Profile: Georg Olden (1920-1975)

Georg Olden was an AIGA medal-winning graphic designer who worked in television and advertising. A Japanese magazine, Idea, once listed him among the top fifteen designers in the United States.

Early life

George Elliott Olden was born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 13, 1920, as the grandson of a slave and the son of a Baptist preacher. In youth he attended Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., then Virginia State College, before dropping out shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor to work as a graphic designer for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the CIA.

Career

During his time at the OSS, Olden worked for some of America’s leading artists, designers, and writers and made contacts that opened significant professional opportunities after the war. When the war ended in 1945, the head of the OSS communications division, Colonel Lawrence W. Lowman, who in civilian life became Vice President of CBS’s television division, was searching for someone who “had a full grasp of the whole range of commercial art techniques.” He found Olden, and from a one-man operation involved with six programs a week, Olden eventually headed a staff of 14 in charge of 60 weekly shows. When he joined the network in 1945, there were 16,000 television sets in the entire nation. By the time he left the network in 1960, there were 85 million sets, one for every two Americans.

From 1945 to 1960, Olden worked with William Golden, art director for CBS, and as such was one of the first African-Americans to work in television. At CBS, he was an ardent champion of contemporary art, commissioning on-air art and title cards by modern artists. “The door is open for artists on TV,” he proclaimed in 1954. One example was the creation of the “To Tell the Truth man” icon that was used during the 1956-1978 seasons of that show. In 1960, he began to work in advertising and went on to design the Clio Award as well as receive seven of them. In 1960, he moved to BBDO as the TV group art supervisor. In 1963, he became the VP-senior art director at the major firm, McCann Erickson.

In 1963, he was the first African-American to design a postage stamp for the United States Postal Service. The design commemorated the centennial of the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation with a simple design of a broken chain in black on a blue background. He attended a White House ceremony where the stamp was introduced by President John F. Kennedy.

In 1970, McCann Erickson laid him off with the reason being cited as the economic downturn of the time.

Personal life

Olden has been said to have a mixed legacy in terms of race. Despite his position at McCann Erickson, he tended to avoid pressing racial issues or pressing firms to hire blacks, saying acceptance into the industry is a matter of talent. His stance on race often earned him the description of being arrogant and standoffish. However, in 1970, he sued his former employer, McCann Erickson, for wrongful termination caused by discrimination. He cited the dissolution of the Professional Advisory Council (PAC), of which he was a member, was a conscious decision to not allow him to move up in the company thereby keeping him at the level in which he joined the company. McCann argued that Olden never requested a transfer out of PAC into a position that would lead to greater promotion within the company. In 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found reasonable cause that the company practiced discriminatory hiring, but did not find reasonable cause on behalf of Olden.

After moving to Los Angeles, California, Olden started a class-action lawsuit against McCann Erickson for discrimination, but was shot to death, allegedly by a live-in girlfriend who was arrested and tried a few days before the class-action lawsuit was scheduled to begin. She pleaded not guilty and was acquitted in court.

Olden was the father of author Marc Olden and child actor/model Georg Olden, Jr.

 

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