What can graphic designers learn from Dick Gregory’s ability to target his audience’s preconceived conceptions and challenge the status quo through his activism and ability to bring laughter into our lives? Dick Gregory passed away on August 19, 2017 at the age of 84. He gained notoriety for being one of the first African American comedians’ to perform in front of white audiences. His audience did not always share the same cultural sentiments as a black man living in America during a time of racial segregation and discrimination. Yet, Dick Gregory was able to use his platform and gift of the gab to advocate for Civil Rights and simultaneously offer laughter to audience members from different cultural backgrounds. Dick Gregory took a sensitive and intelligent direction to his stand up acts by reaching the audience’s preconceived conceptions about the negro life to generate more awareness for inequality in this country.
Dick Gregory’s career launched when he was 28 years old, a struggling comedian living in Chicago. He received a last minute phone call from his agent in 1961 to fill in for another comedian that night. Gregory had to borrow a quarter from his landlord to catch the bus to the PlayBoy Club and speak in front of a convention audience comprised of white frozen-food-industry executives from the South.
“Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said: ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I said: ‘That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’
So then comes the question of: Is a graphic designer from a different cultural background than their target audience qualified to present them with a product? We would argue yes, if the message in the design was honed out of the personal experience of that designer. Dick Gregory left us lessons on how to use our talents to challenge the status quo and have a message delivered in the best way possible. As Americans we are people of different backgrounds, however we still share some broad commonalities such as our history and sensibilities. Yet there are specific ideas and attitudes that may cause different racial groups to respond to the world in different ways. August Wilson explains in his 1990 essay that “Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student they are or how well-meaning their intentions.”
It wouldn’t be authentic to hire a white graphic designer to provide a flyer for the ‘Racism in Medicine Conference 2017‘ that Creative Repute Design Agency just finished for Penn Medical School because although the target audience is open to people from all cultural backgrounds, a minority graphic designer is more mindful of white supremacy and receptive of the mission of this conference. Dick Gregory’s experiences with injustice became the backbone for his artistic expression. Similarly, a graphic design can speak to a wide audience but the product needs to be culturally authentic to really resonate and challenge the audience’s sentiments.
An interview on NPR titled ‘ Social Satirist Dick Gregory Was The ‘First To Have A Crossover Market’ describes how seeing a colored man on Television “being smart and talking to both black and white audiences, you got to go, oh, this guy is really different.” Dick Gregory paved the way for other comedians such as Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor and was one of the first to bring attention to police brutality back in the ’60s. He’s remembered as a funny person. There’s something about his thoughtful delivery that helped get audiences from a wide range of backgrounds in the door.