When I first heard about Jerome Harris’ exhibit “As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes,” I knew I had to interview him for the podcast. I was thrilled to hear him speak at this year’s Black in Design Conference back in October, and this conversation follows directly after that event.
Jerome does it all — he’s a graphic designer, an educator, a writer, a curator, a DJ, and even a choreographer! We touched on all those aspects in this interview, starting off with talking about his current work at Housing Works. From there, we discussed the trajectory of Black graphic design, and how that guided him through his studies at Temple and Yale and inspired his exhibit. Jerome also shares some of his current influences, and we step into the future a bit and look at what Jerome would want to work on in 2025.
Keep an eye out for Jerome — his perspective and candor are a refreshing antidote to current design discourse, and I think we’ll see a lot more from him soon!
- Jerome Harris’ Website
- Jerome Harris on Instagram
- “As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes” on Instagram
- 32counts on Instagram
Maurice Cherry: All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.
Jerome Harris: Okay. My name is Jerome Harris. I’m originally from New Haven, Connecticut. Studied advertising at Temple University and I got my MFA from Yale University in graphic design. For the last I’ve been working at MICA, Maryland Institute College of Art as a teaching fellow. So it’s full time faculty with one course taken off of the course load for research purposes. Now I’m the design director of Housing Works in New York City and I’m also a choreographer sometimes. I also DJ sometimes and I like to cook. Oh yeah. And I’m a big gamer.
Maurice Cherry: Sounds like you’re juggling a lot over there.
Jerome Harris: I mean some things take more priorities than others.
Maurice Cherry: Let’s talk about what you’re doing over at at Housing Works as the design director. What is Housing Works first of all? Then walk me through what you do there. What’s a regular day like there?
Jerome Harris: Cool. So Housing Works was originally the housing arm of the ACT UP activists collective from the late ’80s, early ’90s who were advocating for the rights of people with HIV and AIDS during the AIDS epidemic. So Housing Works was just the group of people who were trying to get people with HIV AIDS into homes so that they could … Because they believed that if they had a place to stay they would get better faster as opposed to being on the street or what have you. So that group of people from from this activist group grew into this huge NIO nonprofit organization. We have four health clinics around the city of New York, and then we’re self-sustained by 12, now 13 thrift stores. 14 actually, we just opened a new one. 14 thrift stores around the city. And then we have a bookstore cafe. And in addition to that, we do a four to five huge fundraising campaigns every year.
Jerome Harris: We moved beyond the scope of just HIV AIDS. We help homeless people, people who need to reintegrate into society after they get released from jail, drug rehabilitation, youth services for LGBTQ youth and of course housing, Housing Works. We have, I think, 600 plus units. That might be incorrect, but we have a housing around the city taking care of people with different illnesses, getting them care.
Maurice Cherry: Wow, that sounds like a lot of stuff that you all are doing there. It sounds really impactful.
Jerome Harris: Yep. So a lot of work. It’s all hands on deck. We have a huge team. We have two administrative offices, one in Soho in New York and one downtown Brooklyn where where I work and everybody’s there. Everyone’s down to do the work. It’s a very cool work environment. I mean given the population we work with you have to be empathetic and down for the cause. It’s funny cause a part of the job is were required to take part in civil disobedience as a part of the job. I feel like in your performance review they asked how many protests have you been to this year?
Maurice Cherry: Interesting.
Jerome Harris: Which is cool. I’ve only been to one so far.
Maurice Cherry: You’re slacking. You’ve got to go to more.
Jerome Harris: It’s awesome.
Maurice Cherry: Get out on them streets.
Jerome Harris: It’s only been three months.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. Okay. Okay. All right.
Jerome Harris: However, yeah, I like that. It’s awesome. It’s just the values and everybody there, we’re all working on the same team. No egos. Everybody is just getting work done.
Maurice Cherry: That’s good.
Jerome Harris: And okay, so you also asked about a day at work. Now designing is, I’m literally like three designers right now. We’re also hiring, so when this airs, if we haven’t hired anybody, we’re looking for a designer. I do a variety of things. I work for the thrift shops in the bookstore, so I do all of the marketing for that. So that can be just weekly events, sales signage, in store signage for the store. We do cut vinyl posters. I do motion as for social media, this is across the board, everything for the thrift shops. Same thing with the bookstore, just any of their needs.
Jerome Harris: And then on the other end, I do designs for fundraising campaigns. So that usually means building out an identity in the system for the designer that we’re going to hire and then our production designer to then build our assets for print, for screen, for social media and everything else in between. Like we just had a protest on October 8th in Washington DC for LGBTQ rights in the workplace. So I got to make protest signs and so usually protest signs are these scrappy things that people make them their own, but it’s nicely designed protest signs. It’s really nice to see. A whole coach bus of Housing Works employees went down to the Hill and protested and it’s just awesome. You know? It’s just a cool thing to feel that you’re a part of that, you know what I mean?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. How did you first hear about them?
Jerome Harris: Well, I knew about the thrift stores. When I tell people about Housing Works, they’re usually like, “Oh yeah, I go to the thrift store.” I did know the history, which I liked, but I was contacted by the creative director because they had kind of contracting designers and hadn’t had anybody, a design director full time on the team for awhile. So she reached out to me because of my work, the exhibition, As, Not For, and thought that that would be a good fit for the workplace. And this was like back in January and I was like, I don’t know. I might stay at MICA. I don’t know. Academia was proving, after my second year there, was proving to be a little draining for reasons I don’t know if I want to talk about. I just wanted to move into something that was still fulfilling personally, but I still wanted to give back and I wanted the work to be fulfilling. So I talked to the creative directors. Said I’ll give it a shot. And I interviewed, went through a second round of interview, they gave me a design test and then they pulled me on in June.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. And so I know you’ve only been there, like you said, for just a few months now. What do you want to accomplish going into 2020? What do you see Housing Works becoming in the next year?
