As we queued up in the vaccine line, we reflected back on the sum toll of 2020 and wondered: What is our new normal going forward?
It’s a highly personal question—and one that elicits a broad range of responses when you ask a creative… or, in this case, 27 of them. As the vaccine rollout ramped up across the country, we reached out to a medley of our contacts across the industry with a simple (yet utterly complicated) prompt, offering them as much or as little room as they’d like to answer it:
Once COVID-19 is finally under control, how would you describe post-pandemic normalcy? In other words, as a creative, how will your “old normal” differ from your “new normal”?
Viewed individually, you’ll likely find seeds of yourself in many of these responses. Viewed collectively, this collection represents an intricate mosaic of voices on what it was like to be a designer in the midst of this catastrophic global pandemic—and beyond. The challenges. The opportunities. The many brilliant projects that took root in the most unlikely of times. What changed for many. What didn’t change at all for others. Reassessments of how we do things— reassessments of why we do things.
We offer these responses as we look ahead to the future with something we did not have in great abundance in 2020: hope.
Here’s to, as Pum Lefebure puts it, not the “new normal”—but rather “the next normal.”
Artist and Author
The “being alone” of this year hasn’t been merely in the how do I entertain myself? sense—or the physical isolation sense. It has been a type of alone that can’t be “worked on”: the threat of losing all of your deepest connections. We’ve moved through the year not knowing which of the people, places and communities that anchor us would disappear. Like some sort of unthinkable bartering process, I caught myself making mental lists of what I could and couldn’t do without.
For me, loss has played out in macro (the loss of friends and family), but also on the level of walking down my block. I was surprised to discover that I’ve apparently, all along, felt deeply connected to some pretty random and dumb things! For example, the lovely way that my now-vacant bodega’s sign used to frame the horizon. (I’m doing my best not to judge myself or others’ mourning of these dumb, little losses. They come from a mysterious place.)
Realistically: Life has always been this way. Eventual loss is the toll we pay for the privilege of moving through a world so layered with effervescent magic. But we must be wired to forget this—otherwise, we wouldn’t continue to adopt kittens and puppies that will grow old, we wouldn’t continue to fall in love. What makes the pandemic uniquely traumatic is that it denied us this forgetting. We had to process so much potential loss—so urgently and so all at once.
I think my “new normal” as a designer is to double down on my commitment to service to that magic where I see it (and without judgement of the sheer randomness of its objects). Rather than just being motivated to discover new things, I want to lean into my passion for maintaining the things that tether me. In particular, I’m really proud of the design work I’ve done for Russ & Daughters during this time. They amaze me. They rapidly figured out how to safely feed masses of people throughout the pandemic—the same food that their great-grandparents ate. A few years ago, I drew a sign for them with Bezier curves on my computer. Let There Be Neon then bent glass tubes and filled them with electrified neon gas. It has glowed over Allen Street every night of the pandemic. It constitutes the view from someone’s window, and it hasn’t gone away.
Dumb, amazing design project thing! Jake Gyllenhaal, who is a friend of Russ & Daughters, did a viral striptease wearing one of their shirts. We used the opportunity to print, dye and sell a bunch of T-shirts, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Independent Restaurant Coalition. They lobbied Congress to offer monetary relief to small, independently owned restaurants. It worked! On March 6, the Biden administration set aside a $28.6 billion relief grant program for small mom-and-pop restaurants, cafes, bars, and food carts.
Founder, Brody Associates
Wow. What a mindfuck. Who knew?
As temporary precaution becomes permanent change to the way we work, think, create and connect, our clients—previously discombobulated without physical attendance—now happily embrace electronic workshops and meetings.
Our team checks in constantly; everyone is checking in on everyone in a cumulative state of permanent checking out (what I call ZOMO—Zoomed-out mental overload). The squeeze is that ideas now often have to be created in the cracks between Zooms, whereas once meetings happened in the spaces between ideas.
So, what’s new? Well, it seems to be all about distance and trust. This new paradoxical gridlock of permanent presence is constructed from distant working, physical distancing, distant meeting, distant learning, distance from thought, of experimentation. The unseen glue that previously held us together has been revealed by the imposition of its opposite.
Trust, already in short supply, has been placed center-stage. This distance-trust relationship of accountability is one we now constantly and exhaustingly assess and navigate. In a modern variation of the space-time continuum for workplace accountability, trust reduces as distance increases.
My main anxieties aren’t for us as a studio of creatives—we can navigate and reinvent this. My concern is for the learning environment, especially for students in creative subjects who lack the opportunity for physical making and the invaluable impact of working with their peers in a studio. These challenges have sometimes become opportunities—a number of our students, based in Beijing and reduced to isolated distance learning, decided to rent a studio together to share ideas and energy. How exciting to see what that might catalyze when they finally arrive in London!
