Image by Beatrice Sala.

2020 was tough. Between a global pandemic, a divisive election, and rising racial tensions, it sometimes felt like the year was a never-ending parade of bad news. But here we are in 2021. A new calendar, a blank page. We think designers have an important role to play in making sure the future is better than the past. (All design, of course, is about inventing new futures.) So in that spirit, we asked some of the smartest designers, educators, writers, and publishers we knew about what they want to see in this new year. From including more community design to involvement with local politics, increased publishing of underrepresented voices to structural change in design education, you can read their wishes and predictions below.

Jennifer White-Johnson and Ida Woldemichael

Jennifer White-Johnson, disability activist and assistant professor of graphic design and visual culture at Bowie State University

In 2021, design activism must represent all people and create a true call to action that amplifies disabled lives as an act of collective liberation. What design conversations are you having with folks that don’t look like you? Sound like you? Move like you? How is your design work feeding and freeing others different from yourself? This is the question that should guide and steer us into 2021. 

Ida Woldemichael, Associate Creative Director at Wide Eye

What I hope to see in the political design sphere are underrepresented designers shaping the visual narrative of politics. We are uniquely affected by racial injustice, and immigration policies, and with that comes a unique design perspective. I do expect we will see joy and optimism in political design as well, as a dark fog slowly lifts from us all. 

Shannon Harvey and Adam Michaels and John Caserta

Adam Michaels, Inventory Press and IN-FO.CO

My perennial desire is for high-level design to be used more widely as a means of bringing clarity to complex topics — especially relevant in these complex times. I hope to see a further merging of forward-thinking design with forward-thinking politics, especially in what should be a position of increased strength for the Left in 2021.

Shannon Harvey, Inventory Press and IN-FO.CO

I would like to see designers address a return to the local in 2021. In this pandemic year we’ve seen so many historic businesses close here in Los Angeles. These businesses, which in some cases have been around for decades, are often family-run, and serve as essential gathering places, and a point of connection across generations. Because they so often rely on foot traffic and aren’t able to participate in online marketplaces and outreach, beyond supporting them directly I’d love to see more designers reach out and offer their services to help these businesses bridge the digital divide, or find other ways of celebrating and elevating these community anchors. 

John Caserta, The Design Office

An office should not be too nice. It should have a coat rack, well-made furniture, humans, plants, and tools. Not too many creature comforts. No coffee maker. Rather than invest time and money on the design and culture of the studio, I would prefer to see designers embrace the public as a part of their workspace. 

If design is a response, there is much to respond to in public. Take a one-hour walk every day (your commute?) to understand the materials, the natural phenomenon, the deeper human relationships that play out in public. Leave the office every day with some cash in your pocket and don’t return until you’ve spent it. Read a book on a park bench. Ask to join someone at their table. Check in on people. Take a phone call while walking as a way to check in on plants, animals, materials, sunlight. Much of this influences or replaces desk work, and rather than connecting you to those far away, being in public helps to knit you into a community that is in continual need of your creative attention. 

By operating more in public, and inviting community members in, one’s practice will begin to address what you and your community see as most beneficial. 

Ramon Tejada and Natasha Jen

Ramon Tejada, assistant professor at RISD

2020: Enough Said. Looking to 2021 as a designer, educator, and most importantly a human being, I want to witness a design culture that pivots, shifts, and at last changes. A transformation not just in the performative sense, but rather the same real structural change that is required of all our society.

In 2021, I want the following for design and design education:

  • We make space, a lot of it, for the voices, ideas, thoughts, and points of view that we have ignored.
  • Once this pandemic is over, we do not simply slide back to “normal.” How we engage and how/what we teach has been profoundly altered; let’s keep these shifts as part of our forward movement.
  • Did you post a Black Square on your social media feed in June? What have you done since to show you meant it?
  • Look around your studio, your department, your classroom, your syllabi, your space(s); are they too homogeneous? If so, change it. Stop talking about it, make it happen. There are so many talented BIPOC creatives that need to be nourished and supported, support them!
  • Make and teach for RIGHT NOW with all its multiplicities.
  • Let’s listen more and talk less.
  • Make for YOUR community. 
  • Make and include for the people you love. Make for moms and dads!

Natasha Jen, Pentagram

The practice of branding is one of the most fragile pieces in the economic food chain. It feeds into the “scaling up” of contemporary startup ideology but its dependency on a thriving economy inevitably raises so many questions about the role that branding plays in this cataclysmic moment in time. 2021 is likely to be a year of slow recovery and we can only hope that businesses and communities will rebuild and restore stability. But what I’d like us, designers, to actively work on is how we can use design to help cultural and public institutions to reinvigorate and be vital binding forces in the increasingly divisive and uncertain culture. 

