Leaving Their Mark – 3 Graphic Designers Who Changed the World

June 10, 2020

You likely already know this, but history taught in the US is extremely whitewashed. And, unsurprisingly, this means a lot of people get left out. In support of Black Lives Matter and the ongoing protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, I decided to do some digging into the influence of prominent African Americans in the field of graphic design.  

My chosen career field, like the history taught in most textbooks, is often whitewashed. The purpose of this post is to highlight the achievements of just a few African American artists who have left their indelible mark on the field of graphic design. 

Sylvia HarrisSylvia Harris (1953-2011) 

Sylvia was a graphic designer, teacher, and business woman. She hails from Richmond, VA (I did not know that!) and graduated with her BFA from VCU. Following graduation, Harris ended up in Boston where she discovered her passion for design, and eventually enrolled in Yale’s graphic design program, where she earned her Master’s.

After graduating from Yale, she partnered with two classmates and formed Two Twelve, a design firm where she was able to explore and grow her skillset to create large scale public information systems. Her work for Citibank was groundbreaking; she set an early precedent for human-centered automated customer service. 

Public information systems are extremely important, and I want to take a minute to point out why, as it really reveals a theme in Harris’s work and passion:

  1. PIS help break barriers such as time and physical movement to libraries to access information.
  2. PIS help manage information overload by making the information retrieval easier through a computerized system.
  3. PIS promote international harmony through a common language. Allowing people of different cultural backgrounds to easily communicate with one another facilitates the exchange of ideas. 

Harris also served as the Creative Director of the Census Bureau’s 2000 Census, where her rebranding efforts served to encourage and engage previously underrepresented citizens to participate. And indeed they did, drawing more participation than had previously been seen in a census. Not only that, but her logotype and graphic standards for this project remain in use today. 

Harris passed away in 2011, and is remembered for her unwavering desire to help others. But her story did not end with her death. In 2014 she was posthumously awarded the AIGA Medal, which is a highly prestigious award and top honor in the field of graphic arts. 

AIGA remembers her this way, “As a designer and a woman, Sylvia Harris always wanted to do the right thing, the smart thing, the thing that would make the biggest difference to the most people.”

Surely that makes her worthy of a top spot in the history books of graphic design. 



Charles DawsonCharles Dawson (1889-1981)

Charles Dawson was an influential Chicago designer in the 1920s & 1930s, an era that produced some of my favorite art & design. Dawson was the first African American to be admitted into the Arts Students League of New York. Unfortunately, he was met with pervasive racism and ultimately left when he was accepted to the Art Institute of Chicago. In his words, the AI of Chicago was “entirely free of bias” and it was there that he became heavily involved in student organizations. He was even a founding member of The Arts & Letters Collective, the first black artists’ collective in Chicago. 

After graduating in 1917, just weeks after the US became embroiled in WWI, Dawson was accepted for officer training in the segregated armed forces. 

After combat in France, Dawson returned to the US where, despite persistent racial inequality, he played a role in the cultural and economic rise of black people throughout the 1920s. He worked as a fine artist for two major black entrepreneurs of the time, Anthony Overton and Jesse Binga. These competitors owned banks, newspapers, life insurance companies, and manufactured beauty products. He is best known for his illustrated advertisements for beauty schools and his later work for Valmor Products.

the ABCs of Great NegroesThroughout his career, Dawson made many more powerful contributions to the efforts of black artists in Chicago to achieve recognition:

  • In 1924, he and two other alumni from the Art Institute of Chicago established the black exhibiting group, The Chicago Art League. 
  • In the 1930s he self published a children’s book, the ABCs of Great Negroes, a book containing stories and linoleum cut artwork of 26 significant historical men and women of African descent. 
  • In 1940, he was hired by the National Youth Administration and was asked to design the layout for the American Negro Exposition. Dawson designed within a space at the Chicago Coliseum and created magnificent iconography & 20 illustrations of and about African American history. 

Dawson retired in 1951, and eventually passed away in 1981. 



Emmett McBainEmmet McBain (1935-2012)

McBain was a pioneer in African American advertising, starting with his time working at Vince Cullers and Associates, the first black-owned ad agency. He had a diverse career, working as Playboy’s promotional art director, designing album covers for Mercury records, and even working for J. Walter Thompson and Associates where he worked on Ford’s 1964 campaign to introduce America to the Mustang (this was huge!). He also co-founded Burrell-McBain Advertising in 1971, but left 3 years later. 

black is beautifulUltimately though, he is probably most famous for his works from the height of the Civil Rights Movement. He returned to Vince Cullers Advertising and helped to make some of the boldest advertising of the day. According to Newcity.com, “McBain helped re-imagine national campaigns for a black audience, from Kent and Marlboro cigarettes to Beefeater Gin. He designed voting campaigns to encourage Black Americans to exercise their hard-won rights. McBain helped to bring the black identity into the homes and onto the televisions of all of America.” 

When McBain left advertising, he moved on to have a successful career as an artist. In 1996 he was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 2012. Before this, however, he was recognized by the AIGA, the Society of Typographic Arts, and the Art Directors Clubs of Chicago and Detroit. He also had his papers archived at the National Museum of American History. 



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Juliette Oliva, a drawing

About the Author

Juliette Oliva, partner and Creative Director of Pixelstrike Creative, combines her love of empathetic design with tactical know-how to help steer our ship. As Creative Director, Juliette has been the mastermind behind many of our print & web designs, even dabbling in animations, tattoo design, and comic strips. Juliette is also an animal whisperer. Not only has she given a comfy home to many dogs and cats, but we also once saw her catch a fly right out of the air!

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