The OGs of African American Graphic Design

Seaberry Design Image The O.G.'s of graphic design

Diversity is often missing from the annals of history. People of color and women, the invisible trailblazers whose talents and accomplishments have shaped our world, too often go unrecognized, though their impacts are felt throughout history and they should be acknowledged. 

With this in mind, for Black History Month we’re excited to highlight some of the African American creatives and artists who have shaped the field of design, branding and advertising. These are just a few of the many…

Charles Dawson (1889 - 1981)

Murray’s pomade, the hair care product in an iconic bright orange tin, is one of the world’s leading hair pomades — used by A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Timberlake — Its original design was created by our first designer, Charles Dawson.

Dawson, a printmaker, illustrator and graphic designer, was one of the leading black artists and designers of the 1920s and 30s.  He was the first African American to be admitted into the Arts Students league of New York, and attended the Art Institute of Chicago where he became a founding member of the first black artists collective, The Arts and Letters Collective.

As a graphic designer he is best known for his illustrated advertisements for beauty schools and products for Annie Malone’s Poro College and Valmor Products, which were targeted to black consumers. He also took part in two different Works Progress Administration programs, under Roosevelt’s New Deal, including the National Youth Administration where he designed the layout for the American Negro Exposition, a piece composed of 20 dioramas showcasing African American history.



Aaron Douglas (1899 - 1979)

Aaron Douglas was an African-American painter and graphic artist who played a leading role in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s.

Sometimes referred to as the “father of Black American art,” Douglas contributed illustrations to Opportunity, the National Urban League's magazine, and to The Crisis, put out by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In the 1920s, with his growing reputation for creating compelling graphics, Douglas received a commission to illustrate an anthology of philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke's work, entitled The New Negro and became an in-demand illustrator for many writers. Some of his most famous illustration projects include his images for James Weldon Johnson's poetic work, God's Trombone (1927), and Paul Morand's Black Magic (1929). Douglass is said to have pioneered the African-American modernist movement — combining a modern aesthetic with ancient African art.

In his later years, Aaron Douglas received countless honors for his work. In 1963, he was invited by President John F. Kennedy to attend a celebration of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, held at the White House. He also earned an honorary doctorate from Fisk University, where he taught and established the Carl Van Vechten Gallery of Art.


Georg Olden (1920 - 1975)

Georg Olden helped to create the visual identities of some of film and televisions most iconic programs. We’re talking Gunsmoke, I love Lucy, and Lassie to name a few.

Olden began his career in graphic design during World War II when he went to work for the Office of Strategic Services. There he published cartoons in National CIO News, The New Yorker, and Esquire.

After the war, Olden took a job working at CBS. One of the first African Americans to work in television, He’s credited with growing their on air art division from a one-man operation involved with six programs a week, to a staff of 14 in charge of 60 weekly shows.

An AIGA Medal winner, Olden not only served as a VP Senior Art director at the major firm McCann Erickson, he was also the first African American to design a postage stamp for the United States Postal Service. The design commemorated the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation with a simple graphic of a broken chain in black on a blue background. The iconic image is still used and referenced by designers all over the world today.






Thomas Miller (1920 - 2012)

Thomas Miller was a pioneering graphic designer and visual artist in the 1960s and 70s and is considered the first African American to break into the mainstream profession of graphic artist.

Miller made his mark as a key designer for Morton Goldsholl Associates, the internationally renowned design firm, where he led multiple identity redesigns for well-known brands like the Peace Corps, Bauer & Black and more. He designed Motorola’s batwing “M” in the 60s, and 7UP’s famous bubble formation logo in the 70s.

Miller worked on logo design, packaging, exhibition displays, stop-motion and video animation. He experimented with many techniques that are now staples of video production and digital graphics.

His best known publicly accessible work is a collection of mosaics of the founders of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, Illinois.







Sylvia Harris (1953 - 2011)

If you filled out a 2020 United States Census form then you have come in contact with Sylvia Harris’s work. Harris was an African American graphic designer and design strategist who is considered a pioneer in the field of social impact design.

As the founder and principle of Citizen Research & Design, Harris specialized in creating wayfinding graphics and improved communication in the public realm. Her company guided some of the nation’s largest hospitals, universities and civic agencies through systems planning, policy development and innovation management. In her role as creative director for the US Census Bureau’s Census 2000, Harris’ rebranding efforts helped to encourage previously under-represented citizens to participate.

Harris passed away unexpectedly in 2011. In 2014, she was posthumously awarded AIGA’s highest honor and most distinguished award, the AIGA Medal. Additionally, AIGA established the Sylvia Harris Citizen Design Award to honor her dedication to the field of social impact design.








Gail Anderson (1962 - )

Gail Anderson is most known for her 15 years worth of illustrations and typographic work for Rolling Stone Magazine where she held the title of Senior Art Director. Anderson’s passion for bold innovative design defined the magazine’s feature pages.

Her career has ranged from magazine design to teaching, packaging, writing, designing for academia and designing for the theater. In 2002 Anderson began working at SpotCo to create artwork for Broadway and off-Broadway plays. The Avenue Q subway-inspired puppet-fur logo that she designed became a core part of the play’s marketing.

In 2018 Harris became the first woman of color to be honored with the American National Design Awards’ Lifetime Achievement from the Smithsonian Design Museum.

Yet, despite her diverse career and numerous accomplishments, Anderson says her smallest project, designing the postage stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, is the one that makes her the proudest.