Don't Sleep: The Urgent Messages of Oliver Munday

What does “design for dissent” in 2018 entail? What are its responsibilities, aims, and aspirations? A new book published by Rizzoli, Don’t Sleep: The Urgent Messages of Oliver Munday, shares responses in imagery by one of America’s foremost editorial designers on politics and social issues.

Described as “part personal history, part design philosophy, and part advocacy”, the book presents Munday’s illustrations for the New York Times and The Atlantic, among others, as well as book covers, and other images created for the book. The book’s texts are minimal but impactful; in addition to excellent commentaries by Munday, New Yorker critic Hilton Als penned the introduction. Here, he talks to us about his process, social responsibility as a designer, and advice for those who want to become more politically engaged but don’t know where to start.

How do you maximize power in your images? 

A lot of factors have to coalesce. A lack of subtlety can degrade from an image’s power. If you’re too nuanced, you risk the reader missing the point. It’s tempting to deploy humor, but it’s obviously not always appropriate.

Fortunately for me, this work is always attached to someone else’s perspective. So I’m trying to signify with a visual that’s immediately resonant and evokes the right things. I look at it as distillation or amplification.

Illustration for a 2013 New Yorker article about the language of money
Illustration for a 2013 New Yorker article about the language of money

Walk us through your process of making an image, like the “currency mouths” one. The article was about the rhetoric of money, right?

That was the first piece I did for The New Yorker. The last sketch I generated was the one they picked. Sometimes it’s a matter of exorcising those bad ideas first.

I looked at currencies: the pound, the yen, the dollar bill. I often look at something familiar until it feels strange and new. I thought about the language of money, how we talk about it. A kind of poetry happened when I stacked those mouths.

It’s an oddly tender image—pun intended. Those world leaders were also people who brushed their teeth.

It changed the focus, allowed you to think about the human side of [the topic]. Money is so abstracted, and so much of what I do deals with framing. I traffick in images that already exist; I’m not making them. I’m just framing them in a way that forces you to look at them differently.

I like to bring dissonant things together, explore tensions, find overlaps. I want my images to work multivalently. I love how Susan Sontag describes how imagery works in On Photography: “What in reality is discrete, images join.”

An illustration a 2010 New York Times article on the difficulty of voting
An illustration a 2010 New York Times article on the difficulty of voting

How do you start playing around with images? 

It’s unglamorous. I do a Google Images search to see where the clichés are. I think about pre-existing language, how those objects are understood. Currencies, a male or female symbol, a political figure—those visuals already exist with their own resonances. You’re there to exploit that meaning versus making it out of whole cloth. Subversion is a big part of it.

For me, it’s all about the idea. That’s where the excitement happens, less in making it. Style is subservient: it comes into play because style mediates the idea. What’s the right way to represent something? Think of a drawing of a hand versus a photo. They’re very different emotionally.

An illustration from a 2009 New Yorker article on the lessons of Vietnam
An illustration from a 2009 New Yorker article on the lessons of Vietnam
A 2015 illustration for a New Yorker article on ornithology and the environment
A 2015 illustration for a New Yorker article on ornithology and the environment

Don’t Sleep includes two essays of original images, one of which opens the book.  Tell me about that.

I can’t take credit for that—my editor thought these were important [and suggested] moving one essay to the beginning, to set the book’s tone. Self-initiated projects are daunting—there’s nothing to hide behind. But the freedom to make my own statements and visualize them was important. It felt like the beginning of something.

The opening salvo, as we called it, is a visual state of the union. In the Heritage essay [later in the book], I wanted to play with temporality. Imagine we’re in a new future looking back on a strange past. Or we’re imagining a future that’s unimaginable now. It changes how I understand the current moment: by exploring alternate pasts and potential futures. It speaks to the heritage and mythologies of our country, the things we believe in.

“Heritage” includes many racially charged images, like Kalief Browder reimagined as a bust or a slave poised on the Statue of Liberty’s plinth.  
What if we were forced to confront a huge statue like that, reckoning with the original sin of slavery? Things would be different. It clearly implicates us in the trauma and disparity we currently live with.

What does social responsibility mean to you as a designer?

When I first started learning design, I was excited by Emory Douglas and visuals accompanying political and social movements. It spoke to the potential of design. But I don’t think of myself as an activist at all. Image-making can prefigure activism and build awareness. That’s an important step to provoke and incite [action].

This work serves a function, and my understanding of the limit of that function has changed over time. Now my focus is more granular: smaller decisions are more political than the large ones.

An illustration from the opening salvo of Don't Sleep
An illustration from the opening salvo of Don’t Sleep

You write in your introduction about such a choice: choosing the color of someone’s skin in an illustration.

You’re making a picture of a scientist, it’s almost hard-wired—make them white. But why? How many times have I reaffirmed my own image subconsciously? What happens when you represent diverse figures in positions of esteem?

What would you say to anyone who wants to become more politically engaged but doesn’t know where to start?

What you buy, how you judge someone on the train, how you get to work: it’s all advocacy. The politics of the everyday are very important. Be aware of how powerful systems are built on small decisions.