“Keep cool but care,” writes Thomas Pynchon in his 1966 novel The Crying Lot of 49 somewhat sardonically…
I’m not surprised when RISD graphic design student Noah Beckwith cites the apocalyptic satire of saturnalian inventiveness as having informed his sensibility. The ironic whimsy of the American postmodern spirit is clear in the young designer’s compositions, in his childish experiments with MacPaint and his use of “naïve” free online fonts that bubble up all over the place. Beckwith combines an imaginative and stylish grasp of post-Paint materials with the forms of Modernism, spliced together with Neue Haas Grotesk and the rigorous compositional grids associated with Swiss style.
“Through this rigor and spontaneity I hope to make work that oscillates between the sincere idealism of Modernism and the irony of Postmodernism,” says Beckwith. “The absurdity and horror of the time we live in is unavoidable, so instead of just holding up a mirror I’m attempting to transform it through design that fosters empathy.”
In weaving together formal principles from two eras, the young designer has found a happy medium; Beckwith’s poster designs keep cool, but also—with a sincerity devoid of Pynchonian sarcasm—seem to care. His poster How Can Design Foster Empathy? is the clearest distillation of these myriad influences: somewhat traditional typography mingles with bulbous shapes in deep blue.
The empathy question Beckwith asks is one not to be confused with the “design-thinking” buzzword. When designing, he’s attempting to encourage an immediate sensation in a viewer through pure form, color, and gentle wording. I think of his work as the graphic design equivalent of a hug: I’d gladly send his “post truth, postmodern, post figuration post cards” to those I most care about across the world.
“I’ve started to think of my process as a kind of weaving,” says Beckwith. “With the postcards for example, I start in one place (MacPaint) and then head to newer programs to manipulate what I’ve drawn. There’s a back and forth as I often have to go back to Paint. The encoding of information is similar to weaving.” I like to pull the thread of this weaving metaphor further, and say that it’s through these chunky, digital braids that Beckwith creates something so utterly warm.
“The postcards are a form of de-professionalization, and a resistance to the sleek shine of power,” adds Beckwith, showing me the glittery paper that his postcards are artfully printed on.
Most recently, for a lecture series for RISD’s 2017 Graphic Design Speaker Series, Beckwith applied his thinking to a more practical purpose. “The speakers are all not part of the Western, male canon of graphic design. I therefore took the black on white and Neue Haas Grotesk that is very much part of the canon, and decided to shake it up by filling the white space with energy. Then I placed all these wacky fonts, and treated the type by italicizing it, or underlining, or by raising the base line.” His monochrome sensibility in this composition is very much informed by the thinking of Experimental Jetset, while the playful manipulation of the rules of type is inspired by the likes of French type whizz Benoît Bodhuin. He goes on to cite fashion brands like Comme des Garçons and Eckhaus Latta as equally informative to his practise.
Sadness, poignancy, love, compassion, and the flamboyant: Beckwith communicates all these things and more through his dexterous, chance juxtapositions, and a little bit of Paint.