How design icon Archie Boston taught me to be fearless and authentic in my work
Half a century ago, Archie Boston – graphic designer and co-founder of Boston & Boston ad agency – shocked and provoked audiences with authentic portrayals of navigating adland as a Black man. From referencing the Ku Klux Klan to promote his agency, to persuading Pentel to create the world’s first chisel-tip pens, Boston’s groundbreaking body of work would later see him become the first Black president of the Art Directors Club of Los Angeles. Here, journalist and creative copywriter at NUFF SAID, Adefela Olowoselu, discusses the ways in which Boston’s work and career have impacted and informed her own, as well as sharing three main lessons inspired by Boston’s creative journey.
As I pursue a career in journalism, trying to understand the type of writer I want to be and whether it’s even necessary to define this has led to a lot of confusion. But coming across Archie Boston and his work showed me that I can create authentically in any space; and that it’s possible to reconcile all of my interests, rather than seeing them as independent of each other.
I found Archie Boston’s work while browsing Pinterest. In the midst of absent-minded scrolling, one graphic caught my eye, written in bold black letters: “I don’t want to marry your daughter.” Beneath was a Black man – Boston himself – with an afro and a coy smile; I was intrigued to find that the image was an advert for his design firm from the 1960s.
Boston entered the scene as a graphic designer with a controversial and unapologetic approach. Today, his emphasis on authenticity and creating from the heart makes him both a timeless and increasingly relevant design icon.
“Archie Boston’s career teaches me the possibility of standing out in an industry that feels overcrowded.”
With the excess of content available to us, Boston’s career teaches me the possibility of standing out in an industry that feels overcrowded. It was all about his mindset. That self-belief and attentiveness led to authentic work, which helped make him the first African American president of the Art Directors Club of Los Angeles, secured his position as a professor at California State University for over 30 years, and earned him “design pioneer” status with Graphic Design USA magazine.
His journey is a reminder that your challenges can become your power, and that creating fearlessly can help you navigate through the industry’s noise. So here are three lessons that the life and work of Archie Boston have taught me:
💡 Be provocative – attract attention!
The first major lesson I’ve taken from Boston is that to make room for ourselves in the industry, we must be provocative. With that, we must consider who and what we provoke. After all, we exist in spaces where provocation will expose ugly truths, while drawing attention to the beauty of our work.
For example, the creation of a film that exposes the systemic oppression of the working class in Britain through austerity is bound to provoke those who benefit from, or are largely unaffected by such a policy. Something like this will ruffle the right feathers and spark conversation about important issues in the process; there is no loss. So let’s start provoking!
One way Boston did this was through the promotion for his agency, Boston & Boston, which he founded with his brother, Bradford. The pair made a huge statement as they entered the design industry, using a typeface named ‘Jim Crow’ for their logo and releasing daring and thought-provoking self-promotional posters.
One 1966 poster depicts a Black man with his hands on his hips, wearing a robe that is near-identical to that of the KKK. The hood is lifted to show his face, with shadowed eyes piercing into the camera lens. Below it, the viewer is urged to call the ‘BOSTON KLAN’ for a “discriminating design organisation”.
This is classic Archie Boston. Given the references to the KKK, it’s unquestionable how much unease this advert caused. Yet this was his intention, as it aligns with a philosophy he expressed in a lecture at the Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography in October 2020: “First of all, I believe one has to get the attention of the viewer, whether it’s positive or negative. I always try to eventually turn a negative into a positive.” And in a Four Corners interview, Boston expresses that their intent was to be “provocative, memorable, daring and different.”
Released in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, the posters evoked events that were both traumatic and exclusive to the African American experience. They used this uncanny combination to their advantage, drawing attention to their work while igniting conversations about inclusivity in the design industry.
📣 Don’t let challenges silence you!
We often limit ourselves when we worry about how others will perceive us. We turn their opinions into the only thing that matters, since they will be consumers of our work. But Boston urges us to prioritise and create what we like. By fearlessly creating work that was true to his identity and experiences, he paved a way for himself in an industry that never saw him coming.
In his 2020 lecture, Boston explained that while he was working, many clients felt uncomfortable about working with African Americans – they perceived them as incapable of making noteworthy art. Yet he transformed this challenge into a power, as it meant that the clients who did work with him were open to his fearless approach. He said: “It opened the door to many unbiased clients who admired our courage and worked with us in spite of what others thought.”
Boston was also the inventor of a chisel-tip pen that you might be familiar with. In fact, he even advised stationery manufacturing company, Pentel, to adapt the shape of the tip. In his 1971 campaign for Pentel, he created a poster that read: “I told Pentel what to do with their pens. And they did it.” His own image featured in the ad, as he stared into the lens, commanding attention and remaining undeterred by how he would be perceived for boasting this achievement. The piece speaks for itself; whether audacious or irreverent, his daring approach is his power.
We are successful when we create fearlessly in the face of our challenges – never allowing misconceptions of our identities to stop us. This is where it’s worth asking yourself: will your existence challenge people to rethink their prejudices and assumptions?
💭 Connect with your ‘design spirituality’ and instinct
Boston’s work is guided by spirituality and instinct, and he shares that his intention is to “spread the gospel of design spirituality throughout the world”. He used a statement in his lecture to drive home some advice: “Don’t ignore your gut feeling. It is intangible, but if you close your eyes and listen, it can speak to you… I believe that inner-voice is your design spirituality. Embrace it.”
He has an unwavering desire to create, and allows his experiences to direct the expression of this. In an industry filled with millions of other designers, he cut through the noise with work that was true to his inner-world. This reminds me to check in with myself and ask: How can I let my gut feelings guide the way I develop my own work? Will this work provoke emotion in others?
Archie Boston’s career demonstrates the value of paying attention to your inner-voice, the importance of devaluing the perception of others and creating fearlessly. By provoking, repositioning challenges and tuning into your spirituality, it’s possible to be the author of truly authentic work and stand out from the crowd. Remember that no one will be able to make art the way that you do.
Written by Adefela Olowoselu