Black Graphic Design History: Black Design is Beautiful
Welcome to the second blog post in a series highlighting key periods and individuals who have shaped contemporary understanding of Black graphic design and the field. Part one covered figures of the early 20th Century and the Harlem Renaissance. Follow the Adobe Express blog in the coming months for part three of our Black graphic design history.
Part 2: Civil Rights, the 1960s and 1970s
The Civil Rights Movement and the years that followed saw a profound shift in the representation of Black Americans — especially in art, design, and advertising. Black creators were instrumental in this, regardless of whether their perspective was commercial or more purely political. In this iteration of our Black History of Design series, we will look at three of the period’s notable contributors.
Emory Douglas’ revolutionary art
Emory Douglas was the Minister of Culture and Revolutionary Artist for the Black Panther Party, overseeing the art direction and production of The Black Panther, the party's official newspaper, from 1967 to its disbandment in the early 1980s.
Having spent much of his childhood in San Francisco, Douglas was introduced to graphic design through working at a print shop while in juvenile detention. Pursuing commercial art for its financial viability at the City College of San Francisco, he found that the industry typically rewarded a select few, especially white students with close ties to the commercial art industry. He became involved with the Black Panther Party at the age of 22, supporting the party’s visual identity through print despite limited resources.
Emory Douglas, The Black Panther, March 9, 1969
Emory Douglas, The Black Panther
In the 1960s, his images would often include Black revolutionaries wielding weapons, imagery which was in line with the political intent of the party. By designating Black people as revolutionary figures instead of victims, Douglas’ work harnessed the power of representation and was instrumental in the Panthers’ narrative-shifting struggle.
Emory Douglas, The Black Panther, November 8, 1969
Douglas’ style for the newspaper was striking and distinct, just like the messaging contained in his work. “To get that bold, broad look, I began to mimic woodcuts with markers and pens, playing with shadows and photographs,” Douglas notes, a medium which had historical precedence in other political, issue-focused art internationally. The Black Panthers could only afford single-color ink prints, so pages were often printed with black and one other color, emphasizing the vivid nature of Douglas’ designs.
In an interview in conjunction with receiving a medal from AIGA in 2015, he emphasized the importance of political art and using imagery to reach communities of limited literacy. His work served to inform Black people of issues in their own communities directly from a Black perspective. “We were creating a culture — a culture of resistance, a culture of defiance, and self-determination,” he told AIGA.
Emory Douglas, The Black Panther, July 25, 1970
The Black Panther would become the most widely read Black weekly newspaper from 1968-1971, with a circulation of over 300,000 copies across the United States, according to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. Given the FBI’s efforts to sabotage the Black Panthers, Douglas held a unique position as an artist whose work put him in danger. Due to the newspaper’s wide distribution and frequent governmental attempts at intervention, lawyers accompanied deliveries of the paper from the press to the airport.
Emory Douglas, The Black Panther, May 1, 1971
Emory Douglas, The Black Panther, April 10, 1971
As the party began to divide internally in the 1970s, the tactics and goals of the organization began to shift. The party put less emphasis on armed revolution and more on community organizing, such as the Free Breakfasts for Children program. Douglas’ illustrations changed as well, with a greater focus on political action in local government and social initiatives.
Emory Douglas, The Black Panther, October 4, 1971
Emory Douglas, The Black Panther, September 21, 1971
Douglas continues to work as an artist, mentor, and educator, collaborating with artists and activists across the globe. An instrumental figure behind the Black Panthers’ iconic imagery, Emory Douglas and his work transcend time and borders, as a part of the wider legacy of art against oppression.
- "Emory Douglas," Illustration History
- "Emory Douglas: A Revolutionary American Graphic Design Artist," Shillington
- "This Just In: Emory Douglas & The Black Panther," Letterform Archive
- “'Art Is a Powerful Tool': Emory Douglas and the Language of Revolution," MoMA
- "The Black Panthers’ Emory Douglas on the power of graphic design," Design Week
Archie Boston Jr.’s confrontational design
A provocateur in his own right, Archie Boston Jr. moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s to study graphic design at Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). After graduating with honors, Boston took a position as an art director at Hixson and Jorgensen Advertising. He left two years later to form Boston & Boston with his brother Brad.
Boston & Boston promotional poster, 1967
At Boston & Boston, Archie Boston Jr. made some of his most impactful work, using images that directly referenced race and slavery, as well as critiquing the entrenched racism of the design and advertising worlds. Self-promotional posters for the agency included images of the brothers wearing “FOR SALE” signs paired with physical statistics, tongue-in-cheek remarks (“Will steal art shows if set free!”), and their design specialties. Boston & Boston also printed a poster featuring Archie with his hands at his hips wearing a KKK robe, encouraging the viewer to contact the “BOSTON KLAN” for a “discriminating design organization.” These designs appear in stark black and white and lead with direct images, emphasizing the designers’ race and providing context for the agency, but with no further explanation — or excusing — of the weighty historical allusions. Boston has said that given the racism in their industry, the brothers chose the offensive rather than the defensive.
Boston & Boston promotional poster, 1966
“We just wanted to stand out and say, ‘Okay, here's some African American designers who want to work with you. If you don't like us, then get out of the way,” Boston said in an interview in conjunction with being awarded the AIGA medal in 2021. “There's somebody out there who wants to work with us. If you’re offended by my poster, then you're not the client that we want. We want a client that is progressive, a client that is open, and a client that is adventurous.”
