiles that spell out "The Next Queen of Soul." Page two shows a woman singing in an urban scene with her fits raised slightly.

Rolling Stone magazine spread featuring Alicia Keys, designed by Gail Anderson (Art director: Fred Woodward), 2001

Her colleague and coauthor Steve Heller would write on her time at Rolling Stone: “She fine-tuned her typographic expressionism in a cramped office filled floor to ceiling with all kinds of stimulating scraps, devising quirky letterforms out of traditional and untraditional materials, from hot metal and wood type to twigs and bottle caps.”

Anderson worked at the magazine for fifteen years, cultivating a body of work that would influence countless designers. Her interest in ornamental and woodblock type would earn her a reputation for “theatrical typography.” This description became literally realized while Anderson worked as the creative director of design at SpotCo, a New York ad agency that creates artwork for Broadway and institutional theater.

A closeup of a pink humanlike puppet with pink skin, cleavage, and a nameplate necklace. The puppets eyes are not visible.

SpotCo Broadway theater poster for Avenue Q, designed by Gail Anderson, 2003

Designing for theatergoers required of Anderson a prolific creativity and detachment from outcome. “After about seven designs, you realize there really are infinite ways to look at a problem. I now completely enjoy the process, though I'm keenly aware that all but one of those dozen great ideas will eventually be killed,” Anderson told Heller. “It's strangely liberating.”

With artist and art director Joe Newton, she launched Anderson Newton Design in 2012 — “a small agency dedicated to sophisticated yet playful design, with a focus on typography.”

A postage stamp with the text "Henceforward Shall Be Free Emancipation Proclamation Abraham Lincoln 1863 Forever USA" 150th Anniversary Emancipation Proclamation postage stamp, designed by Gail Anderson and Antonio Alcala, 2013

In 2013, Anderson designed the 150th Anniversary Emancipation Proclamation postage stamp

with AIGA DC Fellow Antonio Alcala, which sold 50,000,000 copies. She also became the Design Subcommittee Chair on the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee for the United States Postal Service.

A book cover with swirling yellow type on the image of a blue box, resembling the packaging of a pasta box.

Outside the Box by Gail Anderson, 2015

She authored the book Outside the Box, an illustrated international survey of hand-drawn packaging, and has been the co-author of 12 books on design, typography, and popular culture with Steven Heller.

Anderson holds lifetime achievement awards from both AIGA and Cooper Hewitt, the first African-American and third woman recipient of the latter. She continues to work as a designer and educator, with no intention of stopping soon. She spoke to AIGA about the expansion of the design industry, its greater visibility, and social implications. “[Designers] are decision makers in the boardroom, and entrepreneurs creating products and systems that affect lives,” she said. “Design can have tremendous social impact, and I think people are aware of its outreach in a way that they weren’t when I was starting out. Our tendrils are everywhere.”

Citizen Designer Sylvia Harris

The late Sylvia Harris is perhaps best known for her contributions as a “Citizen Designer,” someone whose work was deeply connected with practical applications of design to problem solve for real people. In an essay commemorating her posthumous 2014 AIGA medal, former colleague David Gibson suggested her interests were sparked early, being born in Richmond, Virginia in 1953. “As a young black woman in the South during the 1960s, she experienced desegregation firsthand and, in the process, gained a visceral understanding of how social systems affect people’s daily lives.”

Her undergraduate studies and early professional development were rife with prestigious designers, including AIGA medalists Phillip B. Meggs and Chris Pullman. Working with architects and in broadcast media gave her an expansive notion of what a graphic design practice could look like. After completing the master’s program at Yale University, she cofounded the design agency Two Twelve Associates in 1980 with classmates Gibson and Juanita Dugdale. Building a design practice would develop her skills, as well as her interest in human-centered design.

Gibson credits Harris with the development of the term “public information design,” a concept that would be a framework for the rest of her career. In tapping into the needs of the public, Harris also became part of a greater shift in design in general. Designer and Harris’ good friend Jessica Helfand suggests Harris was on the front of this shift.

“Two Twelve in general, and Sylvia in particular, were really the first people that I knew of in our profession who were asking questions that later would become known as part of a larger user-centric orientation in design,” she told AIGA.

