A Piercing Moment of Clarity

This column – 2021 GDUSA People To Watch: A Piercing Moment of Clarity – was originally published in conjunction with our January/February 2021 print edition. GK

“Work hard, snack often.”

Not to make light of the fundamental challenges of physical and business survival that many face during the pandemic – we’ll get to those – but this little gem of wisdom from designer, letterer and social media star Lauren Hom in our 58th annual “People to Watch” feature resonates with me because it sums up how I have chosen to cope with the unthinkable – and why I will spend 2021 trying to reduce my waist size and lower my cholesterol. I suppose that on the spectrum, the choice to overwork and overeat is less praiseworthy than installing a stationary bike at home or canvassing for votes or adopting a puppy, but more productive than a descent into alcohol or drugs or Bridgerton.

People used to say that graphic designers are visual people, and don’t communicate well with words. People don’t say that anymore.

Certainly not after they have read, over decades, the commentary of the newsworthy and influential designers whom we quaintly refer to as “People To Watch.” I have learned much about design – and life – and been moved in the process – from these contemplations on the past, present and future. And as we turn the page on annus horribilis, it is not surprising that the individual and aggregate contributions by this year’s group are particularly focused.

I will let you draw your own conclusions except to note a few broad and recurring themes: that this piercing moment of clarity has crystallized the power and potential of graphic communications to serve and shape commerce, culture and causes; that there is a reasonable expectation for an elevated role for graphic designers going forward; that out of the crucible will come design practices and processes more efficient and effective operationally, as well as more responsive to the personal needs of employees; that the pandemic has accelerated certain trends in how we interact with each other and consume information, products and services that must be heeded; and that many creative professionals want to refocus their work, at least in part, on culturally and politically relevant issues that refresh their mission and those of their clients.

Lots to think about but, first, I need a cupcake.

Design Is In Politics and Politics Is In Design

One other point, though I may regret raising it. I included the word “politically” above with some trepidation because, over the years, mentioning politics in a “design” magazine has been a third rail of publishing. “I read design magazines and websites for design, not politics [you idiot]” has been a common refrain. The “you idiot” is sometimes – but not always – left unsaid.

Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that in 2021, much of what we see and hear is freighted with political messages and subtexts, and that designers are uniquely suited to carry the freight. Artists and designers lean left, yes, but I am not advocating for a particular agenda – there is a surprising diversity of opinion in our community and I myself am likely to the center-right of most of you.

What I am advocating for is recognition that – as many of our designers and students to watch proclaim – politics is an appropriate arena for designers to apply their talents and make a difference as they see it. The prolific Steven Heller, in a recent Daily Heller roundup (January 17), has a provocative and wise take on the interplay between graphic design, politics, and free expression.

These matters weigh heavily on me too in the post-Trump era, along with the erosion of institutional trust, and I intend to revisit them with you soon. Meanwhile, I leave you with Mr. Heller’s conclusion: “But to ignore politics entirely is to chop off an arm and leg, if not the head of the artists’ and designers’ thinking and making. Let’s keep it civil, but let us acknowledge that design is in politics and politics is in design.”