Born 1920, Birmingham, Alabama. Before Jackie Robinson or Marian Anderson, this man was breaking new ground in the advertising industry. Olden got his start as an artist when he dropped out of high school to work as a graphic designer for the OSS (forerunner to CIA, that’s right) shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After the war ended, his OSS communications director got him a job working as head of on-air promotions at CBS television. He was an early pioneer at the dawn of broadcast graphics. He oversaw the development of logos and graphics for “I Love Lucy”, “Lassie”, and “Gunsmoke.” He also helped to produce the vote tallying board for the first televised Presidential election.
Olden moved over to advertising in 1960 and took the position of television group art director at ad agency BBDO. Also to note, between 1951 and 1960 his name appeared 108 times in industry trade publications such as “Graphis” and “Art Director’s Club” annuals. Being in high demand, rising in popularity and influence he accepted the position of Vice President and Senior Art Director at Mcann Erikson in 1963. Throughout the 60s he had earned 7 clios (the Oscars of the Ad Industry) and had even received the honor of designing the physical award itself in 1962. He was also the first African-American to design a U.S. postage stamp.
I have to say, as a black man working in the advertising business, his passion and dedication to his craft is an inspiration. I’ll leave you with this quote from Olden himself:
“Acceptance is a matter of talent […] In my work I’ve never felt like a Negro. Maybe I’ve been lucky.”GEORG OLDEN (1920 – 1975) was the first black executive of a major corporation also noted for his contributions to the television graphics field and leading the way for future black designers.
Born George Elliott Olden on Nov. 13, 1920, in Birmingham, Al., to James Clarence Olden, a Baptist minister, and Sylvia Ward Olden, a classically-trained singer and music teacher, Olden excelled in art from a young age. His family, which included older siblings James Clarence Jr. and Sylvia (who became the first person of color to work at the Metropolitan Opera as a vocal coach) had moved to Washington, D.C., where his father pastored Plymouth Congregational Church.
After becoming heavily involved in the civil rights movement, James Sr. abandoned the family in 1933, and six years later their mother died. Georg failed most of his classes in high school but continued to excel in art as well as swimming, winning a number of trophies. He graduated a year behind his class and attended Virginia State, drawing cartoons for the school newspaper, the Virginia Statesmen, and gaining popularity after establishing a reputation for wit and drinking.
In 1940, Georg proposed to aspiring actress Courtenaye Macbeth, who was three years older than him and had two small children. Because his sister Sylvia would not consent as his legal guardian, the couple was forced to wait until Georg turned 21 in order to marry, which they did on December 25, 1941.
By January 1942, the college honor student had dropped out to serve as a graphic designer for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. It was during this time that he dropped the second “E” in his first name in order to get him noticed by magazine editors, he explained to Advertising Age in 1963, while Olden historian Julie Lasky suggests the “Scandinavian spelling, along with his rendering of Caucasian cartoon figures, served as much as a blind to racial identity as it did a vehicle to recognition”.
George published cartoons in National CIO News, The New Yorker and Esquire before his OSS supervisor recommended him for the art director position at CBS’s new television division in 1945. He was also selected by Secretary of State Edward Strettinius to serve as a graphic designer to the International Secretariat after being invited to the conference which led to the formation of the United Nations.
Olden became the first artist to design news graphics at CBS and supervised the vote-tallying graphics of the first live presidential election coverage in 1952. In 1956, he received the New York Art Directors Club medal. As television grew more popular, Olden was responsible for the graphics of some of its main shows of the era including The Ed Sullivan Show, Lassie, Gunsmoke and The Late Show. According to 250 Years of Afro-American Art: An Annotated Bibliography, his work appeared 108 times between 1951 and 1960.
In 1960, he became television group art director at New York ad agency BBDO. Ebony featured the “tall, suave, athletically handsome man of 39 who is recognized as one of America’s top graphic designers”. Three years later, he had moved on to McCann Erickson and designed a postage stamp (another first for a black individual) commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (view the stamp). At a White House ceremony, President John F. Kennedy praised the stamp as “a reminder of the extraordinary actions in the past as well as the business of the future”.
That same year, in an Ebony article, Olden was quoted saying, “In my work I’ve never felt like a Negro. Maybe I’ve been lucky.” Lasky reports colleagues considered him “whiter than a lot of white people”, while he had belonged to the National Urban League for over a decade and even designed its logo. In 1964, Olden was honored with six others at a dinner by U.S. Representative to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson celebrating “Negroes prominent in the economic world”.
Georg divorced Courtenaye in 1966 and married singer Terri Phillips Baker. Two years later, their son Georg Jr. was born. In 1970, he was laid off at McCann Erickson and cited racial discrimination as the reason for his dismissal, although Lasky asserts the recession was the cause. Georg filed a racial discrimination lawsuit but was without merit because 20 others had been laid off at the same time (and all of the others were white). He continued to believe that his termination was racially-motivated and filed a class-action suit against McCann while serving as Vice President of Marketing and Advertising at the Off-Track Betting (OTB) Corporation.
By 1972, he had separated from his second wife and moved to Southern California to start his own company. He lived with his 28-year-old German girlfriend, Irene “Maya” Mikolajczyk. Around this time, Georg made his directorial debut directing an episode of The Mod Squad. On January 25, 1975, just days before the class-action suit was set to go to trial, Maya shot and killed Georg in possible self-defense. Having a strong case, she pleaded not guilty, was released on $1,000 bail and acquitted of the charge on May 14, 1975.
When he died at the age of 54, Georg Olden was poor and had obtained several rejection letters for novels and cartoons he wanted to publish. His efforts, which include a number of firsts for his race, inspired a number of designers, which was exactly what he had set out to do as detailed by his written epitaph:
"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: 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."