Jerome Harris: There’s multiple goals because it’s such a scrappy … I keep using that word, but everything moves pretty fast and everybody has to be all hands on deck. So I’m trying to get them to a place, particularly the thrift stores for example, to be in a competitive advantage design-wise with the retailers in the areas of the city that they’re in. They’re placed directly next to places like H&M and J Crew and Uniqlo and stuff like this around the city. And these are stores with huge design teams and these corporations with beautiful design. And so I just try to, even though it’s just me and eventually one other person, just try to give them a visual competitive advantage. They already have a great perception amongst their regular shoppers, but just drawing in a new community through more contemporary design and more slick design that fits into the environment where they exist.
Jerome Harris: And then the other thing is the fundraising campaign in the past, usually because they happen so fast, it’s so much work to do. In the past I’ve just been not completely well thought through, just let’s just get it done. So then I’m trying to really bring in more of the advocate voice into it and then also bringing more contemporary design sensibilities into the work. A little more thoughtful design into the work too. And that way, in addition to convincing people to give us money, make people feel good through the design, gain a better perception from the audience and the donor through the work.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. Now, you mentioned a lot already about starting out a Temple, being at Yale, you mentioned your exhibit, all of which I want to go into of course, but I’m curious the story before all of that. So where did you grow up? I know you’re currently in Brooklyn right now, but where’d you grow up?
Jerome Harris: Yeah, I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, actually. Literally, I lived the walking distance from Yale as a kid and that was a interesting place to be because I ended up being in a way a benefactor of Yale being really close as a kid. There was the African American Cultural Center on campus and they had free tutoring. So I think all through elementary school and middle school, so I think maybe starting in third grade through eighth grade, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to private school, but they did want me to have some help. Some advantage. They understood the public school system can be a hindrance in some ways, sometimes. And so my parents brought me to the African American Culture Center for free tutoring. I literally went there three days a week for that five years between third grade and eighth grade and just got tutored.
Jerome Harris: I mean it wasn’t I needed tutoring, but I think that they understood that we are in proximity to this place. Why not give our son the leg up, which shout out to my parents for that. And then how I got into design was in high school we had Photoshop in our computer lab and in 2001 … The first thing I designed, which is really funny, in 2001 Aaliyah died. That was in August and 9/11 happened. And so I was so moved.
Jerome Harris: I was like, what do I do? And I made an image. I probably wasn’t using Google. I was probably using like Alta Vista or something like that. I was searching for images of the twin towers and Aaliyah and I made this whole collage of all these pictures of Aaliyah and her choreographer Fatima Robinson and all these people. That was the first thing I ever made. And then after that, that sensibility to isolate figures, which I feel like I most likely got from Cash Money Records album artwork fed into an interest in college and undergraduate to design party flyers. Because after that I got better and better and was using illegal versions of the Adobe Creative Suite back in the day.
Maurice Cherry: I think a lot of us were back then, so.
Jerome Harris: Yeah. No shame. No shame about it.
Maurice Cherry: Nothin’.
Jerome Harris: It became a side hustle. I was a Photoshop guru at one point and I would just design these party flyers. But yeah, New Haven was a really interesting place to grow up because you have the whole disparity. You have the poorest of poor and the most rich and elite all in the same place in almost evenly spread in a way. You get these crossovers of these different moments and Yale students crossing over with locals. And that happens in any college town but in New Haven it’s a particularly special mix.
Maurice Cherry: So I went to Morehouse here in Atlanta and I remember the first year that I was there, this was ’99 and I mean I’m from the sticks. I’m from the country. So it was already a bit of a culture shock coming into a big city, but not a huge one. Morehouse is one of those schools that has people from all over the world, from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and everything. And I remember my roommate at the time, apparently his mom told him that he needed to dress down if he was going to go out into the neighborhood because Morehouse is literally in the hood. It’s in the middle of not the best neighborhood in the city. It’s not terrible, but it’s the hood essentially.
Maurice Cherry: I’m probably fucking that up. But anyway, I remember him saying his mom was like well they told me I need to dress down. Dress in less expensive clothing just to make sure when I go out that nobody’s going to rob me or anything. And I’m like that’s sounds dumb. But if you feel that’s what you have to do, go right ahead. So I know what that odd disparity looks like.
Jerome Harris: Yeah, exactly.
Maurice Cherry: Now, It’s interesting enough because that area around Morehouse has cleaned up a lot. Mainly because the school just bought the land and tore the buildings down and stuff. But yeah, I know what that can look like in an urban setting.
Jerome Harris: Yeah, both of those things are really interesting to think about because I’m being reductive when I’m saying this. I’m just going to let everybody know I’m being self aware about what I’m saying. But there are a spectrum of black people and that was also, besides it being pretty racially diverse and socioeconomically diverse. I would have a group of black friends and some of them would come from money, come from more money, and their parents would be a little more like respectable. So they wouldn’t use the N-word and dressed a certain way. Some of my friends would not be allowed to go to somewhere like the all ages parties I would go to in high school or middle school. I totally understand that, know who that mom is. The mom of your roommate. But yeah.
Maurice Cherry: So you were designing these flyers at Temple. What was your time like there when you were studying and everything?
Jerome Harris: Temple was interesting because I didn’t realize that I wanted to do graphic design. Even when I was making party flyers, I was like, oh, I’m a party flyer designer. You know what I mean? I didn’t realize completely what I was doing. So when it came time for me to choose a major, I was like, oh yeah, I’m going to major in advertising because I didn’t, you know what I mean? For me that was a logical choice. You’re asking a 19 or 20 year old what they want to do with the rest of their life. I was like, okay, I think I want to do this.
