Field Notes: Emory Douglas

by Kristy Tillman
In light of all the buzz about newly released documentary The Black Power Mixtape, I thought it would be fitting to highlight Emory Douglas. Douglas was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party and the force behind the extremely effective and prolific graphic communications pieces of the Black Panther party, most notably the BPP's newspaper. Douglas was trained as an artist designer at the City College of San Francisco. It was there he received foundational lessons on typography and image making. He credits his time there as essential to learning to make messages with meaning. He would eventually come to offer his design skills to the BPP around 1967 after a meeting with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and becoming an official member. He has a secure place on my all time top 5 favorite designers list. Douglasʼ work exemplifies the notion of design for social impact employing human centered design principles at their barest essence. He truly designed with, not for. 

The potent and often very literal images created by Douglas were expressly designed to carry the message of the BPP while contending with the high illiteracy rates in the communities they served. Douglas became a master of distilling often complex messages down into digestible easily understood visual “sound” bytes. This functional aspect undergirded every piece and served to propel the message of the BPP. By the 1970s the newspaper reached hundreds of thousands across the United States. 

He also employed a variety of very cost effective techniques in his work including mimeographs, photostats, lithographs, screentones and offset printing. Douglas did not allow the confines of traditionally low resolution techniques to become a stumbling block for creating images. He effectively used the inherent benefits of the technologies to his advantage.

Douglas continues to work as a graphic artist in San Francisco lending his legendary talent to causes in social justice such as black on black crime and HIV/AIDs issues.

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