Adrian Shaughnessy and Marc O’Brien and Sarah Harrison

Adrian Shaughnessy, Unit Editions

I try never to use the phrase when this is all over. It’s been a terrible year for planet earth, with no clear end to the pandemic in sight. And yet, for indie publishing, there are reasons for optimism. If you’ve lost loved ones, or contacted the virus yourself, perhaps the optimism of publishers doesn’t count for much, but a renewed interest in books and reading is a good excuse for some guarded rejoicing. 

Anecdotally, people are reading more, especially those in lockdown. And there are mixed reports about book sales — some claiming an increase, others a slump. At Unit Editions we’ve been gratified to see that sales, despite reduced distribution capabilities, have remained constant. We even managed a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a long overdue Ed Fella monograph.  

This gives me cause for gentle optimism, as does the emergence of brave new imprints. I’m thinking of imprints like Sold Out, set up by two ex-students of mine, as an attempt to “diversify and decolonize graphic design” and publish “underrepresented voices.” That they, and others like them, can exist while dealing with serious and underexposed topics, is a sure-fire cause for optimism in an otherwise gloomy landscape. 

Marc O’Brien and Sarah Harrison, Climate Designers 

In 2021, we hope to see designers stepping up and speaking out for causes they believe in. At Climate Designers, we’re all about emboldening designers to use their creative skills to take climate action. While designers often create messages and campaigns that shift culture at the service of corporations who hire us, we’re creating a new creative industry where designers take the initiative to direct our skills and power to create a culture that demands nothing less than a joyful, equitable, passionate, loving, and regenerative civilization.

We’re looking forward to shifting the narrative about our climate emergency away from the doom & gloom we often hear. We like to think of it as Doom & Bloom — we have an amazing opportunity right now to redesign our society for the better.

During our Climate Designers Party Program summit in March, we’re highlighting ways designers can shift their methodologies to “design with, not for” — making sure we co-create solutions with communities, especially when designing solutions that respond to our climate crisis.

Cliff Kuang and Halle Kho

Cliff Kuang, senior staff designer at Google

China has already designed our Baudrillard-ian future, in which internet personalities—rather than brands or institutions—define the information economy. For example, creators on WeChat and Chinese Tiktok make or break brands; they’re gatekeepers of interpretation in a way that American media companies can only dream about. American tech giants know this. The race for a new creator economy is already on, and it’s quickly remaking our digital lives, from Instagram’s move into shopping, to the curated guides within Apple Maps. This makes sense. Creators have emerged because faith in institutional knowledge keeps evaporating. They’ll only get more powerful. 

Halle Kho, executive design director at Frog’s New York studio

Looking ahead to 2021, I believe it will be important for us, as designers, to see a reflection of the past combined with a hopefulness for the future in our designs, and specifically in the user experiences we create. Over this past year, we have become more reliant than ever on our devices to guide us, keep us sane, be our friend, and provide the outline of our lives. Screen-time usage has increased massively. I wonder how to use this increased reliance and trust to bring a more well-rounded, holistic approach to design choices. For example, I would like to see how we can extend our research into longer time periods to understand how users interact with more hi-fi prototypes over time. We have been in a period of deep extremes, with greatly increased digital connectivity and greatly diminished human contact and connection. The extent to which we acknowledge that behaviors will never be the same will be vital to successful design and user experience going forward. The industry shift can’t simply be a trend in visual context or a few new addictive and delightful moments. It must reflect the forever-changed world that we now live in.

Rick Poynor, design critic and professor of design and visual culture at the University of Reading

My wish for the year ahead takes the form of a challenge to the culture of graphic design publishing as it stands right now. I have been following design writing for more than 30 years and it’s very striking – downright strange – how little of this commentary focuses on the analysis of particular designed objects. Instead, too much writing glides over the top of design without pausing to notice it. This writing generalizes. It enthuses. It promotes the personalities (now more than ever thanks to digital platforms) but it doesn’t look closely and tell us how designs work. There are honorable exceptions, highly experienced writers such as Ellen Lupton and Richard Hollis, yet surprisingly few who write about singular projects with insight and authority. In other sectors of the arts – art, architecture, film, photography, music – this myopia would be unthinkable. Whole books are written about single works. Can graphic design tolerate this degree of attentive close reading? Is there enough substance to support it? It’s time we found out. We need to be much more ambitious for graphic design writing. The outcome would be a true measure of the field’s significance and depth of meaning. It’s in your court, design editors and writers.