Jerome Harris: I think around my junior year or so I realized, oh, Temple has a whole art school. Tyler School of Art. Maybe I should try to go there instead. I got shut shut down because I wasn’t coming from a fine arts background. I didn’t know that ling so well. I emailed the chair photo images of my party flyers. I don’t remember her name, but she said, “This is not graphic design. You can’t take classes here.” I was like, whoa. Then I actually went through the advertising school. There’s all these roadblocks. The art school’s different than the main college. Dah, dah, dah.
Jerome Harris: I was a little bit disappointed. At that point I was self taught anyway, but I didn’t have any guidance. My parents didn’t know what graphic design was, you know what I mean? I didn’t have anybody to say, “This is what you’re doing.” I was just doing it. Temple was cool. I love Philadelphia. I would move back to Philly any day.
Maurice Cherry: So I’m curious about that, that remark, because I don’t know, for some reason that just rubbed me the wrong way about them telling you that those flyers that you were doing were not graphic design. As you look back at that time, do you agree with that sentiment or no?
Jerome Harris: I think, and this goes into my issue with the understanding that modernism is the whole graphic design. Because what I was doing was a trajectory and black graphic design of following in the footsteps of the artwork used for Master P and Cash Money Records and DJ Screw. Artwork made by Pen & Pixel in Houston where they would isolate the figures, have all these affects and blingy texts and stuff. This still is a legitimate method of approaching graphic design. So these are the things that I was sending, but good design is modernist, right? It’s on a grid, it’s aligned, it has good proximity and space and asymmetry and it’s minimalist. Good design only requires a little bit to design. You know what I mean? These principles by the champions of the Bauhaus and Swiss, you know?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Like Euro centric design principles basically.
Jerome Harris: Yeah. Became just the entirety of when you say graphic design, that’s what it is, right? Only. As a 20 year old, I was like, well I’m making money doing this. This is real. This is legit. But I didn’t know how to say that. My feelings weren’t really that hurt because I did see that what they were making in the graphic design program and I was like, oh this looks like what I see in Time magazine or what I was looking at the time. This is how the ads look. When I watch TV commercials, this is how things are designed.
Jerome Harris: It’s really interesting and in retrospect that person, and this is not uncommon, it’s just being a gatekeeper of what graphic design is and what it should be. And I think that’s a large part of what I’ve been writing about and lecturing about recently is about how just making people self aware that that’s not the only way to approach graphic design. There’s a bunch of ways to approach graphic design. It’s easy. Modernism gives an immediate legitimacy to any piece of work. If it looks like that, it’s immediately familiar to people and they’re like, this is good. And yeah. Anyway, I hope I answered your question.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So, after Temple you went back to your roots in a way. You went to graduate school in New Haven at Yale. What was the design program like there once you were actually in that institution instead of around it as you were before?
Jerome Harris: Yeah, it was interesting from a social standpoint. I was at school, I went to class, but I would go home and do my homework and then go to my parents’ house and have dinner. So it was a weird return back home because a lot of people who came to Yale were from other places as clearly as most people do in school. So their society was just their classmates. I was home. So I was like, “Well, I’ll see y’all later. I’m going to eat this fried chicken. I’ll see y’all later.”
Jerome Harris: And then from a academic point of view, it was literally like the clouds broke and the light shined through because I had never thought of approaching design from a research standpoint. I’ve never had to think about concepts any deeper than, okay, I’m designing for a gay party, so I’m going to put a dude half naked on the front. And it’s a beach party so I’m going to put palm trees. You know what I mean? I never thought any deeper than that. So it was like I had professors who were really pushing me to be more conceptual and really push it and get really weird and then say, okay, have I gone too far? Is this still accessible? So thinking about the range of visual references that you can make and thinking about who’s looking at it and who can access that.
Jerome Harris: And also methods of production. So like I had, for example, I had taught myself HTML and CSS prior to, but thinking about just not even using coding to make a website, but using coding just to make type a graphic form. You know what I mean? Just things like this that sound basic that you would learn in probably undergraduate art school were just new ideas to me and I was like, oh shoot, I like this. It was really fun for me and I had no understanding of how graphic design operated in the fine arts world. I used to go to museums and stuff and just look at this stuff but never thought about it in that way. So just learning the nuances and the subtle choices that designers make and the understanding of how to give people access people through images and texts was really interesting.
Jerome Harris: Also how to expand my thinking. How to broaden the way that I think about designers. That was more the takeaway from me being at Yale because I literally knew nothing that they had to offer. Whereas a lot of my classmates had an understanding of fine arts and graphic design and conceptual thinking and the heroes of graphic design. My heroes, I didn’t even know who they were actually. I was just reading Vibe magazine and Ebony magazine. Looking at music artwork for Hot 97, which is a hip hop station in New York. Hot 97 mixed tapes and Cash Money Records. All these things, that for me.
Jerome Harris: … cash, money, records, all these things. That for me it was graphic design in my black life as a youth.
Maurice Cherry: I would say it’s still very much is still graphic design. When we look back at it I think that’s the case. It’s interesting though that it sounds like Yale was the nexus point where you realized that, what I’m doing actually is valid and I can apply and explore different things through the work as opposed to like you said before, using the work on its face.
Jerome Harris: Yes, exactly.
Maurice Cherry: Let’s talk about your exhibition. It’s titled ‘As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes.’ I heard about it last year. Someone sent me a link to it on AIGA’s Eye on Design. It was a whole article about it. Can you talk about the exhibit and where the notion came from to curate all this?