Pentel ad, Archie Boston, 1971
Boston would build upon this provoking work after moving on to the ad agency Botsford-Ketchum, where he produced another iconic ad, this time for Pentel Pens in 1971. Placing himself at the center of the ad, the text above Boston reads, “I told Pentel what to do with their pens. And they did it.” The ad elaborates on the redesign of the pen, optimized for art directors. Not only does the ad center the art director — a figure seldom visible in the public presentation of their product — but it did so with a Black man claiming his own influence, subverting the power structures so deeply embedded in graphic design.
Promotional poster, Archie Boston
Concurrently with his work at Botsford-Ketchum, Boston started his own firm, Archie Boston Graphic Design. He promoted this firm with another provocation, an ad which featured him smirking under the header: “I don’t want to marry your daughter.” The accompanying text outlines his expertise, while taunting with a wink: “Who know[s], in a couple of years I may become available to take your daughter more seriously.” The ad seems to play on white anxiety that may have become more pronounced given the 1967 Supreme Court decision that made interracial marriage a constitutional right nationally.
Boston has continued to build upon his probing body of work. He self-published a memoir in 2001 titled Fly in the Buttermilk and created work for Black Lives Matter in 2020. Upon receiving his AIGA medal in 2021, he spoke to the design organization about his hopes that his success would bring about more acknowledgement for other Black designers. “The pendulum has swung all the way to the left and now it’s swinging to the right,” he said. “[The next generation] will be the ones who determine where that pendulum will go from here on in.”
- "2021 AIGA Medalist: Archie Boston, Jr.: Expanding Voice," AIGA
- "New Exhibit: 'No One Can Suppress Archie Boston,'" Duke Univeristy Libraries
- "Four Corners – an interview with Archie Boston," Design Week
Emmet McBain’s positive realism
Born in Chicago, Emmet McBain began his design career at Vince Cullers and Associates, the first Black-owned full-service advertising agency in 1957. The agency has been credited as setting the tone for Black-targeted advertising and was a training ground for new Black designers hoping to break into the industry. McBain’s work became associated with positive representations of Black people in advertising, created specifically for a Black audience.
Emmet McBain, Playboy Jazz All Stars album cover, 1958
Emmet McBain, The Jazztet and John Lewis album cover, 1961
At 22, McBain joined Playboy Records, eventually landing Billboard’s Album Cover of the Week with his design for Playboy Jazz All Stars in 1958. Many of his album covers for Playboy were for jazz albums, largely typography-focused, colorful, and often irregularly oriented, with an experimental attitude toward rhythm, as if imitating the improvisational manner of the genre itself.
Emmett McBain, Vince Cullers Advertising, Inc., 1968
McBain returned to Vince Cullers and Associates in 1968 and took on the agency’s first million-dollar campaign for Newport menthol cigarettes, specifically targeting a Black audience. Another noted work was “Black is Beautiful” for Vince Cullers. This ad riffed on common expressions that used “black” with largely negative connotations and ended with “white lies.”
Emmet McBain, Burrell McBain, Inc., 1971
In 1971, he co-founded the agency Burrell McBain with Tom Burrell. In a promotion for the agency, McBain asked, “What Color is Black?” with poetic text by Burrell McBain’s copy supervisor Barbara D. Mahone. In conversation with his “Black is Beautiful” ad, this promotion was typographically focused, graphic, and used wordplay to interrogate racism.
Emmett McBain for Marboro, Burrell McBain, Inc., 1972
Burrell McBain’s clients included Marlboro, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola, and eventually became the country’s largest Black-owned agency. Much of the work McBain created placed Black people as ad subjects, both elevating representation and more intentionally catering to a Black market.
Emmett McBain-designed campaign for Marlboro, Burrell McBain, 1972
Ben Counts, a longtime friend and founder of the Chicago-based agency Creative for Good, suggested to AIGA that McBain’s work brought forth “the concept of positive realism.” He said, “You can show people who are different than white people and yet have something kind of inherently noble about the lives that they create for themselves.”
Emmet McBain for Kent, Vince Cullers Advertising, 1969
Colorful photos of Black people, often appearing as if pulled straight from life gave visual substance to positive realism. Burrell recalled that he and McBain scouted real people for the way they represented Black beauty, not actors.
“Our work went on network television. What we were saying to Black people, we were saying to them in the presence of a white audience,” he noted. “That’s the thing that made a difference.”
Emmet McBain, McDonald’s advertisement, 1973
McGhee Williams Osse of Burell Communications asserted to Design Observer that McBain’s work cultivated social equity. “He was very much an enthusiast and advocate for the African-American community and culture,” she said. “Much of his work uplifted the community by reflecting the true identity of a people — whether on canvas or in national ads. His work was characterized by a freedom that lived boldly in his heart and which he wished upon all people of color and on humanity as a whole.”
McBain left Burrell McBain in 1974 and opened an art gallery and consultancy called The Black Eye, which advised ad agencies on creating stronger relationships with Black communities. His focus centered on non-commercial and community projects, including nationwide Black arts programs funded by Beefeater Gin and the reintegration of former inmates on Chicago’s Southside. Even after a 2007 stroke, he continued to create art, changing his processes and shifting to watercolor work. He passed away in 2012 and was awarded a posthumous AIGA medal in 2017.
- Emmet McBain | 2017 AIGA Medalist, Youtube
- "Emmet McBain: Pioneer in African American Advertising," American Academy of Art College
- "Emmett McBain: Art Direction as Social Equity," Design Observer
- "Emmet McBain: Black is Beautiful," The Modernist Magazine