The work of designer Elizabeth Critchlow radiates color: deeply intimate, informative, and nostalgic, her projects range from shining light on the Aids crisis to taking a stand against minimalism.
“As a designer, I like to look at themes around the accessibility of design,” says London-based Critchlow. “I’m interested in the physicality of creating something with your hands instead of relying too much on a digital process.” To Critchlow, the physical connection with the work creates humanity and meaning: if you’ve spent a long time creating something, that translates into the relationship your audience has with it.
This is certainly true of 2018’s ‘It Was Not Acceptable In The 80s,’ the designer’s final project at Central Saint Martins art school. The project began with Critchlow coming out as gay to her mom. “She told me about the Aids crisis and about how I’m a white middle class woman, I have so much privilege and how she thought my life was going to become so much harder.” Questioning why she knew so little about the epidemic—“as a gay person, as just an educated member of society”— Critchlow began interrogating her lack of knowledge. When research produced nothing but black and white photographs, she realized it was integral to create a more explosive visual response to capture an audience’s attention.
The images she drew from for her project are largely based on the club kid scene of ’80/’90s New York, and Critchlow cites the city as particularly influential to the evolution of her process. In 2017 she undertook an semester-long exchange programme at School of Visual Arts (SVA), taking classes with professors such as graphic designer Carin Goldberg and 3D specialist Kevin O’Callahan. Another big inspiration was her class with designer and activist Andrew Castrucci, under whom she learned to screen print, producing everything from protest posters to T-shirts. Describing him as “this gold mine of knowledge of New York counterculture,” she recalls him inviting her entire class to his studio in East Village; teaching them how to make wheatpaste while simultaneously serving them dinner, then taking the students out into Lower Manhattan to paste their anti-Trump posters up on the street.
This ephemeral approach dominated Critchlow’s process for much of her final year, culminating in her degree show piece, in which she wheatpasted the 650 uniquely designed flyers to a wall, each one symbolizing 1,000 lives lost during the Aids crisis in the U.S. “While it’s something which is referenced so often in fashion and popular culture at the moment, the impact that the Aids crisis had on the club kid scene isn’t often talked about,” she says. It’s never easy researching history that has been shielded from public view, and yet she claims she was “obsessive” about the research: “I was reading a lot of accounts from white gay men in San Francisco, but that’s one side of the story. The part I struggled with more was finding voices of people who were sex workers or intravenous drug users or members of ethnic minorities.”
Accessibility is something that the designer tackles extensively in her series of zines about minimalism. Playing with user interaction in a physical way, the audience is encouraged to customise the zine using their own packet of ephemera. Critchlow uses the project as a vehicle to talk about how she finds minimalism alienating and classist. “People can afford to be minimalist because they can afford to throw things away, but know that they can re-buy it should they need to again in the future. They have that financial stability. I was raised in a way that you don’t throw anything away because you might need it again in the future, and going out and buying it again isn’t an option.” She relates this to minimalist design trends; suggesting that being a good designer is nothing to do with owning Adobe Creative Cloud. “There’s other ways to be a good designer instead of paying like £600 a year on an expensive computer program.”
“People can afford to be minimalist because they can afford to throw things away, but know that they can re-buy it should they need to again in the future”
In terms of how her sexuality has affected her work, she says: “If you’re part of any minority, most other minorities, your family are of the same ethnic background, religion etc. But within the LGBTQ+ community, you’re kind of by yourself, so it’s one step harder to go out and learn about things because you don’t have a parent or a grandparent to guide you through finding out about your history.”
Recalling her parents’ pride and acceptance at witnessing the success of her degree show piece, Critchlow advises other creatives negotiating their identity to “put out into the world what you want to see. I think that your identity comes through in whatever you do, so even if you’re not comfortable with making something that’s explicitly gay, it’s okay. I am now more confident, I know that I’m good at what I do. And that takes a lot of time and a lot of crying to get to grips with.”