Jerome Harris: It’s really funny. When I was at MICA, we were required to do a research project and I had two topics that I wanted to do and I was actually leaning away from doing black design because I was a little bit exhausted with the notion of being a mascot for the race in a way in graphic design. I was like I don’t know if I want to do this.
Jerome Harris: And so my other topic, because I’m a gamer, I’m really interested in the maximal really saturated colors and compositions and if you look at a still of a video game and bring in that level of overwhelming-ness over into graphic design and communication standpoint. That was my initial idea and I was interested in fantasy worlds, but then I started going down both paths and researching both. I already had done a little research into Buddy Esquire. He designed hip hop party flyers during the rise of hip hop before it was even called hip hop. I think I just had the thought, “There has to be more people. They got to be out there.”
Jerome Harris: I felt like a detective because I started with nothing. I had him. I knew I had Cornell’s hip hop archive and I was like, how am I going to find anybody else? So I’m emailing people, asking people. I did an extensive search. I found out about Aaron Douglas who did illustrations during the Harlem Renaissance, but he wasn’t really a graphic designer. And I think I accidentally stumbled upon Emory Douglas, who was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers. And then Emmett McBain who had his own McBain Associates in Chicago. He had a black ad agency. I don’t know how I found him. And through him I found Leroy Winbush and Eugene Winslow all of which were black men who had advertising agencies in Chicago.
Jerome Harris: And then Archie Boston was out there. AIGA had written about him a bunch. So I kept stumbling upon people and I was feeling optimistic and at the end of that semester, that was my first year at MICA. We had to do a presentation of our research. And I did the presentation and my chair at the end of my presentation was like, “Why don’t you make this AN exhibition?” And I was like, “Okay, I will.” And I did.
Jerome Harris: And it’s a very graphic designerly exhibition. It’s 47 posters. It’s not like things. Of course a graphic designer would make an exhibition of posters and it went up. MICA asked, the communications office, was like, “Do you want to put together a press release?” And I was like, I don’t care. I was just trying to fulfill a requirement for my fellowship to be honest. I wasn’t thinking about it any deeper than that. And it really took off. People received it well. I think a lot of people were like, I did not know this was needed. And I was like, me neither. I didn’t know either. I just wanted to do this.
Jerome Harris: It was more of a selfish endeavor, more than an endeavor of trying to do some diversity inclusion initiative or something like this. It was just a black man searching for his history in graphic design. It’s really been received well. The show went to Virginia Commonwealth University. The students in a design research class are actually writing an addendum to Philip Meggs A History of Graphic Design, because he wrote that book while he was at VCU. So now they’re writing an addendum. I was told that they were going to do this through the class to include these designers and his history in that book, which I didn’t know that would happen.
Jerome Harris: And then the show is also at CCA, California College of Art in San Francisco. And the letter form archive is out there. And they found out about Sylvia Abernathy, who’s the only woman in my show, unfortunately, sorry. She had these beautiful record sleeves that she designed for Delmark Records for jazz music. They found out about her through me, actually acquired copies of the record sleeves for their archives, and then did an exhibition of design and music. So when I was out there I went to the exhibition and they had Joseph Albert, who was the first chair of Yale’s graphic design program. He had done some record sleeves for jazz music next to Sylvia Abernathy.
Jerome Harris: And that was one of those moments, I didn’t know that I wanted that. I didn’t know that I wanted to see this person who is highly celebrated next to this underdog on the same wall doing the same work for the same thing. Those moments are like these surprises that come up along the way. In addition to short conversations that I have with young designers who are like, “Thank you for doing this.” And I was like, “Well, it’s accidentally at the service of you, so you’re welcome. But you do something like this. You do it now. Continue the work.”
Maurice Cherry: I’ve seen some of the posters in the exhibit. It hasn’t made it to Atlanta yet, nor have I made it to where the exhibits are. But I’ve seen a couple of photos. I see that there’s album art from Def Jam, the record sleeves that you mentioned from Sylvia Abernathy, there’s movie posters from Art Sims who did a lot of work with Spike Lee. And I’m sure that like you said, you get a lot of questions about it. It’s getting a lot of feedback. Is there one question in particular that you hate answering about the exhibit?
Jerome Harris: I can’t necessarily put it into words, but I think that I always get caught up in some question about buzzwords like representation, diversity, inclusion. These catchall terms that when you see a person who’s not citizen white, they are fit into these groupings. At this point, me touring the show and doing workshops and stuff. Now I’m working at the service, but out of service of the field in a way trying to shake things up a little bit, because I see there’s the need. But initially, no, it was a selfish endeavor. I just wanted to know.
Jerome Harris: I needed to know and I needed to be able to defend my work and talk about my work, which came from a lineage of black designers and be able to defend that when people ask me about my work or why things look the way they do, et cetera. And so something about that feels a little reductive. Let’s just say, is this a diversity inclusion thing? Because what happens is if there’s something, dealing with the queer community, then you’re still put in a marginalized group. This is a queer thing. This is a black thing. It’s not, it’s a graphic design thing actually, and it’s been neglected. Just normalize it. Thanks.
Maurice Cherry: With revision path and I know that feeling that you’re talking about, because I started revision path honestly under part selfish part I guess petty I guess. And I’ve told this story on the show before, but I initially had the idea to do this way back in 2006. I had this event that I had created called the Black Web Blog Awards and one of the categories was for best blog design. And it’s interesting you mention vibe and album covers and stuff like that, because I knew who those designers were. I knew the people that were making those designs and they were not getting any level of recognition. I’m not talking about an interview here or there. Nobody knew who they were. Nobody was mentioning them. Nobody was talking about them. No one was asking them to speak anywhere or anything like that.
