Gordon Kaye: We Keep Getting Back Up

Seeking A Silver Lining Is Tricky Business

I’ve been reading an eye-opening book by John Barry called “The Great Influenza” about the confluence of World War I and the so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50-60 million people worldwide. I keep staring at the copyright – 2005 – because the book reads like today’s headlines in terms of how a public health crisis can tear at the very fabric of society. I was also struck by the fact that the most popular song in that time of war, disease and social unrest – Keep The Homefires Burning – centered on the phrase “There’s a silver lining / Through the dark clouds shining.”

The participants in our annual “Socially Responsible Designers” editorial feature – a look at creative and thought leaders who are designing for good –  also choose to see “silver lining” to the annus horribilis that is 2020. The consensus is that the current hard times will serve – is already serving – as a catalyst for positive change as they see it. More specifically, they envision opportunities to refocus their practices around more culturally relevant issues, to find more efficient and innovative ways to operate, to refresh the mission of their clients, and to reaffirm the power of effective design to shape commerce, culture, and causes.

Interestingly, these views parallel the results of a new survey conducted by Adobe in anticipation of the Adobe MAX conference. There, 91% of creative professionals say that the events of 2020 have inspired them to bring real-world issues into their work; 49% are pivoting to campaigns with positive social impact; and 89% believe they are thinking more creatively than ever before. In a blogpost, Monte Lutz, Global Head of Marketing, Digital Media at Adobe, concludes: “Despite the uncertainty, creatives are turning 2020 into an opportunity to thrive.”

An Opportunity To Pivot

I have excerpted a few comments from our participants:

• Gianmaria Schoenlib: While this year has been marked by unprecedented challenges for all us, this moment in time paradoxically represents an opportunity for designers and creatives of all types to use their skills and talent to raise awareness… Where there’s an obstacle, design offers a powerful solution.”

• Cornell Beard: “Most designers naturally gravitate toward designing for good. We have the ability to motivate people, express shared experiences or inspire positivity through design. This year has been a big pivot point for people in every profession. Despite the struggles, we designers should gain clarity about what our calling is when designing for good and be moved to do it.”

• Andrew Brynjulson: “In 2020, as the world becomes more and more complex, I foresee consumers responding by trying to simplify their lives – weeding out purchases, brands, and activities that are less important in favor of the few that they feel most connected to. Designers will be drafted in that fight for connection.”

• David Langton:  For websites, we found that now IS the time to launch, we’ve launched four in the last few months. More people are home and are paying more attention to websites and online activity. Our nonprofit clients are pivoting… the online audience tends to be younger so this pushes some of the legacy nonprofits that we work with to reexamine their marketing efforts.”

• Gus Granger: “The intensifying effect of social media combined with the awakening people are going through in understanding suppressed and ugly aspects of US history has made the role of designers more important than ever. Our ability to build understanding through inventive, striking and thought-provoking creations makes the designer a uniquely essential worker in this period of crisis.”

• Leslie Greenly Smith: “This is a pivotal time for our Library in so many ways. We are looking at this as a wonderful opportunity to be innovative and think ‘outside the book’…”

• Sarah Rutherford:  “We [as educators] have an opportunity to expand how our students are prepared to practice design in their careers… We can build assignments and curricula that allow students to incorporate the principles of equity and inclusion, anti-racism, and social impact in their work.”

• Pam Tremble: The past six months of managing siloed and fragmented communication across departments in the middle of a public health emergency has demonstrated the need for a formal public communication strategy… Our small inhouse graphic design and media relations team is expanding to a more unified marketing and communications agency model.

• Kelli Miller: “We are already seeing designers self-initiate for change… Once we get past this election we can take it from there – there certainly is no lack of issues that design can help change.”

The Human Comedy

Let’s be clear. Looking for a silver lining in the midst of disaster is tricky business; no one in their right mind should believe that death and despair are worth the game. On the other hand, we have all been reminded – as if we need reminding – that the human condition involves getting knocked down. And one of our more admirable traits is that we keep getting back up for more and, sometimes, for better. It’s an admirable trait that this year’s cohort of “Responsible Designers” share in abundance.


This commentary originally appeared in the October 2020 print edition of Graphic Design USA/GDUSA magazine.