A deceptively simple question: How are you feeling right now? It’s simple because you’re probably sentient and awake; deceptive because the web of human emotion is always undulating, twitching and warping in response to events—real, perceived, micro, and otherwise—in real time.
In 1980, to help people answer that question, the psychologist Robert Plutchik published a paper about the eight core human emotions—joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust—that came with a diagram: the Plutchik Model, a rainbow pinwheel of feelings, flowering to illustrate variants of each emotion. If you can identify how you feel, Plutchik’s theory goes, you can map how an emotion evolves into behavior. Unchecked annoyance mutates into anger, which can turn into rage, fits, fights, and so on. There’s something quaintly naïve about asking an adult to correctly name a feeling by pointing to a chart. But in the 1980s and 1990s, self-help came ensconced in books with sweeping, practically horn-rimmed titles: The Road Less Traveled, The Dance of Intimacy, The Artist’s Way. You had to read a lot of pages to find the road or learn the dance.
Today, you need only find your way to a certain wing of Instagram, where a sea of diagrams float atop gauzy gradient backgrounds, each one showcasing an emotional framework, a processing tool, or a mantra for the taking. Nested concentric circles explain the difference between your inner and outer worlds. A looping arrow asks if you’re building up, or jumping across? In one diagram shaped like a baseball field, mistakes, shame, growth, purpose, and the self all somehow triangulate. You can contemplate the pillars of wellbeing with the help of polka dots and dotted lines, or, if you prefer, with cylindrical drawings that resemble test tubes. The catch, if you see things that way, is that this work doesn’t come from licensed mental health professionals; it’s the collective chorus of a handful designers with a lot of feelings, all trying to process this particularly relentless age of anxiety. You wonder what Plutchik would make of this tableau, where no one is an authority and yet, naming your emotion is just the price of admission.
It’s the collective chorus of a handful designers with a lot of feelings, all trying to process this particularly relentless age of anxiety.
Many of these diagrams belong to Reset, an executive coaching service blended with mindfulness and energetic practice; for clients, the goal is to identify what founder Liz Tran calls your “zone of genius.” Tran started posting graphics last spring when, less than a year after opening Reset’s studio in downtown New York—an investment of $150,000 in personal savings, interiors by Green River Project—the pandemic forced her to shut it down. “I was so upset. It had been my dream,” she says. She shifted Reset’s teachings online, posting an updated drawing of the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle, and a line graph that plots success in relation to failure. “Reset is like my journal, my way of processing challenges and learnings,” she says. “Everyone during Covid has gone through some stage of grief. For me, I found it really helpful to know, Okay, I might be at the bargaining stage right now—but I’m going to come out of it! Soon! With acceptance!”
Before Reset, Tran worked in tech and venture capital for a decade. When she left to pursue a more metaphysical field of study, she read over 100 self-help books in two years. She noticed a blank space: Despite the wealth of literature on the ontological being, there were hardly any visualizations making those ideas newly accessible. “You can write a paragraph about how self-love is a building block to achieving romantic love, but it doesn’t feel as visceral as looking at a flowchart—to see what flows into what,” she says.
Tran sketches out her diagrams in pencil and paper before handing them off to Tessa Forrest, who designs for Reset. Forrest, 27, is also the designer behind Subliming.jpg, an Instagram project with 525,000 followers that, since 2015, has published an assortment of quotes from figures like Ram Dass, Pema Chödrön, and Octavio Paz, rendered in high-vibe colors and vintage fonts. Like Tran, Forrest describes Subliming.jpg as deeply personal. “If you want to know what’s going on with me, just check Subliming,” she told me back in November over the phone, adding that she was “going through some pretty serious depression,” when she started immersing herself in spiritual subject matter. She describes designing as a form of catharsis. “I can see it in my brain, I can feel what this message says to me—is it bold or light, airy, or tight?”
These days Forrest works primarily with text, but many of her earlier (some archived) posts had a hand in shaping this new Instagram genre of spiritual diagrams. The night Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, Forrest posted a fuzzy, Yves Klein-blue circle, suffusing outward into green and peach tones. The type reads, “The whole future lies in uncertainty: Live immediately.” It remains Forrest’s most popular post, and while she likes it and keeps it on the grid, she also regards it as a kind of tipping point—the post that launched a thousand copycats, some of whom have messaged Forrest, asking for tips on how to start making their own quote-posts. “The question throws me,” she says. “I’ve been sharing from my heart, posting as a form of expression for myself, and it feels like I’ve created a formula for people to pick up on the reshares. That may be petty … but I’ve also never promised that I’m as spiritually evolved as my posts are.” In any event: “I’ll probably never do a circle gradient again.”
