During Black history month we like to reflect on and remember our great African American heroes who paved the way for those to follow. Heroes such as Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglas, George Washington Carver, Madame CJ Walker, Henry O. Tanner, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, Zora Neal Hurston, Louis Armstrong, Martin Luther King, and many, many more. African Americans have made major contributions to all walks of life. But, growing up I never once heard about a famous or notable black graphic designer. EVER! I thought that was pretty weird.
Growing up I heard about black doctors, black lawyers, black scientists, black businessmen, black inventors, black artists, black musicians, black athletes, black writers, and more. But, never a black graphic designer. “I guess I’m just gonna have to be the first.” I said to myself back in college. One day while frolicking on the AIGA website to see how useful and beneficial it really was (Sidenote: it’s pretty useful and depending on what you’re looking for it’s pretty beneficial, too.), I found the AIGA Medalist section. I got curious and started looking up some of my favorite designers. I looked up Milton Glaser. He was there. I found Saul Bass there, as well as Paul Rand. Then, I remember seeing a name. It stuck out. The name was Georg Olden. I remembered it because of the missing letter “e”, which I thought was a mistake originally. So, I clicked on the name see if the “e” would appear anywhere else in the article, because I was in the mood to get AIGA together with these typos!
Then, I saw his picture.
I was slightly stunned, yet intrigued.
“Is he Black?”, I asked myself.
He was. It felt as if I had found a hidden treasure. As if I found something that no one else knew about. Clearly, people know about him because he’s an AIGA metalist and on the website. But, I felt like I had discovered something for me and my people. Then, I started to get slightly upset because I felt as if I should’ve known about this guy by now.
Nonetheless, I immediately adopted him as my new hero. I started doing research on him and learning about his work, learning about his struggle, learning where he grew up, looking into his personal life. Everything. One fun fact that I learned about his life is that his sister, Sylvia Olden Lee, was a renowned musician and teacher. She’s credited as being the first person of color to work at the Metropolitan opera, which is where she coached many singers and helped bring about the appearances of both Marian Anderson and Robert Mcferrin, Sr.
Robert Mcferrin Sr. is The father of a Grammy award-winning vocalist Robert McFerrin Jr., a.k.a. Bobby McFerrin, a.k.a. my OTHER hero. I instantly connected to him even more!
In 1945, he took an executive position with CBS. That’s before Jackie Robinson played major-league baseball or Mary Anderson sang at the Metropolitan opera. He had BEEN making major moves. He pioneered the field of broadcast graphics, supervising the identities of programs like I Love Lucy, Lassie, and Gunsmoke. He also helped produce the vote-tallying scoreboard for the very first televised presidential election. I can go on and on, but if you want to know more about him you can check out his AIGA bio here.
Now, I was going to be a graphic designer regardless. I was going to make big moves for myself and my family through design. I was going to accomplish great things. And I was going to make a name for myself. However, learning about my unsung hero Georg Olden unconsciously gave me the permission to do those things even more. Thank you, Georg!
As the first black American to achieve an executive position with a major corporation, my goal was the same as that of Jackie Robinson in baseball: to achieve maximum respect and recognition by my peers, the industry and the public, thereby hopefully expanding acceptance of, and opportunities for, future black Americans in business.
Photos from AIGA Georg Olden Medalist Page.