Maurice Cherry: And I wanted to do something around black design back then, but I was doing the Black Web Blog Awards, I was in grad school, and I was working a full time job. So I was like, I don’t have time to do all this. It wasn’t until seven years later after I had stopped working for corporate America, started my studio and was five years in on that. I was like, I have time to do this. So I really honestly did it as a selfish/petty thing, one to put my thumb in the eye of graphic design in terms of the graphic design community to be like we’re here, you just don’t see us for some reason. I don’t know. But then also to do it because I wanted to see more of us out there and I felt like, I don’t know who else is really doing this, at least on a level that is picking up any level of visibility.
Maurice Cherry: So I’m just going to try to add to it. I knew I wasn’t the first to do it, but I also hope that I’m not the last to do it too. So I get that feeling because what ends up happening is that as the project gains steam and gets out there in the community, it gets out there in the world really, other people start ascribing values to it that have nothing to do with why you started it. So like with revision path, people will say that it’s for people of color in the tech industry. It’s for black people. You can say black. You can say that. You don’t have to to codify it in that way. You can say it because that’s what it is. Or they’ll say, it’s only for African Americans looking to get into Silicon Valley.
Maurice Cherry: No, it’s not. I talk to people all over the world, not just in Silicon Valley, not just trying to get into tech. And I end up having to do a lot of clarification because people want to ascribe their own values to it because they see it, or at least they’re using it as a resource for diversity and inclusion. And that was never my initial goal for it. It was really just I want to see more of us out there and I want to celebrate what we’re doing and what we’re contributing. I’m not doing this as some sort of a way to highlight a deficit. I think AIGA already does a great job of that. This is no shade by saying that by the way, but they do the design census. They point it out every year so that’s a fact.
Jerome Harris: That was also problematic too, because people who are like me who are self-taught designers are not filling out that survey because they don’t know about it. They’re not a part of the AIGA. They’re making the things that they make. There’s a website called seven days, seven nights, which does nightlife in the New York City area and around the United States in general. But the pen and pixel aesthetic is still there. They’ve definitely pushed it forward. None of those designers are filling out that survey, because it’s Latino and black parties, I’m pretty sure it’s Latino and black people designing those things. So I feel like there’s still work to be done because there’s a whole batch of people who are making good money doing that kind of work and are not being included or their careers are not being acknowledged.
Maurice Cherry: And one interesting footnote on the whole pen and pixel style. I really love that style. For those that are maybe not familiar, go to Google images, look up Master P, Mia X, Silkk The Shocker, Juvenile. It’s the gilded cera font with the baguette diamonds for text kind of thing. And I think it was the art directors club or the type directors club or someone did a version of that for their young guns. I might be completely getting this wrong, but I remember the backlash from it from people saying, honestly it was mostly from black people saying, “I can’t believe that you would represent design in this way. It looks so ghetto. It looks so hood.” And I’m like, it looks like it’s design. Granted the way they did it, it did kind of make it look like the guy was a pimp inside of the art director club image with gold teeth and he had a forefinger ring. It wasn’t the best I guess presentation, but I got where the inspiration was coming from.
Jerome Harris: I’m not going to go too long on this, but the owner, Sean Burch, I don’t know how to say his name. He’s contacted me twice about including the work from pen and pixel in my exhibition. In fact, I can open the email right now. He made the point that, my studio was not a black studio. He basically didn’t want the public to think that pen and pixel was a black owned business. I can even read the email right now.
Maurice Cherry: This isn’t an expose is it?
Jerome Harris: No, it’s not an expose. I really don’t care because pen and pixel doesn’t exist anymore. It hasn’t existed for a really long time and it’s been featured. They’ve been getting a lot of press. People have featured them. But the work that gets featured has been, even in Sean Burch’s own words, was art directed by Master P, Baby Slim, DJ Screw. These people came in and said, “You know what I want? I want a Mercedes. I want a photo of me bent over the Mercedes. I want two lions on the side. I want diamonds in the text.” This is the work of an art director. For me and you pen and pixel is working more as a production designer because not all of their work looks like that. And I tried to explain that to him clearly. We had a long phone conversation and he pulled out the, “I have black friends.”
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Jerome Harris: Anyway, he emailed me a picture of his employees with his one black designer on the team. I was like dude. I was like do you know this is racist? Do you know?
Maurice Cherry: Listen, I’ll add a little something to the anecdote, not necessarily pen and pixel related, and I’m not going to name names here, but there a certain show that comes on a certain streaming service that highlights designers. They just had a new season which came up recently. And the people who create that show for example had made sure to reach out to me and mention that they had two black designers this year. Am I supposed to be doing cartwheels in the street over that? Okay, fine, wonderful. Thanks, that’s great. Because the first season they only had one so progress.
Jerome Harris: I do have to say, I try to listen to other design podcasts but there’s such a ubiquity. I’ll listen to the person and look at the work and I’m like yo, you keep interviewing the same person over and over again. There might be a shift in medium, but the work all looks the same and it’s really boring. And that goes back to the stupid modernism thing. It’s like you got to love a little sans serif typeface. Y’all love their modernist principles. Just build another Bauhaus. I’m honestly sick of it. There’s so many other ways to do a piece of graphic design to approach in any medium. Anyway, that’s not your podcast.
Maurice Cherry: Present company excluded.
Jerome Harris: The people you interview are very diverse and it makes me very happy. I’ve been listening for years. Shout out to you, Maurice.
