Like in the United States, the disease of racism continues to recur with the audacity of a virus variant in the U.K. Still Breathing (HarperCollins), edited by Suzanne Parker and Suzette Llewellyn, and designed by Kieron Lewis, is not a cure or vaccine—but it is a chronicle of symptoms that will lead to, as the subtitle says, a change in narrative. Lewis told me this was his most challenging design project, and I see why that is. Still, I asked him to expand on the book’s current and continued importance and consequence.
Kieron, tell me about the genesis of Still Breathing. Was this in the works, or a consequence of BLM and the pandemic?
Still Breathing: 100 Black Voices on Racism, 100 Ways to Change the Narrative is a response to the killing of George Floyd. This tragedy became a benchmark for the sudden rise of global conversations about racism. The protests that followed to express shock, sorrow and outrage revealed that racism is just as prevalent in the USA as in the UK. As a response, actresses Suzette Llewellyn and Suzanne Packer (the editors) decided to create a publication where different experiences about racism in the U.K. would be collected and acknowledged.
How were you selected for this project? Did you initiate the relationship?
HarperCollins were the publishers for the book. They were recommended to work with me by Nancy Adimora, who is a former client and a friend with whom I’ve worked on the publication AFREADA. HarperCollins and the editors were looking to work with a designer who would have experience creating publications devised to empower communities. This is a focal point within projects that I work on, whether client-based or self-directed.
Obviously, Black voices have been underrepresented in many professions (including the arts). What did you learn in working so intimately with this material that came as a surprise to you?
Unfortunately, the content wasn’t surprising, as the experiences documented in the publication happen very often within the Black community, whether it’s verbal abuse at a sporting event or being made to feel inferior in the workplace.
Something that did come as a surprise to me is how I felt while working with such content. The language used by the contributors is very powerful. As a designer, it can be very easy to simply see an editorial project as just the visual and then see the content as secondary. Although it wasn’t surprising hearing some of the experiences, I was still extremely saddened, and at times angry, to read what I laid out within my InDesign document. I learned that regardless of how angry, sad, awkward or uncomfortable a publication such as this can make you feel, it’s necessary to have these discussions in order to make positive change in the world.
What guided your design decisions? Did you have a particular form in mind when you first heard the provocative title?
This was one of the very first projects I worked on when I officially went freelance last year. A 300+ page hardback publication was not an easy task! Before really getting into the thick of the design process, I knew that I wanted to do justice to the content of everyone featured in the book.
When I first had the initial meeting with the team at HarperCollins and heard the title Still Breathing: 100 Black Voices on Racism, 100 Ways to Change the Narrative, my first thought was about how to encounter the large number of personalities featured in the publication. I was keen to really highlight the individuality of each voice that was included. A typographic approach to design felt the most appropriate route to explore and take.
My design rationale for the cover was that emphasizing the number would suggest to the readers the significant number of shared experiences on such a sensitive topic to the world. The dominant color red, with embossed foil, would represent violence, danger and anger. The goal was to show awareness and spark inspiration for a global honest conversation about such an urgent topic, regardless of your skin color.
You’ve told me this was the most challenging project of your design career. What were those challenges?
As mentioned above, the emotional challenge was one that caught me by surprise. I’ve worked on numerous publications before, but never touched on race in such depth.
On the design front, the consistency of trying to collate 100+ photographs from everyone featured was a challenge too. We were in the midst of the pandemic, so it was very difficult to arrange an official photoshoot. In an ideal world, this would have happened to ensure a sense of consistency through the image quality of the publication. The quality ranged from those who sent high-resolution photography to selfie photographs on a mobile phone (you know who you are, ha)!
Every image that came over to me I kept track of via an Excel document that I created. With the document I made a note of which images were good, which required editing via Photoshop and which ones needed to be taken again.
This was a really useful document not just for my records, but also to share with the publishers and editors so they knew how far into the process we were and who to chase up for a revised photograph.
Who do you feel you were designing for? The reader? The 100 voices? The editors? Yourself? All of the above? And more?
