We held our first ever Eye on Design Conference last week, and with nearly 20 designers, illustrators, and artists joining us on the main stage, there was a lot to discuss. Topics included everything from design education to sex, mental health, virtual reality, gender disparity, and outer space—all explored through the lens of design.
That dialogue will continue to play out in a variety of different forms, and through many different voices, throughout the next year. But to start us out, we decided to revisit some of the conference highlights. We soon found ourselves with more questions than answers—the most compelling ones posed at the conference were still on our minds, and we added to those a few of our own.
1 How can we use our visual work to represent all kinds of people, not just ourselves?
Illustrators Wendy MacNaughton, Julia Rothman, and Ping Zhu took the stage at the conference to talk about women and illustration, which may lead you to believe their common interest is in representing and supporting people who are somewhat like them—namely, illustrators who identify as women. And by all means, this is true: MacNaughton and Rothman founded the online directory Women Who Draw for that express purpose, and Zhu is a vocal proponent of equity in the illustration world. But the conversation was less about the separatism that is often necessary for increasing visibility of underrepresented groups, and more about representing more of everyone, all the time.
Zhu’s self-prescribed mandate for illustrating people—which she does for stories in the New York Times, The NewYorker and elsewhere—is to draw the way the world actually looks, not just the people who look like her. This means different ages, genders, races, ethnic backgrounds, clothing styles, etc.
It sounds obvious, until you start scrolling through people’s website portfolios and see a lot of the same. When those with a lot of professional success in the field are also those who are traditionally in a place of visibility and power, only drawing your likeness can contribute to the erasure of other identities. The old axioms to “draw from life” and “write what you know” don’t have to conflict with this expanded palette: as Zhu aptly pointed out, if you’re only representing those similar to you, you’re not really looking around. The world is diverse, and those represented through our visual art and design should be, too.
2 How do we protect our rights when we finally land our dream client?
Attorney Katie Lane stole the show with a talk on none other than contracts and copyrights, combining an engaging stage presence with straightforward explanation of terms that usually make our eyes glaze over. But anyone who freelances, works for hire, and/or takes on clients—which covers a ton of us these days—knows that it takes special skill to protect your work and not get screwed over. Lane is that rare personality who is fluent in legalese but also speaks a language creatives can understand (she has a background in theater and a longstanding love of comics). And she’s also, by her own admission, “obsessed with negotiation,” which is great news for those of us who… aren’t.
Lane stressed knowing when and how you should copyright your work (see: copyright.gov) and when that’s not an option (work for hire). It’s the latter that she focused on in her talk, and she gave salient advice on how navigate the tricky waters of contract negotiation.
So how do you draw up a contract that is clear, effective, and works in your favor? “People don’t buy your services,” she explained. “They invest in themselves.” That means tying your payment to your client getting what it needs. Her formula:
3 When is social media useful, and when is it just destructive?
Mona Chalabi is a journalist and data editor for the Guardian, where she writes, creates data visualizations, and co-hosts a very good video series called Vagina Dispatches. Her Instagram is made up mostly of these really brilliant charts and graphs, usually drawn (by hand and computer) on graph paper. They sometimes feature genitalia, too. One such post is the below “Male Employees in Tech” infographic, a pretty genius (and graphic) representation of the tech boys club, and an inspired re-imagination of the stuffy bar chart. Yet several commenters pointed out that the design, while clever, reinforces a gender binary (man=penis; woman=vagina) and perpetuates the erasure of trans and non binary people.
Chalabi listened to her commenters and took their constructive criticism to heart. Ultimately, she said, she left the post up because she felt that the information represented was still accurate at a glance (tech is, after all, an industry mostly made up of cis white men) and because she felt the conversation taking place in the comments was worth keeping around. But the next time she wanted to depict gender disparity, she opted for another representation:
For Chalabi, getting and listening to feedback on social media is helpful—it shows her what topics are most popular with people, lets her workshop designs in a less formal setting than the Guardian, and ultimately makes her better at representing data accurately and appropriately. But Chalabi also pointed out that data designers have to tread carefully: if the information you put on social media is in fact inaccurate, there’s a responsibility to take it down immediately. False information—particularly in image form—spreads quickly these days.