Maurice Cherry: Thank you. I’m curious, do you think that your exhibit would have gotten the same visibility if it weren’t at MICA? Let’s say if it was at the Lewis Museum? For people listening, the Reginald Lewis Museum, it’s a African American History and Culture museum. Do you think that this exhibit would have gotten the same level of reach to white design spaces?
Jerome Harris: I don’t know. I want to suspect. I think no. But what ended up happening and MICA, they asked me, they were like, “You want us to put out a press release?” I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” Because that’s the thing, once it started getting press, people were like, “Oh shit, there’s a black show. Let’s go see it.” And not just white people, but everybody was like, “We should go see this. This looks cool.” And so I don’t know if the Lewis Museum put out a press release if it would have been received the same way. I don’t know that. And also like I said, I didn’t expect anything for the show. Thought it was going to up for two weeks to a month and I was going to take the posters down and throw them away.
Jerome Harris: I can’t answer that question, but I suspect the perception of the institution did help. I suspect so. I don’t know though, because also the reception of the show was such that people did respond well regardless of what, so it might’ve. The show itself might have also drawn people to the Lewis Museum had it been there. Let me also say this though too. I have not shown at a black institution yet. I would like to. I’ve been trying to, so if you’re listening to this and you’re the HBCU or a white gallery or museum I would like to show my show there. Thanks. Bye.
Maurice Cherry: Bring it on down here to Atlanta. We got a few of them. We got Hammonds House. Actually Hammonds House is in my neighborhood. Hammonds House, Spelman has a art museum on campus. So just putting that out there. I’ve seen the exhibit also been referred to as incomplete. And one thing that you mentioned a little bit earlier in the interview is that there is only one woman in the exhibit, Sylvia Abernathy. Now that it’s on tour, are you planning on supplementing the exhibit with more designers as you discover more about them?
Jerome Harris: No, because I don’t have time, because I work full time and the exhibition. When I was teaching, I was teaching a two, three course load and that first semester when I was teaching two classes, that time off was the time I would use to research. I literally was taking a part-time job load, maybe 20 hours or so a week just dedicated to the show. And I just don’t have that time now. I know there’s more people. The curator of the Lubalin Center at Cooper Union put me on to an article in Idea Magazine, which is a Japanese design magazine from the ’70s and apparently somebody else did an exhibition of black designers in Japan and I looked at the spread. It’s in Japanese so I don’t know what it says, but there’s like 50 plus black designers that were featured, African Americans. And I was like, who are these people? I think the only one who I knew was Georg Olden and the rest of them I was like, I need to look these people up. In addition to Michelle Washington, she knows everybody. She also did a-
Jerome Harris: She knows everybody. She also did a show with Flo, I’m saying her name wrong.
Maurice Cherry: Fo Wilson.
Jerome Harris: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Fo. And back in the back, I need to see documentation of that, too. I didn’t know that until we ran into Fo at Black in Design. I was like, “Oh.” Michelle hadn’t mentioned it to me. Then I also met other black designers who had done their thesis. I met this guy, Steve, in San Francisco, who did his thesis at RISD back in the 90’s on black designers and the representation of black people in design. So, it’s been happening. It’s just hasn’t been a thing that has gotten traction.
Jerome Harris: I think maybe the advantage for me is that, my show is kind of a research guide in a way. When you go to the show, in the didactics, you can see what archive I got the work from, the name of the work, the name of the archive, the city that it’s in, it’s almost like encouraging everybody to go ahead and continue the work themselves. If you go to the archive and look at the work or if you go to a digital archive, you might respond to the work differently than I did. So, it’s like a traveling archive, as exhibition. I mean, that’s the only thing. I would like to celebrate these shows. I don’t know. So, I would like to include those more into my work as well, somehow. I just haven’t figured out how yet.
Maurice Cherry: So before you mentioned, Vibe magazine and other publications and things, that were influencing you when you were first starting out, who are some of your influences now with your work?
Jerome Harris: It was really funny because, I’ve actually been looking at fine artists more than graphic designers, in addition to video games and things that are not graphic design. Let me see if I can find… You know, like Lorna Simpson for example, her collage’s. Or thinking about how Lorna Simpson’s work and then thinking about how Carol Walker isolates the figure and about how I was doing that. In reference to pin and pixels work, finding those those formal connections and thinking about different ways of applying that formal gesture in different ways, if that makes sense. Aaron Douglas for example, in his work, he uses a hand drawn type face, which looks like an art deco typeface, but he does it the same way on all of his illustrations. So, looking at this artists painting type, in a way.
Jerome Harris: Who else? There’s a bunch of people that, fine arts, I look at. Laila Ali, definitely. Glenn Ligon was a huge inspiration on my poster because he has the, I am man, with the notations. I forgot what it’s called, The Inspection Report or something like, This Quality Inspection Report, something like this, where he was pointing out the flaws in the poster. And that led me to do the markings. That and also looking at BASCA and doing the markings on the poster that advertises the exhibition itself.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. That’s a really dope poster, by the way.
Jerome Harris: Thank you. I appreciate that. And so, it’s this idea of searching, but also mark making. And me, I had a very, very messy notebook where I was making connections and I was like, “Oh shoot, all three of these guys are in Chicago.” Okay, sorry. That was a long ramble. But, yeah.
Maurice Cherry: No, no. As I was saying, I really liked that additional poster. It’s very rare… Actually, I wouldn’t even say it’s rare. I’ve never seen Jackie’s Back on a poster like that. When I saw it I was like, “Ooh. Are you serious?” I was like, “I got to interview this guy,” after I saw that.
Jerome Harris: There’s a couple-
Maurice Cherry: I don’t know if a lot of people that know about the classic, that is, Jackie’s Back. That movie is a classic.
Jerome Harris: Jackie’s Back is everything. [crosstalk 00:04:25].
