What drew you to the design field? Back in the late 1990s, my parents had a now-ancient Windows desktop PC tower, mostly for my dad to do his work on. Beyond drawing Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon a bunch, I used it to make and print random images on the stock desktop publishing program that came with the computer. My mother saw that I knew how to use the computer, and could make images, so she’d make me design flyers for family and church events. I still design for my mom now. So, I blame my career path on her. Once we got Photoshop, I began scanning pages from my comic books and adding every single filter to them. Characters from my two favorite comics, Gen¹³ and Battle Chasers, with a chrome filter applied, were just everything to little Jerome.
How has getting an MFA helped you? Grad school helped me wrangle all of my chaotic creative energy and apply it precisely where and when it was needed through image and type. I had also never thought of the act of design as a part of a research process, nor had I ever done so much research to create something as simple as a poster. Coming into the program, I had acuity with design software and a lot of ideas, but no real focus or dedicated purpose. I walked away with an MFA in graphic design, but I learned so many other transferable skills. I can’t speak for any of my other classmates because I was not coming from fine arts at all, and so it was—in Ariel’s singing voice—“a whole new world.”
How did you research to gain an understanding of the designers you featured in your exhibition As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes, and what in your research surprised you the most? I’m triggered! Not really, but I’ll say that I’m glad to be past the beginning stages of this project. I started with a list, compiled from many random sources that I’m not about to go further into. Then, before I even had the inclination to seek out archives, I honestly thought I was going to have to find these designers’ work in their family members’ basements around the country. But luckily, I did find some work at different archives across the country: Cornell University; University of Houston; The University of Chicago; the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus; the Smithsonian Archives of American Art; Cooper Hewitt; and then some random websites found during deep Google dives. I had to visit Chicago twice because there were so many designers active out there, and so much good work that had been produced. In my research, Chi-Town was the Black design Mecca. I think that was the most surprising part. Black designers need to make that pilgrimage. Digging through the archives in Chicago was truly mind-blowing. I saw that the last visitor to access work by Emmett McBain at the University of Illinois Chicago campus was the AIGA, actually. That was cool.
Beyond the research I’ve already completed, the work is not complete. Thus the use of the word incomplete in my curatorial statement. I still have a list of designers whose work I need to locate and incorporate with the rest. For example, I have a Black Panther infographic—a calendar that tells when and how many Black people were shot by police in the 1970s. But I have no idea who designed it, and authorship is kind of key to the exhibition overall. So, yeah. There is work to be done.
How did you decide what made it into the exhibition? I was actually going to make a book. I still am, but my chair at MICA, Brockett Horne, suggested an exhibition. Because I enjoy being a beginner at things, I gladly took on the task. I did need help, and some of my brilliant and supportive friends advised me along the way. MICA curatorial MFA students Emilia Duno and Josh Gamma gave me advice on staying organized and designing exhibitions. Yale School of Medicine student Nientara Anderson helped edit my curatorial statement. My bestie, Avery Ware, who is an amazing writer, helped me with my statement and other writing throughout the process. I told design historian Robert Wiesenberger about my idea, and his critical questions helped me tighten up the design and conceptual framing of the exhibition.
How do you hope to see the ripple effects of your research? Here’s a short story: When I was completing my undergraduate studies at Temple University, I wanted to take design classes at Tyler School of Art as a communications major. I sent them my portfolio, which consisted of party flyers, and I was told that the work was not graphic design. I didn’t understand why. Years later, Allen Hori, one of my graduate professors at Yale, asks me in front of all my classmates during a crit, in response to work I had created about hip-hop dance: “Do you think you’re a better dancer or graphic designer?” This question was rude, and only reflected his unfamiliarity with the references within the work. In both of these situations, I also couldn’t defend myself and make a case about why my work looked the way it did. I then decided that I was never going to be put in that situation again. So, this research was really selfish. I, a Black man, wanted to provide actual receipts for other folks’ lack of understanding of Black aesthetics that are seemingly not recognized by art institutions and by faculty at these schools.
I don’t want any praise for selflessly sharing my selfish research. I’m a generous person in general. I do hope that more people take a self-validation journey and then make some new work. If you have an exhibition, let me get an invite. Share your sources, and let me respond to the work on my own. I hope that people are doing that with my work, and I want to do that more with the work of others. I also don’t want to be the Black mascot for Black graphic design. Everyone should find a moment in my research that they enjoy, and exploit the deep history and knowledge that each of these unsung designers have to offer the field.
How has being an educator influenced your work, and vice versa? Because I have to be critical of 30 to 40 students every day for four to five months at a time, I become one of my own students in my head when working on a project. My attention to detail as a designer has increased significantly since teaching. On the other end, I definitely show my students a wide range of references. My work is informed by a lot by things that are not graphic design. I bring this sensibility into the classroom, sharing professional design work, vernacular work, music videos, memes, music, podcasts, articles and much more. I like my students to dictate their own information overload, beyond Instagram and Tumblr, and allow that to embody itself through their work. I personally cannot design without a focused set of thoughts and information in my head.
What defines a strong design education today? I can’t answer that question; however, I can tell you what it’s not: Students making the things they’re going to make when they get hired at a 9 to 5. Students only learning modernist principles as the entirety of graphic design. Students not doing research. Students avoiding difficult subject matter in their work. Faculty telling students to not explore their individual interests or heritage for the sake of a beautiful portfolio piece. White faculty neglecting students of color the critique they deserve in the classroom.
I was shaking my head while writing this entire paragraph. I’m still doing it now.