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Black History Month: Remembering Tony Gable

When I first left Richmond to go to college at the University of Washington (UW) on a basketball scholarship, my first, and only...

When I first left Richmond, I was headed to college at University of Washington (UW) on a basketball scholarship. My first, and only, ambition was to play professional basketball. I had it all figured out. I would go to UW and dominate the Pac 10 (Note: Pac 12 was Pac 10 back in my days). My mentality was like most young basketball high school preps who had some success, and was heavily recruited to play college ball.

But shortly after arriving at the University of Washington, 1 month into pre-season, I was declared a redshirt, and sat out the first year. Then the following year, I hardly played at all. This was a rude awakening for me. “What would I do”. I spent so much time getting to college, and now I had to face the reality that making it to the pros might not be feasible. At that point, I had to pick a major. I had no clue what I would do. I put so much time into basketball. Now, I had to find something else. I owed it to myself, my parents, and my friends who did not get this opportunity that included a free college education.

So, I went on a search for my life career–this is where everything changed. My mother and I looked through the school catalog and found graphic design, (well really my mother). My mother said “you like to draw, you should try graphic design”. So there I was, taking a graphic design course, despite not knowing about, or having ever heard of this profession before. I loved it! But, there was something missing, and even though I was new to design, it was so obvious to me there was a lack of Black folks!

Although I was the only black person in the class, my hunger for learning about design was satiated by interest and the need to create, all the time. But I knew something was missing. There is something about being in a foreign environment, particularly as someone experiencing something for the first time, that feels lonely, even though there are a lot of people around you, and they all support and love what you do.

When I met Tony …

One day, I was visiting an art store in the Central district, (black community in Seattle). To this day, I am not sure why I even walked into that art store. But what I left with, impacted my life, and to this day, I will never forget it. As I was looking around casually at the different art pieces, there was this one art piece that was designed on a poster. I was struck by this poster, so I asked the clerk ‘who designed it?’. He said, “Tony Gable. He is a local designer. He visits the shop all the time!”

“He became my inspiration, the reason why I stayed on the path of being a graphic designer.”

Because of my interest, I began asking the clerk more questions about Tony, like what other pieces did he have there, and how could I get a hold of him. The clerk saw how serious I was, and I guess he figured I wasn’t some crazy person, so he gave me a telephone number. Anxiously, I called right away, and from there I was able to meet Tony for the first time. I was so elated, I had someone else who I could talk to, and someone I could relate to. He became my inspiration, the reason why I stayed on the path of being a graphic designer.

Tony hosted a field trip for me during the first year I started Inneract Project in Seattle

Tony was a kind soul, someone I looked up to and aspired to be like. He was African American, a designer, and even more of an anomaly, he owned his own business! Tony even had a band, Tony Gable & 206, where he played percussion (he gave Kenny G his start!) He was an incredible dude. Because of him, I had a purpose in design. I knew right away that I would fit in as a black designer, regardless of the lack of black and brown faces around me.

Cold, Bold & Together, circa 1974/5, Tony Gable is in the back, at the very center next to Kenny G.

To Be Better
Over the years, Tony and I became really close. I would call him for advice, to vent about design, and even personal issues. Though he never said it directly, I saw him struggle to get big projects as an African American designer and a business owner—ones he was qualified for—I know he was bothered by this. Nonetheless, he would always encourage me to ‘be better’, to strive past being a successful designer, and to be the best. This became my mantra. I took this to heart and became engrossed in working myself to be the best. Working on anything I could, reading anything I could, to practice my craft. He was, and always will be a very important figure to me.

Representation Matters
I remember stalking him over some of the posters that he designed and the projects that came out of his office. My favorites were the Festival Sundiata, and the Malcolm X posters. To this day, I still have the Malcolm X poster. I never really knew how much of an impact Tony’s work had on my own work. One day I was preparing for a talk, and I started to look back at my career and the work that I had done. One thing I noticed was that two of my most impactful mentors Doug Wadden, and Tony Gable, were influencers of my work. Doug Wadden’s work was modern and clean. He used the grid with purpose—a formula that was systematically organized and geometric. Tony Gable’s design work was a showcase of culture—whimsical, organic compositions with an appealing use of color. Tony’s work was an inspiration to me, it really showed me another side of design that I hadn’t been exposed to at design school.

Malcom X poster by Gable Design Group

Being African-American and understanding the cultural context of his work, it all felt really familiar. This is why, to this day, I am a proponent of using the knowledge and experience that I have to help people of color grow, not only professionally, but as people. Visual culture is a HUGE cultural force, one not to be taken lightly. It is the reason why we need diverse minds in design. Visual representation defines our understanding of what ideals are part of our daily lives, good and bad. These ideals shape what people think represents us (or not).

Poster design by Gable Design Group

While I was playing basketball in Europe, I had many conversations with fellow teammates that had certain assumptions about African Americans, based on what they had read about, or seen on TV. Right or wrong as that may seem, the more damaging side to this was and is that a majority of those depictions that represent ideals of African American people are not controlled by African Americans. Therefore, only a fraction of what we are about is reflected, and usually on the negative. Aesthetics, in general, represents the very things that shape and give meaning to the next generation. Since visual messages through media are programmed in our heads, we have a lot of reprogramming to do. Mentorship and professional support is extremely important, and I believe the support we get as professionals is valuable, but it really needs to start at a young age.

To Give Back
What I learned from Tony was the importance of being a black graphic designer, and the impact we have on other generations of designers of color. Tony gave me this understanding, not through his words, but through his actions, just being himself, staying true. I am forever indebted to him—he never had to help me. He could’ve just connected with me every once in a while, and then went about his business. He was a busy guy, juggling his own design business and music career, yet he still made time for me, and answered my questions.

The last time I spoke to Tony was many years ago. When I met with him last, I was done with graduate school and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I spoke to him about places I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing with my career. I was torn because I really did not have many contacts. He was on the HOW DESIGN editorial board at that time, and connected me to Kit Hinrichs of Pentagram Design. That connection proved to be one of the most important in my design career, and although I did not get the job with Kit at that time, I eventually did get a job working with him.

If you have been to Seattle, you will see his work everywhere. Tony designed the logo for King County Metro.

In remembrance of Tony, he was an extremely exceptional guy. I feel very blessed to have known him, and will never forget him. His life service and dedication towards his work, and willingness to help me succeed will never be forgotten. If you have ever known Tony Gable, you can agree with me on this. He paved the way for me, and because of that I will do my best to pave the way for as many people of color as I possibly can. It is such an important thing to do, and what he gave to me I hope someday I will be able to honor his name by doing all I can to inspire others. Tony may your soul rest in peace.