Maurice Cherry: It’s all on YouTube, too. The whole thing is on YouTube.
Jerome Harris: Yeah, it’s on YouTube. Jennifer needs to get her money. So, anyway. For those streams. Yeah. I have, I mean whatever, this is going to be controversial. It’s kind of like, as, not for, and it’s kind of, moments in black pop culture that are as meaning, like just existing as your natural blackness or meaning, making yourself presentable or respectable or palatable to white people or something like this. So, in the top I have Spike Lee and then I have Tyler Perry crossed out, but that’s going to be a little controversial. Then I have Jackie’s Back, but then not Sparkle. Because Jackie’s Back was mocking a blaxploitation film, where Sparkle was a blaxploitation film. Then I have Richard Pryor, after he comes out behind The Wiz machine and then I have him crossed off as The Wiz machine. I guess all these little black pop culture gems that I put in there because people who get it, get it.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, exactly. Right. Yeah. So outside of design, you mentioned you choreograph, you DJ? You’re DJ Glen Coco, is that correct?
Jerome Harris: Yes, yeah.
Maurice Cherry: What do you spin?
Jerome Harris: It’s a very specific reference. If you get it, you get it.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. Well, what do you spin?
Jerome Harris: Oh, mostly black ass music. I play cookout music. So, it’s Evelyn Champagne King, Love Come Down. Luther Vandross. There was this moment between disco and the 60’s and 70’s and then house music and the 90s, when black people were making this dance music, but it wasn’t a specific genre. It was just kind of like The Whispers. I don’t [crosstalk 00:52:23]-
Maurice Cherry: Oh, I love that genre.
Jerome Harris: I don’t know what that’s called. But, that’s what I play mostly and house music and disco and contemporary stuff that sounds like that. Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: I’ve heard the music called… So, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Axle F Party. Have you heard of this?
Jerome Harris: No.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. So, Axle F Party is this party in DC where they play all this music. It’s from ’77 to ’87. It’s Jheri curl funk, champagne soul, laser boogie. Those are the terms that they call that genre of music. If you’re in DC, you got to check it out. Even looking at the flyers and everything, the flyers are very much in the style, I wouldn’t say in the pin and pixel style but, I think even if you look at the flyers, you’re like, Oh, you can tell that they are pulling this inspiration directly from that time period. That music that mixes R&B with synths and vocoders and other electronic things of the time. I mean, I love that genre of music. It’s so good.
Jerome Harris: Yeah. That whole moment for me is, I don’t know, it’s something about it. If I’m at the grocery store and I hear, Patrice Rushen’s, Forget Me Nots, I can’t stay still. I’m like, How do you listen to that and stand still? You just can’t. That whole moment is maybe, my favorite little moment in music history. It’s just, nobody ever decided to call it a thing. Which is okay, I think I’m okay with that.
Maurice Cherry: I call it the shoulder music. Sometimes, you got to just like-
Jerome Harris: Ooh, I like that.
Maurice Cherry: You got to hit it with the shoulder, sometimes.
Jerome Harris: Cookout music is the closest. When you say cookout music, black people are like, “Oh, yeah. I get it.”
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. You definitely got to have some Frankie Beverly and the Maze in there. Some Earth, Wind & Fire. So, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Do you have a dream project that you’d love to do one day? That maybe melds all of these things that you’re passionate about?
Jerome Harris: I have two and knowing me, I mean, if you’ve known me since I was a kid, I was always doing, at least, three or four things. In high school I ran track, I choreograph for the dance team, I used to sketch and I was also part of a youth organization called, City Kids. We used to do youth empowerment. I did a lot. So, this is just who I am.
Jerome Harris: But my two dream things, dream projects are, I want to start a dance company. I don’t want to dance, I want to start a dance company. And I want to represent African-American design, street dance, things like this, on a concert dance stage and tour. I think that would be awesome, just black dance all the time on stage and get paid for it.
Jerome Harris: The other thing is I would like to start a nonprofit research organization for marginalized American aesthetics and design methodologies, because outside of the neglected history of black design, I know everybody else has their own history, it’s also been kind of shunned as well, and something that’ll bring those to the forefront… In my head, it will help to transform the trajectory of design, moving forward and maybe, help diversify the way that things look. There was a article even on my Medium today, I get a Medium Digest every morning and it was, why do all websites look alike? I was like, exactly.
Maurice Cherry: Oh my God. I brought that up. Actually, I read that article. I brought it up in an interview I did recently about how all websites have the same hero image, three column whatever, parallax scrolling thing. Yeah, I saw that article.
Jerome Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, it’s a thing. I feel like a lot of other people are sick of it, too. It’s a trickle down effect and I feel like it happens every couple of years. I feel like people in academia and culture write these essays and do exhibitions and talk about a thing enough, where people on the ground who are designing, all have this acknowledgement and say, “Oh, shit. Maybe we make a shift.” Then the shift happens. So, I feel that we’re in this moment now, and there’s a lot of folks in the design world, like Ramon Tejad at RISD and Silas Munro at… Have you interviewed Silas?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, episode 85.
