The time for typography is not now
Three black posters hang together as a triptych on a brick wall, popping boldly from their black background, they make a statement to the viewer through several graphic white forms that flow together, like a snake, to create a single word — “resist.” A word common (and probably) overused since the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the United States. One that feels powerful, yet as a word — or in this instance, a poster — has very little, if any, actual power. As a designer, my reaction to this triptych was one of aesthetic enjoyment, a visceral response to the graphic forms alone. It was a few seconds later, when I made out what word these forms built together, that my feelings quickly shifted to annoyance and disappointment.
The designer who made this poster series, was likely responding to the on-going unrest in the United States over the recent killing of George Floyd. Although that may not have been his original intent, it was in the days following large scale Black Lives Matter protests when they subsequently posted a slideshow of three images showing them on Instagram. It was likely posted as a clear statement of support and empathy, and well-intentioned. But what does this serve if is these posters are nearly illegible as a word due to the chosen typographic and formal treatment? The letters are strong, curvy, white forms that, yes, represent type, but firstly act as a visual pattern on a wall. How is this aiding the black community? The average person, walking by this side street, who may glance at these posters for a split second on their way to work or school, likely doesn’t have the time to stop and contemplate the graphic. So the piece itself become performative and limited to the design community. It’s functional statement rendered meaningless. It becomes not a poster on the street, but an Instagram post for designers, liked by designers, commented on by designers alone, world-wide. (The post in question had 539 likes at the time I wrote this). This designer was not alone, and throughout the summer numerous other examples could be found across the platform, including iconic American graphic designer David Carson.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and consequent Black Lives Matter protests, many designers and artists took to social media to share their creative output and vocalize their support. This is understandable and I felt the urge to react in a similar manner. Most designs likely asked themselves, what can I design to help? Well, I’d like to argue in opposition. Designers — now is not the time for your typography. It is arguably not the time for your design, art, or creative gesture. Designers and design leaders tend to be very white — according to the 2019 AIGA Design Census, 71% of respondents reported being “White/Caucasan.” The needs of marginalized communities and their voices require to be those heard and listened to most in moments as sad as this. Appending a personal or visual style to a “Black Lives Matter” post, misdirects the narrative from the urgency of this movement, and subsequently diminishes it with ego and personal brand. It is our responsibility to consider deeper ways in which we can offer support beyond an aesthetically pleasing Instagram post. Let us focus on this issues at hand: ongoing and ubiquitous racism and police violence against people of color.
In one post that stands out in strong contrast to the above, NYC designer otherwork notes a “refreshingly sensitive response to this moment” in all 1,700 of New York City’s LinkNYC digital displays. Cycling between the names of men and women who have been killed at the hands of police based primarily on the color of their skin, it is the simplicity, clarity, and quietness that make this statement powerful. As otherwork posted, “no gratuitous messaging or visual gimmick. Just the victims of these ceaseless tragedies silently echoing throughout the entire city,” (otherwork Instagram, June 4). It seems the old Mies van der Rohe cliche rings true — less really is more. ●
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