Shira Inbar came to graphic design via a myriad of intersecting paths. Traversing linguistic theory, art history, and the international solidarity movement, as well as art school in Jerusalem, grad school at Yale, and a stint working for Richard Turley at MTV, she’s now found her way to New York City where she practices as an independent graphic designer and image-maker. Taking what she’s discovered along the way, she imprints her own intellectual sensibility on everything that falls onto her creative path, whether for a local community event or an advertorial for a vibrant, global cosmetic brand.
Inbar moved to Israel from Michigan with her family as a young girl, and growing up, her linguists professor parents would often quote the likes of seminal semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure to her. She became fascinated by his famous comparison of form and function with a piece of paper—“one cannot cut the front without cutting the back at the same time.” As a teenager, this curiosity extended as Inbar started to notice book covers: a 1970s version of Lolita with a cover featuring Andy Warhol Coke bottles superimposed with a sketch by Egon Schiele especially stood out. “How random and strange, taking this Viennese expressionist and juxtaposing it with American pop art,” says Inbar. “But also how appropriate for the story.”
Perhaps the most formative pathway to design was one Inbar took after high school: instead of mandatory military service, she chose to volunteer at a hotline for migrant workers and refugees. Her daily tasks included “designing” with Word; she’d sit in an office with families hoping to receive legal status, gathering stacks of images, letters, and other documents from them to re-format into request packets to send off to the Israeli government.
“I would ask myself ‘What should I put on the first page? Where should I place this picture? How can I organize this best so that this refugee family will get legal status?’
“All these questions about hierarchy and organization started to take hold of my world. That’s when I knew I wanted to become a graphic designer,” says Inbar.
After graduating in visual communication at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design—alongside her classes, she’d create sharp, urgent graphics for the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement—Inbar went straight to grad school at Yale in New Haven. Forever fascinated with words and the way they’re formatted, it was during a comparative literature class called ‘Maps from the Western Literary Imagination’ that Inbar discovered what would become a key metaphor for her as graphic designer.
“We were reading Thomas More’s Utopia, and on the first spread, you see two things: on one page, a map, and on the other, a fictitious alphabet for an imaginary language. I realized that there are two representations of this space of Utopia: the map and the language. If these two graphic creations are enough to create a space that is still talked about today, perhaps the meaning of those graphic representations is more important that I ever imagined.”
Interpreting a map as a subjective representation of space, and language as the guiding force through that space, Inbar discovered that with graphic design she wants “to be both the map-maker and the guide.” Finding form for this idea, Inbar’s MFA thesis, The Cartographer’s Mad Project, was named after a quote by the philosopher Jean Baudrillard: it explores how “the map, as does any textual and visual interface of orientation, represents a perspective.” Inbar views design as a process of guiding the viewer through a particular way of looking—she sees her role as both designer of that perspective, and then the designer of the pathway through which the reader navigates that unique, subjective map.
Now living in Brooklyn, Inbar’s thoughtful metaphor continually imbues and colors her output, especially her collaborative work for pop-up film event Little Cinema, which she co-founded in 2015. “It’s worlds apart from what I did at Yale, but it’s also very much related,” the designer says. Described by Forbes as “‘The Saturday Night Live’ of Immersive Cinema”, the monthly event pairs live performance and film—aerial performers dressed as flying monkeys hang over plush red chairs during The Wizard of Oz, for example. Inbar creates lively graphics for the screen that intervene with and add to the film as it plays, and she also creates the promotional material and its solid, punchy visual identity.
“Little Cinema is a celebratory type of work,” says Inbar. “It’s about taking the audience by the hand and leading them in our world, leading them through our alternative view of the film. We are presenting a familiar piece of cinema, but then also we’re creating a map of it for them: we’re remixing it, totally reinterpreting it, and opening it up to collaborations with other artists—whether dancers, or aerialists, or musicians. We create a new wonderland, and we’re its tour guides.”
The dazzling colors, ecstatic typefaces, and whirling sense of space that contributes to the kind of world-building Inbar excels in is one that she’s recently applied to a trend book for Mac cosmetics, too. As someone who doesn’t wear make-up, this commission was wholly new territory for Inbar.
“The world of make-up is about seduction. It’s about color. It’s about the very complex question of beauty—projecting it and manufacturing it. In the end, make-up is such an intimate form of design, even though it’s totally mass produced,” says Inbar, who decided she wanted to capture this spirit in the layout of the fashion week guide. “For the book, I was thinking about designers responding to current events, I was thinking about composition, and I was thinking about how to create an image that relates to beauty, but is ugly.”
In juxtaposing images and photos, deciding on foregrounds and backgrounds, animating with stills, and collating the pages, “an imaginary way of representing space”—the space of Mac—was created. The book is a reinterpretation of Mac’s show at fashion week—a metaphorical map of the events that took place for the reader to traverse. There’s even a slither of that opening juxtaposition in Thomas More’s Utopia in its pages: the type on one side of the spread projects energy and the language of the fashion show, guiding the reader through the exuberant, fiercely made-up world; the cut-and-paste of images on the other side of the spread are an atlas of dynamism and drama.
“Following my experiences so far, I think that my best, most honest, and true way of doing something right is to be myself as much as I can and make work that bears my signature, in the mainstream and on the fringe,” says Inbar. “For me, regardless of the platform; whether it’s a stage that Mac or MTV offers or one that I create for myself at Little Cinema, the work reflects my tendencies, aesthetics, and ideas. For me that’s a kind of triumph; and I think that these kinds of triumphs, of designers being visible and heard (tour guides if you will), and claiming their stage, are a triumph of maintaining individuality in a world that often tramples individuals. I think this view isn’t unselfish, but it’s the best service I can offer, for now.”
This considered, personal, and intellectually engaged way of working is what motivates and drives Inbar when deciding on new projects or commissions, and one of her main considerations is whether something will enable her to have a voice and develop her own vivid sense of individuality. “There’s a Hebrew expressionist poet, Avigdor Hameiri, who stated that ‘freedom of opinion is not a right but a duty’,” says Inbar, who continually strives to to follow and hold on to that principle, as if it were her compass.