Georg Olden: 10 things to know about
1. Regarded as one of the of the pioneering blacks in the advertising industry, Georg Olden was one of the last black professionals who gained his position in advertising before civil-rights groups and government organizations turned serious attention toward the industry.
2. The AIGA medal-winning graphic designer who worked in television and advertising was born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 13, 1920 as the grandson of a slave and the son of a Baptist preacher.
3. While working as a graphic designer for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the CIA, Olden worked for some of America's leading artists, designers and writers and made contacts that opened significant professional opportunities after the war.
4. After the World War II ended in 1945, the head of the OSS communications division, Colonel Lawrence W. Lowman became Vice President of CBS's television division. Searching for someone who “had a full grasp of the whole range of commercial-art techniques” Lowman chose Olden to head a staff of 14 in charge of 60 weekly shows. He was only 25 years old.
5. From 1945 to 1960, Olden worked with William Golden, art director for CBS, and as such was one of the first African-Americans to work in television.
During his tenure there Olden supervised the identities of programs such as I Love Lucy and Lassie and helped produce the vote-tallying scoreboard for the first televised presidential election returns.” It was during those years when he collaborated with iconic designers Ed Benguiat, Alex Steinweiss and Bob Gill. During that time Olden dropped the “e” from his first name in order to garner more attention and he “had the distinction of being one of the first blacks in an integrated advertisement. In 1951, he was featured in the ‘Men of Distinction’ series for Calvert Distillers.”
6. In 1960, Olden began to work in advertising and went on to design the Clio Award as well as receive seven of them. The same year he moved to BBDO as the TV group art supervisor and by 1963, he became the VP-senior art director at the major firm, McCann Erickson.
7. The first African-American to design a postage stamp for the United States Postal Service in 1963. His creation commemorated the centennial of the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation with a simple design of a broken chain in black on a blue background.
Olden attended a White House ceremony where his creation was introduced by President John F. Kennedy. JFK praised the stamp as “a reminder of the extraordinary actions in the past as well as the business of the future.”
The next year, Olden was one of seven individuals included at a dinner given by U.S. Representative to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson which honored “Negroes prominent in the economic world.” He was later given another opportunity to design a postage stamp in 1967 to commemorate the Voice of America.
8. In 1970, McCann Erickson laid him off with the reason being cited as the economic downturn of the time. Olden sued his former employer, McCann Erickson, for wrongful termination caused by discrimination. In 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found reasonable cause that the company practiced discriminatory hiring, but did not find reasonable cause on behalf of Olden.
After losing the case against the agency, Olden started a class-action lawsuit against McCann Erickson on behalf of himself and other blacks who were allegedly victims of discrimination.
He was shot to death, in Los Angeles in 1975, at the age of 54, allegedly by a live-in girlfriend who was arrested and tried a few days before the class action lawsuit was scheduled to begin. She pleaded not guilty and was acquitted in court.
As noted by AIGA's Julie Lasky, Olden supplied his own unconscious epitaph in a posthumous edition of Who's Who. “As the first black American to achieve an executive position with a major corporation, my goal was the same as that of Jackie Robinson in baseball” he wrote. “To achieve maximum respect and recognition by my peers, the industry and the public, thereby hopefully expanding acceptance of, and opportunities for, future black Americans in business.”
9. Olden’s legacy in terms of race remains mixed. “Despite his executive position and the mounting pressure on the advertising industry to increase the number of black employees, Olden was not involved in any efforts to increase the number of blacks in advertising. His record on racial progress is in some ways contradictory” writes Jason Chambers in his book Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African-Americans in the Advertising Industry. “On the one hand, he was involved with the Urban League, designing the organization's symbol of an equal sign on a black background. On the other, he argued that race was not the mitigating factor against success that others claimed” he notes.
“Acceptance is a matter of talent,” Olden told Ebony magazine in 1963. “In my work I've never felt like a Negro. Maybe I've been lucky.” His stance on race often earned him the description of being arrogant and detached. Yet as Chambers notes “Olden had few chances for error” as one of only 12 blacks during the 1940s at CBS -with all the others being porters.
10. Olden won first prize in the Cannes Film Festival in 1967 and he repeatedly won medals from the Art Directors Club of New York. He was listed among the top fifteen designers in the United States by Japanese magazine IDEA.
For more on Olden and his legacy listen to The Poster Boys' aka Brandon Schaefer and Sam Smith episode on him here.