Envisioning Blackness in American Graphic Design: Introduction

There are certain principles that define different aesthetics. One is psychological: the artist or individual perceptions of reality, how does this inform their work. The other is the philosophical: the study of how meaning or notions of beauty, art, and desire are associated as ‘collective truths.’ For the perspective of this thesis, my research reflects the philosophical ideals associated with Black culture. The philosophy of aesthetics expresses how the cultures see themselves–it’s presented within a system of elements that manifests itself visually. The visual style reflects ideals within a system and support guidelines for how that particular style should be presented.

Black culture has had a huge impact on the fertility and diversity of American culture. The Black struggle has evolved from the depths of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, to positions of leadership in the forefront of civic, urban and corporate America. Through mass media, Black people have introduced a unique cultural perspective that has cultivated an aesthetic in American society. As a method of communication, graphic design provides Blacks with the opportunity to improve the image of–and perhaps the self-concept of–the community by presenting these perspectives of African American life visually. However, within the history of graphic design to present day, the invisibility of Black designers has contributed to a virtually non-existent Black aesthetic. I argue that there could be a design aesthetic derived from principles and ideals Blacks express in the way they live. As a Black graphic designer, I am presented with a unique opportunity to investigate a Black aesthetic within mainstream graphic design and the mass media of American popular culture. In investigating the Black aesthetic within the discipline of graphic design, I seek to answer the following questions: (1) what is the history of the Black aesthetic–how has art been used to present Black imperatives, (2) what are some of the identifiers that define the Black aesthetic, (3) are there benefits of a cultural identity for Blacks entering graphic design, and (4) is there a Black aesthetic being used by the marketing departments and advertising agencies of major corporations?

By understanding the aesthetic values of Black culture, graphic designers have the potential for developing a Black aesthetic in graphic design that can be used for advancing the future identity of Blacks.

Graphic design can be used as an important tool. It can express and document African American imperatives, giving presence to Black people looking to connect dreams of success, equality, and progress in visual form. Design connects these values, and then manifests these ideals into real life application for public consumption. By understanding the aesthetic values of Black culture, graphic designers have the potential for developing a Black aesthetic in graphic design that can be used for advancing the future identity of Blacks.

I think it is important to note that there is a dilemma in searching for the Black aesthetic in graphic design. On one hand, I see the value of identifying and creating a Black presence in graphic design for Black audiences–and especially to youth–in reinforcing positive imagery. However, I am aware that the presence of a Black aesthetic in graphic design can be used to influence youth in a harmful ways: for example, the encouragement of negative spending habits and over- emphasis of the value of consumer culture to those who can’t really afford it.

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