Imagine (or remember) yourself as an art director circa 1977. You receive a ledger-size poster bearing the portrait of a black man with a soft smile, one cheek resting against his hand. The headline, “Catch a nigger by the toe,” is followed by copy detailing the designer's experience and flexibility across several media, ending with the line, “Equal Opportunity Designer.” Meet Archie Boston and one his classic button-pushing self-promotions.
Knowing irreverence is one of the many tools in Archie Boston's creative arsenal. Indeed, Boston's multifaceted career—encompassing design, advertising and design education—demonstrates the adaptability and ambition that that mailer exalted. He admits he likes to test boundaries when possible, and thinks that politically correct self-censorship is a chief enemy of the visual communicator. Like much of the memorable, industry-altering print advertising of the 1960s, when he entered the trade, Boston's work could deploy the combined payload of a single image with a declarative, ironic headline. But largely unlike the graphic agitation of the era, his identity politics could be as puckish and self-aware as they were confrontational.
On overcoming racism:
I worked hard to become a good designer, so that I would get hired at a good design firm that places value on good work, and not the color of one's skin.
Boston was born in 1943, in Clewiston, Florida, the son of a sugar cane sharecropper father and a mother who kept house. The family then moved to St. Petersburg, where he and his five siblings grew up poor, but aware of the value of education. In 1961, his drawing and painting skills got him accepted into Chouinard Art Institute (soon to become CalArts), where his older brother Bradford attended and which he afforded with National Defense Student Loans. Restless and eager to impress his brother, who was already working as a commercial artist, Boston almost dropped out of college for a job in advertising. On Brad's advice he stayed on, but an internship at Carson/Roberts during his senior year solidified his desire. “The creative people were treated like they were the most important in the agency,” he wrote in his 2001 memoir, Fly in the Buttermilk. “I wanted to be one of them so bad I could taste it.”
Early on Boston bounced between design studios and advertising agencies, while also serving out his National Guard duty (he writes in his book that he joined the Reserve to avoid being sent to Vietnam, and found himself on the frontlines of the 1965 Watts riots at home). Though he and brother Brad had worked together before—notably on a series of posters for the Council on Negro Affairs in 1963—the pair formed Boston & Boston Design in 1967. They set their logotype in a typeface called Jim Crow. As a new firm courting companies that did not know what to make of this outgoing studio with African-American principals, they scrapped constantly for clients.
One lesson from design:
Design is hard work. Striving for design excellence is even harder.
After two years, Archie separated from his brother to return to advertising at Carson/Roberts, then the West Coast's largest independent agency, whose client roster included Max Factor and Mattel. In 1969 he took a job at Botsford Constantine and McCarthy, where he worked for eight years. Simultaneously he started Archie Boston Graphic Design, an advertising and design consultancy, but did not pursue his own client work in earnest until 1973.
For most of his career Boston has been a teacher. He began when he was 23, at Chouinard. In 1977, when he was 34, Boston became a full lecturer in the Department of Art at California State University Long Beach (CSULB). In 1978, he helped found the Design department and later the Visual Communication Design program. For the next 32 years, which included 12 terms as chair of that program, he made a significant impact on design education at the school. A former student remembers him as an instructor who combined nurturing encouragement with no-nonsense criticism. Mike Neal, CSULB class of 2005, credits Boston with solidifying his nascent impulse to pursue a design career: “There are people who command out of fear and others out of love and respect. Archie is the latter. If I did poorly on a project, I wasn't afraid of getting chewed out by him, but I was more concerned about letting him down.”
On being part of Design Journeys:
It is important for young designers to have role models of their so-called ethnicity. This gives them the feeling, “If he or she can become this, so can I.”
Through his art direction Boston internalized traits of the Big Idea-era of visual communication—as exemplified by Helmut Krone's legendary 1959 “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen, the style used corporate-looking layouts with a silhouetted photograph and bottom-weighted copy at the service of a trenchant message—and made them his own. He did so quite literally in a campaign he directed for the Japanese marker company Pentel using the headline: “I told Pentel what to do with their pens.” This novel ad included Boston himself, standing confidently in front of a new line of hard-tipped markers, and a message aimed at his art-directing peers. This approach had a strong collateral social component to it; as one of the few African Americans in the industry of the day, Boston's visual presence made a powerful and immediate impression, a sign that the professional demographic was undergoing a seismic shift.
Provocation and humor go hand-in-hand in Boston's portfolio. By combining both aspects he has created unparalleled pieces of visual communication that evoke racist history while subverting it too. Attention-grabbing pieces like that “Catch a nigger by the toe” mailer have been part of his repertoire from the start. As Boston & Boston he and Brad were strategic about pointing out their blackness, not only as a means of preempting surprises, but also as a platform to showing off their creativity and audacity. A 1966 poster shows Archie in a satin stars-and-stripes ensemble and top hat, pointing at the camera, with the headline “Uncle Tom Wants You!” The next year Archie and Brad produced one with them side by side, shirtless, each with a “For Sale” sign around their necks and a list of their measurements plus their merits and skills. Another declared, “I don't want to marry your daughter.” These are artifacts of an era where such promotion doubled as social critique, and in their brashness attempted to hasten society's acceptance of the shifting racial dynamic.
His favorite designer?
Changing perceptions about race takes perseverance, but Boston has always been enthusiastic about his role in the Los Angeles creative community. He was the first African American to be elected president of the Los Angeles Art Directors Club, where he served two terms. He also paid tribute to the Los Angeles design community in a series of video interviews called 20 Outstanding Los Angeles Designers, which he created while on sabbatical in 1986. Boston visited the studios of designers he admired, from heavyweights like Saul Bass to his former instructor Louis Danziger and digital avant-garde designer April Greiman. Twenty-one years later he released the videos on DVD, sharing these important documents of the creative scene to serve as inspiration for students. For his many contributions he was named a fellow by AIGA Los Angeles in 2007.
Boston retired from CSULB in late 2009, an event he commemorated in a video that he characteristically titled “Archie Boston's FU (Final University) Lecture.” At first he holds up his middle finger, but then puts all joking aside to detail his career and his influences, and to address the generation taking up the mantle: “I want to be remembered as a professor who cared about his students and did what he thought was best for them. I want to be remembered as someone who stood up against criticism and spoke out on controversial issues. And finally I want to be remembered as a designer and educator, someone who documented my experience as an African American.”