A month ago, the brilliant designer Bobby C. Martin spoke to my typography students at Fordham University about his storied career. Everyone oohed and aahed. After class, my students poured back out into the crowded city. Bobby and I walked to the subway together. Parting ways at the turnstile we went to tap elbows but a sense of camaraderie overcame the Coronavirus advisories and we fell into a handshake and a hug.
A month later, my typography class meets exclusively via video chat. My students are scattered—sheltering in places across the globe. We peer at each other through browser windows from bedrooms, couches, dinner tables, and dens. Our classes begin with a grid of live portraits punctuated by red mute icons. I ease into discussing the finer points of typography by first speaking frankly about our shared fear of the newly pronounced unknown.
I ease into discussing the finer points of typography by first speaking frankly about our shared fear of the newly pronounced unknown.
During our last meeting, I shared my screen to show a recent front page of the New York Times. A goldenrod graph of unemployment claims since 2000 wobbles thickly across the bottom of the unfolded paper until March 2020, when a line representing last month’s three million job losses rockets out of the frame all the way up to the masthead. I shared the cover as an example of how design can present important information in ways that deepen our understanding. Indeed my students’ understanding appeared deepened by the graphic: I saw a look of fear flicker across the grid of faces—once clear career paths now dead-ending against a wall.
I remember a similar feeling during my own last year of school, which began in September of 2001. The day the towers fell, I stumbled onto campus, where a professor was welcoming dazed students into her classroom. I was scared. Nobody knew what would happen next. The professor extrapolated from her own experiences during the Vietnam war to hazard a hypothesis. She vaulted over the morning’s still smoldering horrors to warn us that the government was about to dash our civil liberties in the name of defence, and declared it our civic duty not to bite our tongues during the dark days ahead. Remembering this professor, I stopped sharing the unemployment graphic with my own students, and began telling the story of how my own career began. Maybe I could describe a viewport through which my students might be able imagine their careers eventually starting.
I graduated in 2002 and moved to Detroit. For a year, I worked odd jobs and slipped into credit card debt. The following year, I worked as a bank teller. In the evenings and on weekends, I worked on personal projects and fumbled through the occasional freelance gig—clocking hours of practice however I could. Year three began by moving to Brooklyn without a job. Again I struggled to pay my bills. After three months, a friend introduced me to a designer, who introduced me to an art director, who happened to be hiring. I went in for an interview, and then a test, and eventually was offered an in-house position that was technically staffed through a temp agency. Three years later, I was offered a salary position. It took me five years to get my foot all the way in the door.
My students are now facing similar fates. I myself may soon return to a stretch of time when I’ll need to think on my toes again—to string things together in order to make ends meet. What we all need right now, and for the foreseeable future, is resilience.
What we all need right now, and for the foreseeable future, is resilience.
In 2010, I attended Milton Glaser’s storied summer program at The School of Visual Arts. He finished the week with an assignment that I often now give to my own students: Write a detailed place description of your perfect day at work five years in the future. Milton had been assigning this exercise for 30 years and had many stories of students who had followed up five years later to report the results. He felt there was a correlation between the level of detail in the description and the degree to which the author’s predictions came true. I always finish explaining the assignment by saying that this is not an exercise in magical thinking. Rather, it’s about specific thinking, and specific thinking leads to focused choices. I let my students know I’d be giving them this assignment later on in the semester.
Imagining the future in detail is about designing a destination—a vision to hold on to when things aren’t going as planned. This same mentality helped me stay focused on my career goals while processing people’s deposits at the bank—it reframes setbacks as wobbles in a longer story arc. If we can muster a vision of our lives five years from now, after a vaccine has been designed, once the economy has hobbled back from the brink of collapse, if we can picture it, maybe that image will give us the resilience we will need to endure all the hardship that lies ahead.
Imagining the future in detail is about designing a destination—a vision to hold on to when things aren’t going as planned.
I finished talking and we sat quietly looking at each other for a moment without speaking. Another ambulance wailed past my bedroom window. I took a deep breath. A student asked a question. We had a brief discussion. Then we pulled up the homework and began a group critique. For an hour we forgot about our uncertain futures and lost ourselves in the ever present form of typographic detail.