4 How can we optimize our commuting time for maximum productivity?
Just kidding. There’s no need to be productive on the subway. But you can and should entertain yourself when you’re feeling bored, and for that there’s no better example to follow than illustrator Jon Burgerman, who is highly respected as a subway doodler. On a trip to Korea, he started sketching the bodies of unsuspecting train passengers in his notebook, then later switched to neon-colored iPhone doodles that he put on Instagram. Those on Burgerman’s train car who were absorbed in their phones risked being eaten by a giant duck, while others were burdened with lap-sized hot dogs. Burgerman learned via Instagram comments that it’s illegal to photograph people in Korea without their consent, and thus also considered very uncool. In New York no one cared.
Burgerman’s approach to creating humor and delight out of the most mundane circumstances is infectious. And the tools he uses—the latest Instagram and iPhone features, mostly, or even pen and paper—aren’t prohibitive or sophisticated. His ease and sense of humor made his talk a total delight, but it was his work that reminded us that creating space just for play and creation can be just as important as Getting Things Done.
5 Why are design schools so much more diverse than the profession at large?
In a panel discussion on design and education alongside Hassan Rahim and Erik Brandt, Eric Hu brought up the fact that by and large, the classes in design schools are relatively balanced in terms of gender. The ratios of race and ethnic backgrounds often mirror, or close to mirror, that of the overall population. In terms of higher education—and the professional opportunities that stem from it—design is actually pretty diverse. So why, when you look at the professional world, are the positions of power still mostly male, and mostly white?
This is not the sort of question that the panel had one correct answer to, but it’s an important one to pose. We know that women drop out of the workforce at higher rates than men, largely because of childbirth and childrearing. We also know that society disadvantages marginalized groups in ways that educational opportunity alone won’t reverse. But something that Rahim pointed out struck us as as equally important: when he asked younger colleagues and friends how they felt about their design education, one responded that he didn’t see himself reflected in any of the designers that made up the bulk of his design school curricula. If most of the design heroes taught in university are white and male, it can be hard for those outside those categories to see themselves as ever rising to that same status.
6 How can we use VR as a vehicle for empathy?
Filmmaker Gary Hustwit is best known for his design documentary trilogy: Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized. He’s now working on a fourth in that vein, a film on Dieter Rams, but lately he’s been pouring most of his energy into a virtual reality content studio called Scenic. He and his team there have been exploring immersive VR technology to use in non-fiction storytelling—like a 360 video for Artsy on the Venice Biennale, or an eight-minute rumination on the work of Buckminster Fuller.
The new work Hustwit played on stage took the immersive quality of VR storytelling and applied it in a really compelling direction, with a VR experience about youth incarceration called Detained. Viewers were transported inside of a juvenile detention center in Richmond, Virginia, and later inside of one of the cells. It was a visceral experience—at 6 x 9 ft, the cell was claustrophobia-inducingly tiny—and that view from the inside felt a lot more impactful than reading the measurements of the cell in an article, for example, or even seeing a photo or regular video of it. Using VR to experience video games or art fairs is fun, but Hustwit’s video drove home the fact that it could also be our most powerful tool for simulating the experience of living in someone else’s shoes. In other words, VR can be a potent medium for evoking empathy, and a worthwhile pursuit for interaction designers.
7 What impact can design and technology really have on mental health?
The intersection of design and mental health is a complex space, as we’ve found in our coverage over the past year. Attempts by the media to treat it broadly are reductive at best, destructive at worst. Which is why having three very specific, and very diverse, perspectives on our design and mental health panel felt key. Illustrator Qieer Wang and designer Meg Lewis both work in the creative field but devote much of their energies toward mental health themes. Roxanne Kibben, former project director at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Chemical and Mental Health, has more than three decades’ experience working in the mental health and addiction fields.
The three of them discussed the work and ethos that make them feel the best, as well as their own work aimed at making others feel good—whether with design that brings joy, physical environments that support mental health treatment, or actually being the one to provide that treatment (in Kibben’s case). And while technology can often make us feel overwhelmed and disconnected, the panelists were optimistic about its potential for improving mental health. From a futurist and gamer developing a program to treat anxiety and depression, to online support groups, to app-based meditation, to Qieer’s own interactive work that probes these similar themes, technology is expanding our options for treatment, education, and understanding.