Not that we’re running low. The gradient is a key hallmark of the genre, a perfect dovetailing of a long-running internet trend and the color clouds in aura photography, which is taken with cameras that capture the subject’s electromagnetic field of energy. Other common features include: vector-drawn ovals, sine graphs, lit-up human body silhouettes, arrows that swirl and spiral like a Slinky. Some pieces look Xeroxed, as if from an old physics textbook, even though most if not all of this work springs from Adobe. There’s a scientific undercurrent, but no actual science. Look at too many in a row, and the effect can be disorienting—squiggly lines and circles representing disjointed notions of the ego, or coping, or healing. What does that even mean? I hear on a loop in my head.
“I’ll probably never do a circle gradient again.”
Stefy Loret de Mola is a 22-year-old designer who lives in Chicago and began posting during the pandemic to assuage her anxiety and insomnia. “The only thing I could do to distract myself was to design late at night,” she says. One of Loret de Mola’s early all-nighters yielded her breakout post—a bright blue meditation on guilt and anxiety—but she says she really hit her stride while designing The Cycle of Loneliness. Over the phone, Loret de Mola walks me through the diagram, explaining why each circle or line looks the way it does. Conflict: the full circle fighting with an empty circle. Loneliness: an empty circle surrounded by negative space. Etc., etc. Listening to her guided tour, the post starts to come into focus. The idea—how our bruises can beget more bruises—gains a foothold in my mind. So, too, does Loret de Mola as the person behind the design: “Right now, every day that I’m inside, I feel like I’m losing sense of myself,” she says. “I’m trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense.”
The central paradox of this very tender work is that it lives on Instagram. The platform stopped being a place for pure creative expression a long time ago; today, it barely makes a secret of the fact that it algorithmically rewards those who treat posting like a full-time job. The result, coupled with the rampant tone-policing and virtue-signaling that frothed over during lockdown, is a platform where followers may find it hard to remember that the people they follow are, in fact, real people and not brands or companies. “I get people commenting, ‘this is stupid, this doesn’t make sense, someone explain this to me,’” says Loret de Mola. “But it means so much to me; it’s my heart.”
Bad manners unfold on Subliming.jpg’s page, as well, where some followers criticize Forrest’s designs (especially when she quotes Osho, the controversial figurehead popularized in Wild Wild Country, and an important touchstone for Forrest) while others send messages like, “need an iPhone wallpaper asap.” (Forrest in reply: “I’m not a wallpaper factory. Please refrain from demanding anything from this page.”) “It used to be that my community was so much more about love,” she says. But with Instagram success comes an onslaught of feedback—especially when the work is so intentionally stylized. For a bleeding-heart designer creating from a place of emotion, it’s probably a strange cocktail: an audience of strangers watching your spiritual practice, people like me writing articles about how it’s part of “what’s happening online.”
“What does it mean to have an entire spiritual practice that occurs on a platform engineered to set us up to have low self-esteem, to spy on us, to fragment our identities?” asks Prinita Thevarajah, the producer of Studio Ānanda, a digital healing community steeped in anti-colonial wellness practices. Studio Ānanda overlaps slightly with the other woozy, aura-inflected graphic design on Instagram. But it’s also a larger project with a website where you can read an interview with a cyber doula, or an essay on seeking queer ancestry. For Thevarajah, the answer to what to do about Instagram more or less comes down to ditching it. She posts for Studio Ānanda, but spends her personal social media time on Tumblr and Are.na.
If you spend time looking at any of these Instagram accounts—whether it’s Ānanda’s, Subliming.jpg, Reset’s, or any other similarly aestheticized feed—then the words in these posts might become recurring thoughts in your head. “If you reread these quotes, or even screenshot it and use it as your background,” Thevarajah says, “it allows for a mantra.” The practice of repetition and mantra is baked into the creation of the work, whether it’s Tran sketching Reset diagrams by hand, or Loret de Mola spending hours on a single post, rereading a line of text as a means to quell anxiety. But that experience is only available for users who do something unusual on social media: slow down, and scroll with some kind of intentionality. To borrow from a caption on an atypically arch Studio Ānanda post: “The next time you find yourself aimlessly scrolling through your feed, pause and ask yourself, what am I actually searching for?”
The truth is, on Instagram, most of us aren’t searching for much of anything. We’re killing time, noodling around, seeing what’s going on beyond our own compressed, pandemic-era lives. And then, sandwiched between memes and things to buy, there are these diagrams. The right post, at the right time, in a design that appeals to you—it can be a balm, if you let it. And for all the snippy criticisms, many people do. There are almost always a wealth of comments saying some version of, This is exactly what I needed to see today. Loret de Mola even recalls one commenter organizing a discussion group, so people could talk more about her posts.
I first saw and saved a Sumbliming.jpg post in March 2019; almost two years later, I’ve returned to it many times. Also two years later: an avalanche of spiritual aphorisms, spun up to look diagnostic—cheat sheets for soothing your soul during a generally soul-crushing time. They proliferate, and I wonder how newcomers sift through this patchwork of self-help, missives from people who feel just as lost and worried as the rest of us. My guess is people will click through and scroll past; my hope is they save one or two, and think of it often. Historically speaking, it seems like a good time to find a mantra.