Charlene Prempeh, the writer and founder of multidisciplinary agency A Vibe Called Tech, has a question for the public: “You’ve seen their work – but have you seen them?” She is referring to Black designers, whose influence on the industry and, by extension, wider culture has been dramatically understated.
Her new book, Now You See Me: An Introduction to 100 Years of Black Design, seeks to redress the imbalance in the global design canon and expose wider audiences to the “forgotten Black creatives in architecture, graphic design, and fashion”.
The relationship between design and Black experiences is more widely discussed today (Prempeh’s book joins several other titles published this month that touch on this subject, including Racism Untaught and An Anthology of Blackness). However, as she points out, graphic design is still somewhat opaque compared to other creative disciplines, not least because as a field, it is both “ubiquitous and unknown”.
Prempeh draws on the stories of influential (if underappreciated) figures to examine the complex experiences faced by many Black designers, from gatekeeping and erasure – which she suggests stems from a colonial mindset – to the sometimes complicated embrace of Black creativity by white brands or institutions.
This also includes looking at the canon through an intersectional lens; for example, in a chapter examining the breadth of Zelda Wynn Jones’ work, she notes that Black women have rarely been celebrated as polymaths compared to their male counterparts. However, alongside accounts of past and present injustices are calls for optimism and celebration.
Among the graphic artists and designers featured in the book are Emory Douglas, known for applying his creativity to activist and political causes, namely the Black Panther Party, and Emmett McBain, whose career in communication design coalesced with what writer Avinash Rajagopal describes as “the golden age of Black consumer consciousness”.
McBain, like film poster artist and Spike Lee collaborator Art Sims, paved the way for “less hackneyed presentation of Black people today”, as Prempeh puts it. The book also delves into the work of prominent cartoonists, from the 20th-century illustrator Jackie Ormes to Liz Montague, currently working with the New Yorker.
Now You See Me brings plenty of other prolific designers into the spotlight, but as Prempeh emphasises, it isn’t designed to be a “comprehensive survey” – simply a (very necessary) introduction.
Now You See Me: An Introduction to 100 Years of Black Design by Charlene Prempeh is published by Prestel; prestel.com