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Celebrating America’s Pioneer Black Graphic Designers: Emmett McBain (1935 – 2012)

Renowned graphic designer, advertising revolutionary, and champion of black culture.


Born in Chicago in 1935, Emmett was a talented and dedicated artist from the get-go, attending summer art classes throughout his adolescence. Following high school, McBain studied Commercial Art at the American Academy of Art, whilst taking night classes at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Upon graduating, McBain landed his first job at Vince Cullers, America’s first black-owned advertising agency, marking the start of his inspiring career.

After spending only a year at Vince Cullers, McBain was hired as an Assistant Art Director at Playboy Records at the age of 22, and within a year he was promoted to Promotions Art Director. His album covers earned him worldwide acclaim and, by the age of 24, he had designed over 75 phenomenal covers for numerous famous artists and had established his own company McBain Associates. His album cover design for the Playboy Jazz All-stars, pictured below, won Billboard’s Album Cover of the Week.

Playboy Jazz All-Stars Album Cover

As Art Director at J. Walter Thompson, McBain worked on the campaign launch of the Ford Mustang. Although immensely successful, the campaign did not feature a single black person. McBain ultimately returned to Vince Cullers in 1968, where he began concentrating on championing the black community. It was during this time that he created his famous ‘Black is Beautiful’ advertisement for Vince Cullers, pictured below.

This activism became an integral part of McBain’s work. Black people and black culture were at the centre of his designs, leading many to refer to his work as “art with social direction”. Emmett is credited with the idea of “positive realism” in advertising directed at African Americans, wherein he placed positive images of black communities at the forefront of his work. Depicting everyday people embracing themselves and their culture. Much more than just an advertising approach, this provided black people with positive representation and a sense of empowerment, creating a resoundingly positive impact on the black community.

“Black is Beautiful” Vince Cullers Advertisement

After many successful years in the industry, designing everything from album covers to cosmetic campaigns, McBain cofounded Burrell McBain Incorporated with copywriting legend Tom Burrell. The firm became the US’s largest black-owned advertising agency, landing accounts with McDonald’s, Malboro, and Coca Cola. After leaving Burrell McBain in 1974, McBain focused his efforts on non-commercial causes for the public good. He founded The Black Eye, an art gallery and consultancy, that helped agencies connect with the black community. He also organized a series of initiatives with Beefeater gin, aimed at amplifying African American voices.

Although McBain’s work has been recognized by various esteemed institutes and societies, his art, activism and pioneering innovation in advertising is still not celebrated in proportion to his contributions. Below are some great resources where you can learn more about Emmett McBain and truly appreciate his meaningful role in American history this Black History Month.

Some of our favorite Emmett McBain pieces:

https://www.aiga.org/2017-aiga-medalist-emmett-mcbain

https://designobserver.com/feature/emmett-mcbain-art-direction-as-social-equity/39565

https://www.the-modernist.org/news/2020/7/21/emmett-mcbain-draft-in-progress

Designer, blogger, crafter & content creator. Follow @octanedesigns on IG