Jerome Harris: Oh, shoot. Okay. I have to go back. Silas at Otis. I feel everybody’s tired of… Ramon and Silas have a thing called, Throw The Bauhaus Under The Bus, which I love. Questioning the Bauhaus, not shitting on the Bauhaus. Because they did have a huge contribution to design, but just also questioning it. Then as far as queer representation goes, Nate Piper and Nicole Kilian. They’re thinking about publishing and black publishing is not [inaudible 00:12:06]. So, everybody’s doing really cool shit. I feel like something’s happening right now. I mean, even thinking about your podcast and being a part of that as well. Because you get the conversations, not the neatly tied up essays and lectures.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I try to add a lot of diversity into what could be seen as a monolithic set of people. I try to get not just the top designers, captains of industry in Silicon Valley, I talk to folks in New York. I just spoke to a young lady yesterday in Fayetteville, Arkansas, about the UX community there, which, they have a UX community in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in case people didn’t know about that. I talk to people in the Caribbean, throughout Europe, throughout Africa. I’ve interviewed two people in Australia. I would love to get a black Brazilian on the show. I would love to just know about what the design scene is in Brazil, since it’s the largest country, but just in general.
Maurice Cherry: So, I try to add a lot of nuance and diversity into that, because I think people can see black designer and think just one thing. Also sometimes, and this is, I’m not trying to take shots here, but sometimes, especially with black media, when the term black design gets thrown out, it often ends up only being kotumb to the realm of fashion. They’re not looking at the web or graphic design or arts, in that way. It’s like, Oh, black fashion designers. We’re like, “Well, what about the rest of us?” So, yeah. I get that.
Jerome Harris: Also the same thing with my exhibition, it’s the same sentiment. You can walk in and say this is black design, but then you have hip-hop party flyers and Black Panther, newspapers and Marlboro advertisements by having Emmett McBain and Cey Adams, The Violator, artwork from ’99 and Sun Ra, Sun Ra’s poems from his book, The Immeasurable Equation and Sylvia Abernathy’s jazz. It’s such a diverse group of work, that when you walk in, you’re saying these are black people, but there’s no monolith there. And each one has its own history. Sylvia Abernathy with the Black Arts Movement. Amiri Baraka and Cey Adam’s huge contribution to hip-hop and the Black Panthers influence. It’s so many moments in history through this [inaudible 01:00:51] that you can’t walk away from this collection of work thinking about black people in one way.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So speaking of black people, and I think also, just speaking of the future, we both were at a Black In Design. This year the theme was Black Futurism 2019, we are now at the end of the year, we’re at the end of a decade, we’re really going into the future. When you think of years that sit in pop culture as the future, there’s 1984, 1999, 2020 not just a news show, but you think of that as a future, ahead. When you look ahead, let’s say it’s 2025, what is Jerome working on?
Jerome Harris: That is a good question. I think that might be my planning phase for the next step. I would, right now, want to further build my portfolio in arts and culture and nonprofits and working with artists who speak up for marginalized communities. Louis Flemings project, like the queer in black communities and build up that set of work. And then with that sort of work, start doing my dream, one of my dream projects.
Jerome Harris: The research nonprofit, most definitely, is a huge… For me, it’s something important because I don’t know if anybody else is doing it. I have to do my research to see if it’s happening and if it’s not, then I definitely want to exploit that opportunity and really try to shift the dominance of the way things look right now. Like, all websites look alike. And if not that, if I get tired of design, I’m kind of tired of design, in a way. Because I feel like I’m fighting hard and I feel like I work really hard. I feel that all designers might feel this way. You do a lot of stuff, you’re staying in front of your computer for hours, you’re arguing with vendors and then you finally get a poster or a website or something. People look at it for two seconds and walk away, you’re like, “Okay.”
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I mean, digital design can be very, well it is, very ephemeral in that way. We spend so much time on something which has such a very short half-life, once it’s out there in the world.
Jerome Harris: I feel design itself is not, for me, not very important. It’s a set of skills. It’s a set of tools to get to essentially, help people. Right? You make things for people. So the thing itself is not really that important. I think that the reasons and the implications and the intentions behind what you do, is the more important thing. I feel like a lot of people should stop designing because they’re just making bullshit and wasting time.
Maurice Cherry: That’s a bold statement.
Jerome Harris: I mean, for real. It’s a lot of stuff out there that doesn’t need to exist. Especially with the condition of the world right now. You’re privileged by default to sit in front of a computer and make images all day. So, why wouldn’t you use that position to do something?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Yeah. See, that’s really what I like about the… To bring up the Black In Design Conference again, what I really like is that these are people that have design skills, clearly. But they’re using them in ways that are affecting and impacting the community. I first went in 2015 and it was about how do we affect the physical space from the neighborhood, to the city, to the state, to the region. Then in 2017, it was around spaces for organizing and for protest. Now this year, it’s about really, black people in the future, black justice black, black-
Jerome Harris: Wakanda.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Wakanda, basically. Black utopia. How do we take these skills and use them to ensure that we are in the future. So, I totally agree with that. Yeah. Well, to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work, online?
Jerome Harris: I pretty much have my CV on my… My website’s pretty much an interactive CV, at this point. My website is jwhgd.co and that’s also my Instagram. So, @jwhg.co and I also have an Instagram for my choreography that I do here and there. It’s @32counts. @32counts. The number’s 3-2, don’t type out thirty-two and that’s really it. If you want to give money to Housing Works, comes on to the fundraisers and yeah, that’s it. That’s really it.
Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well Jerome Harris, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, one, I think for an enlightening conversation about the work that you’re doing or the work that you done through your exhibit, but also, to show that… It’s interesting how even with the advent of technology design, or at least entry into the design industry, still seems to be roped into these particular narratives around, you have to have went to these schools or done these things or all this sort of stuff. I’m a self taught designer, too. I didn’t go to design school, so to be able to use the talents that you have, to not only, one, make a living for yourself, but also, to showcase others that are doing this, to help change and rewrite the canon of design history. I mean certainly, I empathize with that, because it’s what I’m doing with Revision Path. So, I applaud anybody that’s also walking that same path and making sure that more of us are being celebrated. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Jerome Harris: Thank you. This was awesome.
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