5 Influential African American Designers

With February being Black History Month, I felt like it was the perfect time to learn about the contributions and the success of African American designers in the industry. Here at RSD design is our passion and we love getting the chance to inspire others to create more amazing work. So keep reading to check out some of the most influential black designers from the early 1900’s to now. Ready?Let's start with Charles Dawson.

Charles Dawson

Charles was born in 1899, and started to become more well known between the 1920’s-30’s for the illustrated advertisements he made. He was most well known for the advertising

Charles Dawson

of beauty products and black artists. What people don’t know is that he paved the way for students that came after his time to have a chance to pursue their passions. He was the first black student to be admitted to the Art Students League in New York. There he became a founding member of the Arts and Letters Society, which is the first black artist collective in Chicago. In 1919 he began working for Chicago Engravers and left 3 years later to be a freelancer. Charles and other alumni ofthe Institute established the Chicago Art League, an exhibiting group for black artists. For most of the 1930s, Dawson worked for Valmour Products. In 1944, he became the curator for both the Museum of Negro Art & Culture and the George Washington Carver Museum, where he was until he retired in 1951.

Aaron Douglas

Aaron, like Charles, was also born in 1899. Differing from Charles, Aaron’s contributions to the Harlem Renaissance helped move the art style forward. He took the geometric shapes of Art Deco, the linear rhythm of Art Louveau and the traditions of African art and created something amazing and entirely new. In 1924 he started to apprentice for Winold Reiss in New York. He designed magazine covers for Opportunity, The Crisis, FIRE!! And Harlem. This quickly made Aaron become a highly sought-after cover illustrator, mainly among black writers. He didn’t stop there, he continued to help build the Harlem community, making several murals including the popular Aspects of Negro Life. Later, in 1938, he moved to Tennessee to found the art department at Fisk University. He chaired the department for almost 3 decades and retired in 1966.

african american graphic designers

Leroy Winbush

Leroy Winbush

Let's move on to Leroy. He was born a little later, in 1915. Leroy was one of the most ambitious people I have ever heard of. It took Leroy 11 YEARS before he was finally accepted as the first ever black member of the Art Directors Club of Chicago, but only took him 5 short years to snatch the president position in the club. He started designing in 1936, only one year after high school. He apprenticed making signage, murals, and flyers. When he joined the sign shop at Goldblatt's department store, he was the only black employee. Seven years later, he was the company's Art Director, overseeing a staff of 60 people. In 1945 he moved on to start his own design firm, Winbush Associates. His career had many highlights including:In 1959, he was the chairman of the International Design Conference in Aspen.In 1964, he helped design Illinois' exhibit for the World's Fair, including an animatronic Abe Lincoln that became the prototype for Disney's Hall of Presidents.In 1985, he helped design an underwater coral reef in the Living Seas pavilion at EPCOT.

Thomas Miller

Thomas Miller

Thomas Miller was born in 1920. He graduated from the Ray-Vogue College of Design in 1950, as the institution's only black student. Not long after that, he was one of two to be accepted into the Society of Typographic Art. Miller spent decades as a highly recognized commercial designer. After working for Gerstel/Loeff, he joined the international design firm Morton Goldsholl Associates, he worked there for 35 years on large ad campaigns, such as 7-Up's major redesign in the 1970s. Even when he wasn't working, Miller still did his own thing, creating oil paintingsand monotypes in his signature style. One of his most well-known projects can be seen today in the DuSable Museum of African American History: where he created mosaic portraits of the museum's eight founders.

Emmett McBain

Emmett McBain

A graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology, Emmett McBain (born in 1935) also studied at the Ray-Vogue College of Design as well as the American Academy of Art. He went on to become a designer for Vince Cullers and Associates, the first black-owned ad agency. But, as you can probably guess, that wasn’t the last time he was a pioneer in African-American advertising. McBain enjoyed a varied design career, from being Playboy's promotional art director to designing album covers for Mercury Records. He worked for J. Walter Thompson and Associates, where he took part in Ford's 1964 campaign to introduce the Mustang. In 1971, Emmett partnered with Tom Burrell to form Burrell McBain Inc. This ad agency pioneered advertising to African-American markets and introduced corporations to the concept that "black people are not dark-skinned white people." Their campaigns recognized and emphasized the demographic and cultural differences that had been previously ignored in mass media. Though the agency is still around today as Burrell Communications Group, McBain left in 1974 to pursue art and support black artistry.