Graphic design panel shares insight in industry, representation

The ICA hosted a panel of graphic designers on Saturday to talk about representation within the industry and how it can improve going forward. From left: Silas Munro and Brian Johnson (Poly-Mode,) VCU graphic design professor Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Tré Seales (Vocal Type Co.) Photo by Wessam Hazaymeh

Iman Mekonen, Spectrum Editor

The art of graphic design is more than what meets the eye. It can be layered with different meanings and interpretations with unknown themes of personal identity. 

The Institute for Contemporary Art hosted a “Design and Justice” panel Saturday that discussed the versatility of the field and representation. It featured three graphic designers of different artistic backgrounds, including Silas Munro, Brian Johnson and Tré Seals. The talk was moderated by VCU graphic design professor Nontsikelelo Mutiti.

“My hard work begins and ends here because I will have the pleasure of doing my favorite thing in the world,” Mutiti said. “Asking ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’”

Mutiti started the discussion by acknowledging designers of color and those from marginalized communities, saying she wanted to spotlight those who aren’t getting attention instead of ones who have died. 

“There has been almost a ritual in a lot of the events I’ve attended the past seven years after I left graduate school — the naming of people that have … deceased,” Mutiti said. “I want to flip that and take some time to name people that aren’t celebrated, other design practitioners who have paved the way for my own practice and also my colleagues’.” 

She prompted the crowd to acknowledge any other artists she might have left out as an “encyclopedic exercise.”

Munro and Johnson make up the design company Poly-Mode, which helped create the catalog for “Great Force,” the ICA’s current exhibit on race in modern-day America. 

“If you would’ve asked me — as a 5, 10 or 15 year old — ‘I wanna be a graphic designer,’ those words never came out of my mouth. It happens once you finally realize, ‘Oh, this is for me.’” — Brian Johnson

“We’re really interested in design and connecting to culture, cultural value and also diverse voices and how design can elevate that,” Munro said.

The catalog included pictures of the artwork in the exhibit as well as context into the art itself.

Munro and Johnson have familial ties in Virginia — Johnson’s family is from Roanoke and Munro grew up in Reston.

“We feel like we understand the true grit of how ‘the great force’ happens, where it comes from,” Johnson said. “And because we’ve grown up in Virginia, we feel like we understand a lot of the nuances of history and both the issues and context.” 

“There’s an interesting homecoming aspect to working on this project,” Munro said. “It feels really resonant for us.”

Poly-Mode came out of Munro’s thesis research in grad school looking at identity and how it fits into form and design.

“A part of our collaboration is this intimacy of friendship and how that also relates to creating something,” Munro said.

The talk included background on the origins of graphic design related to identity and stories of the artists’ personal histories with the field.

Seals is the founder of Vocal Type Co., a type foundry based in Baltimore. The firm adapts and recreates typefaces for revolutionary causes and specializes in branding, print design and typography. 

At the event, Seals displayed the sources of inspiration for his typefaces, often from iconic 20th-century protest signs. 

Each custom typeface is named after an individual who led a social revolution that has affected the economic and social conditions in the United States. “Martin,” was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and “Aveda” was inspired by Argentinian women’s right’s activist and unofficial political leader Eva Perón. “William,” named after W.E.B. Du Bois, is found frequently in the exhibition and in its upcoming catalog.

Seals, also a typeface designer for the brand, talked at length about his personal relationship with design and art, especially since he was diagnosed with a brain tumor at a young age.

During this time in his life, Seals often turned to art to express his emotions. 

“As I grew, it grew with me,” Seals said. “During that ordeal, drawing and writing became my primary means of working through the pain and dealing with the pain. Even when the tumor was gone, drawing became my expression when I was healing.”

During this time, Seals said he started being more observant for the first time, noticing the instances of racism he experienced. 

“One thing I started observing was my parents and how they ran their business,” Seals said. “It inspired me to start my own company … I was convincing kids to have me graffiti their names on index cards for $3.” 

His passion for art and design bloomed after this moment, inspiring him to continue freelancing. In college, he designed tattoos, resumes, bracelets and books. 

Seals eventually created his very first typeface, “Unveil.”

“If you would’ve asked me — as a 5, 10 or 15 year old — ‘I wanna be a graphic designer,’ those words never came out of my mouth,” Johnson said. “It happens once you finally realize, ‘Oh, this is for me.’” 

Each panelist agreed that representation in the graphic design industry can improve going forward through elevation of underrepresented voices, allyship and teaching of different historical contexts.

“It ties back to there being more overlaps than differences,” Munro said. 

To learn more about Poly-Mode, visit poly-mode.com. To learn more about Vocal Type Co., visit vocaltype.co/story-of.

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