This is a really interesting question. Definitely, a publication such as this shouldn’t be kept on a bookshelf collecting dust! In my opinion, it should be used as a tool for all, to learn about the real perspectives of what racism can have on an individual and how different they are from person to person.
Since Black Lives Matter arose, many people started to be interested in learning more about the experiences of minorities. For some people, it is exhausting having to dig into traumatic experiences in order to be guiding those ones trying their best to become allies. So, this book could be a perfect tool to direct someone to as a starting point. Also, it should be used within the educational sector. From secondary schools to university level. For example, this book could be used as a prompt for a group discussion amongst peers.
I also believe this publication was designed to empower those within my community. Like discussed in the book, I’ve been in many situations where I’ve been in a working environment as the only Black employee and I felt a sense of not being valued. I’ve also given talks where I might be the only Black speaker in a sea of white faces. The younger me would feel incredibly intimidated by such a challenge, and to an extent I still am, which is human. However, by reading other people’s experiences, I feel a sense of responsibility and empowerment to champion change. Whether this is in the format of taking a freelance role in a team where I am the only Black creative, or addressing the issue when I do regular talks at universities. I feel confident to speak how I feel and be very transparent about my experience of working on projects relating to race, community and design.
From a very early age, my mother (like so many other Black mothers) told her children that we have to work twice as hard to be heard and make a difference. This is something that has been ingrained within my life and my practice as a Black creative!
Racism was not invented in the U.K.; it has the extra weight of class. Does this play a role in the stories in your book?
Race and class are totally intertwined in the U.K. The growth and wealth of the country is fueled by an imperial and capitalist history. So, yes, I would say that you can see that class is playing a role in the stories shared in the book. British history is the multiracial story of a nation interdependent on trade, cultural influence and immigration from different regions and continents populated by people who are not white. However, in 2019, 46% of Black and minority ethnic children in the U.K. were growing up in poverty, compared with 26% of white children.* Despite this fact, I feel that many people still see racism as a bigger issue in the U.S. For me, this reflection reinforces the importance of this book, as the experiences shared by the 100 contributors really shine a light and show different realities happening on our own home ground.
*Child Poverty Action Group
There are many books addressing the BIPOC experience in Eurocentric/American societies. How do you feel this book fits into this overdue discussion?
There are many new publications highlighting racism, and even more so during the pandemic as a response to George Floyd and many other brothers and sisters who have been killed. New publications in the U.K. are building on the work of fantastic writers such as Afua Hirsh and David Olusoga. What makes Still Breathing really special is that it focuses on the U.K.’s response to racism with well-known men and women, which might actually surprise a lot of readers. Those contributors are ranging from politicians, musicians and artists. These experiences shared were chosen to inform but also shock the reader. Shock is good; it wakes you up!
Do you believe the book will impact peoples’ consciousness?
I hope it does! For the community, I believe the book will impact people’s consciousness in terms of belonging and identity.
From a personal perspective, the design of the publication is something that means a lot to me. A lot of time and energy went into the design of the publication, from cover to interior. So, I hope that the design does justice and amplifies the content so that the reader can really sit up, pay attention and influence them to question their way of thinking and being in the world. Especially if you’re not a person of color.
What was the response to the accompanying exhibition?
Very positive, indeed!
The exhibition was held at the Phoenix Art Space in Brighton, England. This was the first exhibition for the publication. It was also the first time I’ve had my work within an exhibition too, which was a pretty surreal experience.
Anyone who knows the area of Brighton will know it’s a very popular tourist location. This was great, as those who attended were from a very diverse background and also the different range of ages of the public were evident.
What has designing the book taught you?
From a personal perspective, it has taught me about my design capabilities as a designer. Working to tight deadlines, managing a lot of content and liaising with printers are all experiences that weren’t new to me, but due to the nature of how big this publication was, it did feel like a lot more was at stake.
Like every designer, if we could go back, there might be a few things I’d do differently. However, I am delighted with how the publication has turned out, how it has been received by the public, and more importantly how it has sparked conversations, whether online or at in-person exhibitions, to create change within communities globally.