Cultural transmission has many layers. From language to dress to mores, every generation passes along moments and memories to their offspring, mementos that mark what it means to be a member of that tribe. One of the things that Steve Jones remembers most about his childhood were the smells. “It was definitely Little Jamaica in the house,” says Jones, who was born in North York, Ontario, to immigrants from the Caribbean island. The fragrant aromas of Jamaican dishes would flood his senses—and still do now when he visits his mother's house just south of Oakland, California, to partake in the mountains of food. Oxtail, curry goat, rice and peas, escovitch and, of course, plantains—flavors that not only fueled Jones' adolescence but became part of the script of his design philosophy. “You didn't appreciate it growing up but it was something that was always there,” he says.
Like many designers, Jones was attracted to images as a child. Raised by his mother, a schoolteacher, and his father, a financial planner, Jones was a big fan and collector of comics. He was weaned on the drawings of Marvel comics like the X-Men and Fantastic Four. In junior high school, he began drawing his own superheroes, often combining the superpowers of his favorite comic heroes into new characters. That pastiche approach predicted a later interest in the blend of styles found in graffiti. “Through high school I was thinking about being a dentist or something cheesy,” he says. “Because you figure that's what you should do.” But Jones' friends were trading their sketches during the day and sneaking out at night to hit abandoned train yards to throw up their pieces. Using the tag name “SABER”—not to be confused with the Los Angeles-based tagger of the same name—Jones found inspiration in places such as San Francisco's Psycho City, a collection of walls and buildings that had become a mecca for graffiti artists from around the world.
On the importance of design:
We live in a produced and designed world. Design is like air, no one realizes how vital it is to our survival unless it's gone.
Jones' love of graffiti, however, was not openly accepted at the California College of the Arts (CCA), where he studied to become a professional designer. “The art school model was pretty traditional, and it was unanimous that graffiti was a bad art,” he remembers. Favorite street artists like Crayone were hardly recognized by his professors, which frustrated Jones. He was passionate about the graffiti that he and his friends were creating, and to have his new educational environment dismiss his interests was disappointing. In fact, for Jones the dismissal of graffiti artists was emblematic of a larger issue at art school: the rampant dismissal of artists of color.
As a student, Jones faced consistent discrimination. One of his projects that reflected his heritage—a self-portrait featuring a figurative bridge between Jamaica and his life in the States—was poorly received by his instructors. “That was the first time I had a teacher tell me that what I created was not a valid artistic expression. It was ironic that it was up to us to define who we were and someone else is saying, 'You have to change yourself because I don't understand you.'” In an art history class, a professor chose only to discuss “important” artists and disregarded the contributions of minorities and women. In another, a teacher showed an old German poster to laud its design aesthetic and typography, but when German-speaking students pointed out that the words on the poster were racially charged, the teacher merely shrugged. “I remember that could have been a teaching moment, but he thought racism is dead so it wasn't worth discussing,” says Jones.
Of course, not all of Jones' experiences were quite so negative. One professor pointed him towards the artwork of Robert Colescott and Adrian Piper, whose approaches to identity politics would inspire him. (Jones also cites Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Michael Ray Charles and Kerry James Marshall as sources of inspiration.)
On his first big break:
After college, I faced the usual “How do I get experience if no one hires me?” Working at YSB magazine I learned about deadlines, working with text, imagery, writers, editors, photographers/artists, production, everything! I still use those skills today.
After graduation Jones began looking for work, and one project in particular opened his eyes to the influence of the African diaspora on design. After completing a design for a nightclub geared toward African Americans, he received some disappointing feedback. “I put all that design training to good use on the logo and my friend looked at it didn't know what it was,” Jones recalls. “I came out of art school, but if I can't communicate to folks that look like me, I was going to have a problem.”
Jones moved to Washington, D.C., and was hired as a designer for a magazine called YSB, which stood for Young Sisters and Brothers and was part of BET. Jones credits Lance Pettiford, YSB's art director, with giving him his first opportunity. In YSB's all-black art department, he thrived. “The work we were doing wasn't stereotypical. It wasn't just adinkra symbols and kente cloth. It was rewarding to do great work, and also be recognized by the Society of Publication Designers.”
It was at YSB that Jones started to question the idea of a black design aesthetic. “I don't think there's a singular black aesthetic, per se. I think of an aesthetic as a filter,” says Jones. “Growing up, reggae music was an example. There's a reggae version of every pop song, but I have yet to find that in African-American design.” Specifically, Jones doesn't believe that blackness can be codified in a rule set or script for designers to follow. “It's more than a language. African-American design evolved, for me, into issues of representation.”
Jones explored such issues of representation during his time at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he earned his master's degree with honors. One particular series blended the visual language of advertisements with provocative images of race and ethnicity. In one “ad,” the image used to promote Jim Beam was replaced with Charles Moore's iconic image of protesters being sprayed with water hoses during the 1963 Birmingham protests. “I wanted to deal with the issue of alcohol advertising in poor communities. I saw those billboards like an attack since you don't see malt liquor in rich neighborhoods.” Another of Jones' images took an old slavery poster and placed NBA players in it to juxtapose the sale of human beings in two different contexts. “I'm part of a generation, that is one or two generations removed from segregation and the days of black and white entrances,” he explains. “That gives us a little more objectivity to look at that stuff. It's not to say that we forget, but it's not part of our personal history.”
On why diversity in the profession matters:
Graphic design as it is now doesn't even come close to representing reality. Having more voices and representation at the table can only make design better.
Personal histories are important to Jones and taken into consideration in his professional work. In 1999 he started Plantain Studio, a multidisciplinary studio working in art, architecture and graphic design, along with fellow CCA graduate Nick D. Gomez. For his nonprofit work with Plantain he makes a point to include the client in the design process. “People in the underserved communities we do work for are usually never consulted. Design firms come in and say, 'You'll take what we give you.' There's a lack of research in what the communities are about.” For one project with the San Francisco mayor's office, Jones pushed for the design and organizing committee to include local leaders in design discussions. “They had to scramble to put that together.”
As an educator Jones is attempting to fill the gaps that he saw as an art school student. He teaches graphic design at San Francisco State University—where he began as a lecturer in 2000 and is now on a tenure track—and at CCA he teaches community arts classes, which emphasize service learning, civic engagement and issues of diversity. Sometimes Jones has had to modify his approach to broadening students' horizons. At CCA he put together a class on identity politics, but only two students signed up. With his classes at SF State, though, he incorporates a multicultural filter in many of his assignments, such as designing a fictional commemorative project for people like director Oscar Micheaux and writer Audre Lorde. Jones contends, “Nothing against the dead white guys, but you need to know something else outside of their work.”