Spencer Thornton Banks in St. Louis

A historical case study in the links between aesthetics and culture

Aggie Toppins
Associate Professor
Washington University in St. Louis

Spencer Thornton Banks (1912–1983), was a Black illustrator and graphic designer who practiced in St. Louis for over 50 years. His life and work were contextualized by significant social changes on a national level—the Great Migration, World War II, and Civil Rights—as well as a local level in a city deemed “The Broken Heart of America,” by historian Walter Johnson. The history of St. Louis is a story of racial segregation, removal, and abandonment. Banks’ aesthetic attests to empowerment and self-representation amidst urban decline. His comic strip “Pokenia,” which ran in the St. Louis Argus in 1939, is a rare example of a narrative about Black professional life, by a Black artist, published in a Black newspaper. Banks was also regularly commissioned to promote events, such as the National Negro Baseball League Championship and the Pine Street Y Circus, which were important to St. Louis’ Black community. This pecha kucha will present Banks’ oeuvre in the context of his time and place while exploring the way his forms expressed autonomy and self-respect.

A rarely discussed Black graphic artist of exceptional formal merit, Spencer Thornton Banks is a historical case study in the links between aesthetics and culture. His work has not been included in traditional design canons, in part because of historiographical bias, yet he coincided with a transitional and tumultuous time in St. Louis and national history. His unique approach to visual communication issued positive images of Black cultural life. This is a relevant topic in communication design in that it aims to expand the scope of historical knowledge through contributions from an underrepresented community while noting the concurrence of Banks’ celebratory representations with dominant narratives that evince mainstream racist ideology.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 7.2: 109th CAA Annual Conference on Wednesday, February 10, 2021.

Four Counter-Narratives for Graphic Design History

The potential for inclusivity and increased emphasis on social impact.

Augusta Rose Toppins
Associate Professor
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Most graphic design histories conform to a professionalized, Eurocentric narrative in which prominent works are progressively arranged along a timeline. While methodologies vary between Phillip Meggs’, Richard Hollis’, and Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish’s well-respected texts, these approaches share similarities that suggest a dominant narrative. In Thinking about History, Sara Maza wrote: “[T]he practice of history itself and the questions historians ask are transformed and renewed every time a new set of actors lays claim to its past.” In this Pecha Kucha, I will present four counter narratives for graphic design history that offer the potential for inclusivity and increased emphasis on social impact.

First, I will offer a Marxist counter-narrative in which the history of graphic design is told primarily through its relationship to labor and class struggle. Second, I will suggest a people’s history of graphic design, in which the counter-narrative is invested in graphic design as a universal human activity and a form of cultural production beyond the profession. Third, I will discuss decolonized counter-narratives, in which graphic design is delinked from its relationship to capitalism and legacies of Western centrality. Fourth, I will offer an intersectional counter-narrative in which gender politics and queer theory are integrated into the history of graphic design.

For each counter-narrative, I will share a methodology as well as design objects, ideas, processes, and/or texts that serve as examples. While none of these approaches will be exhaustively discussed in such a short presentation, my goal is to spark curiosity about the possibilities of shifting the conversation.

Image note: Lakota visual language, designed by Sadie Red Wing, 2016. Image courtesy of Sadie Red Wing.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 6.2: CAA 2020 Conference Chicago on February 14, 2020.