A Citibank ATM, card, cash, bank statement collaged.

Designs for Citibank, Sylvia Harris

With human factors engineer and interaction designer Valerie Fenster and the Citibank ATM design team, Harris would create a groundbreaking user interface that included touch screen features and braille, and addressed customers with a personal human voice, asking “How may I help you?” These were the first cash machines to become ADA compliant once the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990.

Harris credited the project with teaching her about usability and the fundamental importance of a focus on people in the designing of tools and communications. Harris left Two Twelve to found Sylvia Harris LLC in 1994, where she shifted her focus to design planning and strategy for institutional and civic clients. In 2011 she fittingly rebranded her practice to be named Citizen Research & Design.

In 2000, as the creative director for the United States Census Bureau, Harris’ challenge was to encourage more Americans to participate — especially underrepresented demographics. In no small part due to her designs, census return rates increased for the first time in 30 years.

A semitransparent hand hovering over a form that reads "2000 U.S. Census."

Updated Design of the 2000 Census, designed by Sylvia Harris

Helfand said of Harris, “She not only saw that kind of thing as fun, she saw it as just a party waiting to happen.”

Voting by Design analysis, by Sylvia Harris, 2003

After the close margins in the 2000 election were credited in part to ballot design, AIGA put out a call to designers to propose solutions. Her poster “Voting By Design” analyzed the end-to-end voting experience from registration to exit polling, demonstrating the way good design could aid the democratic process.

In a written tribute after her death, Helfand wrote of Harris: “Her advocacy for democracy came from a profound desire to help people and to listen to them: she routinely shared epiphanies with me, following a trip or a conversation in what others might see as the most mundane of circumstances.”

Archival footage of Harris shows her underscoring her approach. “We don’t just go in the studio to design, we go out on the street, interact with people, bring them in, talk to them,” she said.

“Searching for a Black Aesthetic in American Graphic Design” as a path forward

The importance of Harris’ designs could continue at great length, but her contribution as an educator and advocate for Black graphic design is pivotal as well. In her brief but rich essay, “Searching for a Black Aesthetic in American Graphic Design,” Harris both interrogates the question of why the field is so lacking in Black designers and explores past aesthetic movements within Black American culture. Her articulations are striking in their clarity and potential to generate a path forward.

“Searching for a Black Aesthetic” has played a key role in this series, both for its highlighting of historic traditions, and providing an energizing framework with which to explore the history of Black graphic design. Harris recalls her own past in design school, noting the absence of other Black students, and suggests that twenty-five years later, as a teacher in universities, she has not witnessed much change. She posits that this breeds insecurity, which negatively affects performance, and ties this isolation to psychological obstacles that limit success.

“Lack of exposure to the prevailing aesthetic traditions also puts them at a disadvantage,” she writes. “This outsider posture leads many black designers to compulsively imitate and assimilate mainstream aesthetic traditions in order to feel accepted and be successful. More often than not, black designers and students are trapped in a strategy of imitation rather than innovation.”

She goes on to opine that a greater focus on Black design history has the potential to “nurture a new generation of designers.” And in order to hone in on a Black aesthetic, one should look at a wide variety of sources, not just at what is known or well-documented within the confines of graphic design. Her frame is prismatic and nods to the realities of diaspora beyond strictly defined forms.

“I believe that the building blocks of a black design aesthetic are scattered across many disciplines and will be found in unlikely places… We must also look outside design disciplines to the performing arts and to find arts movements, such as the Afri-Cobra, which have based visual explorations on African and jazz rhythms,” she writes. “We can study these disciplines for characteristic black expression (improvisation, distortion, polyrhythms, exaggeration, call and response) that can be translated into graphic form. Black design traditions must be pieced together from a variety of sources to make a complete canon of black expression.”

It is with this in mind that we hold the door open, pushing for an expansive notion of what design can be and keen to magnify a public knowledge of Black designers so that future generations can feel ever empowered and in the company of greats. The work to be done is endless, but so is its potential. May the path be lit by visionaries like Harris and design continue to be a tool for the people.

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