In my limited 45 minutes of bi-weekly therapy sessions I often struggle to let my design drama take up time from some deeper interpersonal digging I get to do with my therapist. When I do share design drama, client crises, or time-management struggles, my therapist kindly nudges me by saying, “This is not my realm of expertise.” Beyond the occasional design-twitter rant, there’s limited space for designers and creatives to attend to the intersection of our mental and financial well being. There seems to be a vacuum of the interpersonal and creative dread that is the byproduct of the design process.
When Drew Litowitz and James Chae, the co-founders of the podcast Graphic Support Group, asked me to make an appearance on the show, I was prompted to start talking by thinking of when do I feel the most emotional in designing? (You can hear how that unfolded here.) Now, the tables have flipped, and I ask the designers and co-hosts what it takes to run a podcast with the premise of wanting to therapeutically support graphic designers but also have deeper conversations with an array of designers in a style that wouldn’t limit or foreclose possibilities of relating to work and designing. Asking the designers the profound question: “How do they feel when they design?”
How did you start this podcast?
Drew Litowitz: James, and I were talking because he was doing a magazine called Pudding. He was interviewing me for it. We talked about my music and how it intersects with my design work. The interview got pretty emotional. We had talked in grad school about potentially doing a podcast where we interviewed people. Meanwhile, I had a graphic design studio called Graphic Support Group that I started for my own freelance practice. The idea came from building a network of designers who support each other and support clients. Clients come to designers because they need support. But it’s also this tongue-in-cheek nod to commercial graphic design, which a lot of designers in the academia or high-brow settings frown upon. Support for designers who work. A support group or therapy for designers.
James Chae: I have always had gripes with design press as a writer. It’s boring to just talk about someone sitting at a desk. So there’s all this superfluous coverage of how cool a designer’s studio is and what kind of apartment they live in or what books are in their library. Which is fun, but not as important to the work. When Drew brought up the emotional and psychological aspect of making his designs, I thought that’s actually really getting to the meat of getting to know this person. Getting to know deeper what drives a designer to do the work that they do.
What gap were you trying to fill with Graphic Support Group?
Drew: There really isn’t a whole lot of space for designers to talk about their emotions without having it be a professional or academic setting, or a justification.
James: It isn’t a space for self promotion, even though, by nature, it is an interview or a podcast. We’re trying to aim for a sense of vulnerability and intimacy, which is contradictory to self promotion, where you’re trying to hype yourself up and sell yourself. Where most platforms are trying to celebrate some sort of grandiose image, we are really looking for a breakdown — we deconstruct the designer’s work but also their deeper values and thoughts.
Drew: In podcasts you can’t really hide from the focus on the voice. There are no visuals; you’re not looking at what the person’s wearing. And you’re not looking at what their hair looks like. You’re just listening to a designer talk about how they cried once over a boring task.
You dedicate this podcast to the “graphic design community.” Where does our community need the most support?
James: There’s a certain aspect to our profession that is being too detail-oriented and nit-picky. However, that level of criticality never really expands itself to more important things. The criticality always ends up as a matter of personal preference. It almost forms a tunnel vision. But there’s an appetite to know way more than just the kerning of letters. We also wonder what it is that compels a designer to be that hyper-focused? What are the costs that come from that?
Drew: The role of graphic designer has been diluted into this trope of the white dude with a beanie and big frame glasses who sneers at everything that doesn’t look perfect and has the best taste in interiors and books. I’m interested in design as a form of visual creativity that is more open-minded and actually embraces imperfections, vulnerability, and learns how to cope with ambiguity in a way that I don’t think many designers are capable of doing publicly.
James: Something that came up with our conversations Ali Godil from House of Gül: We like the word ugliness. We see positives in ugliness. We’re trying to find different interpretations for design that are distinctly rubbing against the trope. Not just dogma. We also seek out alternative practices that aren’t too niche or only exist within the realm of academia. Some of our guests who have practices like that include Will Work for Good, Ray Masaki, Kaitlin Chan, Nikki Jeun, and so many more.
There’s also an inherent insecurity that graphic designers specifically have within the design world. We’re having to constantly justify our work and that we’re not at market price. This insecurity is something we are trying to probe while also defending our value in culture.
What have been some lessons you’ve learned the podcast that have enriched your own design practice?
James: When we interviewed Karisa Senavitis, from WWFG I asked her: “Why is the work you were doing was important to you?” I don’t think it’s an inherently bad question, but it just felt really confrontational. I had an experience where I was presenting and someone asked me the same question. I didn’t have a good answer, and it made me defensive. In the interviews we’ve done, we found that people are genuinely really into what they make, but they usually don’t get the distance to realize the grander scheme of why they do what they do.
Drew: I’ve been having a tough transition into a new job; just rewiring the way I work and thinking about how my own process can adapt to different contexts. I’m not a big systems thinker at the end of the day. Does that mean that I’m not really a graphic designer? The guests who come on our podcast aren’t all systems thinkers or they have proposed a different interpretation of how systems work. It has helped me a lot not to question myself.
What are some of the through-lines you are hearing? What are the big issues you have observed through talking to practicing designers?
James: The most obvious problem point that a lot of people have mentioned is their relationships with clients. It’s not always an outright disagreement or a disastrous project. It can be anything from clients that have had practices and business that designers don’t ethically agree with to their work completely being stolen from them. The other very interesting through-line is anxiety; but where that anxiety manifests is always different. Som, you mentioned that anxiety happens when you’re doing your portfolio. Cem [Eskinazi] is just anxious all the time. Designers feel anxious at different stages of the creative process.
Drew: Designers seem to have a cathartic experience when they come on the podcast. It seems like when people sign off, they’re genuinely excited that they got a chance to have the conversation. There are interesting conversations about presentation in terms of professionalism and how to carry oneself on social media. This is a contemporary problem that we really have to think about. The mental and emotional cost that comes with constantly having to promote yourself. Like contextualizing your own work and selling yourself as like an entity. Noah Baker talks about that in his episode.
James: I think that could be a reason why a space like Graphic Support Group needs to exist. There is a certain amount of sympathy and empathy that comes across because we’re all in the same profession.
One of the most striking draws is the promo graphics. I wanted to probe you a bit about the visual language and the thought behind it.
Drew: It was an opportunity to make something destabilizing. It’s not anything profound. It comes from questions like: What are the two most bizarre typefaces I can throw together? What if I put a drop shadow on one but not on the other? How can I bring together opposing textures? It’s a fun experiment for me.
What is one thing you want your listeners to take away after listening to Graphic Support Group?
James: I want our listeners to be emotional and vulnerable in their design practice. When I was a student, I always felt like design didn’t have room for that. I really embraced the idea of being a translator of someone else’s message; having that distance from my own emotions. The older I get, I don’t believe that as much anymore.
Drew: The idea that people have is the superstar, zany designer, but a lot of the people we talk to are very shy, calm, and thoughtful, and make really interesting, experimental, confusing, and provocative work. They do it because they have questions that they want to explore, and they really care about it. It doesn’t matter if you’re the loudest voice in the room. It doesn’t matter if you have the coolest clothes or if your Instagram profile is sick. It just matters if you have something you want to say.