Post-ZOMO, will we go back to the way we weren’t? This lack of physical connection invariably impacts our ability to think and interact creatively. We’ve adapted really well, but the absence in the fabric of an online studio is the opportunity for serendipitous conversation, sharing a quick sketch, sticking stuff up on a wall and having live physical workshops. This has to be reimagined.
This crisis has accelerated existing underlying directions in our working and living behavior—the opportunity now is to reassess and heighten the ways in which we connect and create. We will inevitably evolve to a fluid economy of mixed but precise model
s. For sure it won’t look again the way it did.
(Credit: Neville Brody, Tommaso Calderini, and Chris Nott)
Founder/Creative Director, Manual
I see post-pandemic normalcy as a chance to achieve a much better sense of balance:
Work ———————————> Life
Colleagues ———————————> Kids
Business Partner———————————> Wife
Solve Problems ———————————> Take Risks
Find Inspiration ———————————> Find Focus
An Answer for Everything ———————————> A Question for Everything
What? ———————————> Why?
Expertise ———————————> Learning
Office ———————————> Creative Hub
Formal ———————————> Informal
Plane Tickets ———————————> Video Calls
Looking Outward ———————————> Looking Inward
Founder, Head of Brand Creative, The Working Assembly
The longer COVID-19 continues, I’m having a hard time remembering what pre-pandemic normal was. In some ways, I think that’s good, because the way I was sprinting a year ago, if I’m honest, probably wasn’t sustainable. As a designer and agency owner, I was pretty reactive, putting out fires or chasing the next thing, saying “yes” probably way too much, and just hustling without a roadmap. The pandemic has clarified what’s truly important and even greater than the virus.
The events of the last year in our country, with George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the hate crimes towards AAPI communities, have made me take stock of deeper questions around purpose. I’ve had to take accountability around what I want to be creating, who I want to be creating work for, and how I want to operate as a designer. My new normal will be me being much more informed, being unafraid to say “no,” laser-focused on putting the best work out possible, and eliminating whatever doesn’t serve us getting there. It will also mean aligning with companies that are outwardly contributing to the betterment of all people and putting our creative talents towards continuing to elevate marginalized groups. In short, the new normal will be operating with greater clarity and purpose.
Creative Director, Doyle Partners
I’m hoping the new normal will allow for more—and longer duration—travel, now that by working and teaching remotely, we are confident that it can be done from just about anywhere. This will allow designers to have much more submersive experiences when traveling, rather than shoe-horning trips into two- or three-week windows. Conversely, and importantly, I am really looking forward to bouts of working face-to-face with my team and my students. I miss the offhand observations, the casual conversations which are about the work—sure—but also about each other, our families, our adventures and struggles … the lovely camaraderie and dialog of a day working with colleagues. I dream of the days when we struggle with the balance of proximity and try to get that right, because by now we should be pretty close to figuring out the work-life balance. In my ideal world in the future, these categories would all seamlessly bleed into each other.
One of the projects that I’m proud of from the past year is this album cover for Pat Metheny’s latest recording, The Road to the Sun. The quiet of the pandemic allowed me the time to really focus on the fun part of my work—synesthesia. Listening to a recording and translating sound to imagery is the alchemy of design. After listening to it, I had a conversation with Pat, and I reported that I was seeing birds. Sailing. Soaring. To my surprise, he replied, “Me too!” And from there I was free to do a deep dive into his beloved Midwestern roots, and seek out flat landscapes full of poetry and potential. For Pat, coming from Missouri, landscape is all about the horizon. I had great fun merging these soaring Audubon birds (a magpie, an arctic tern, and a sooty tern) with evocative landscapes. Some of the best parts of this project were the dialogs we had. Just one in person, masked, and the others via Zoom. He is a brilliant musician, but an even better friend. I loved seeing him in person, but missed his big, magnanimous—and mischievous—smile.
Maybe it was the lockdown itself that led to this imagery—it sure was nice to be among those landscapes, and it felt wonderful to fly!
When the lockdown began and the world slowed down, we witnessed in real time a virus spreading from one person to over 131 million people. We suddenly became aware of how interconnected we are. Many succumbed to the reality that there exists hierarchies of human value along racial, gender and socioeconomic lines—and perhaps their role in upholding these value systems. Eyes opened. In this “new normal” within my practice, I want to keep top of mind the questions, How do we care for one another? How can my work be an act of care?
I draw a lot of inspiration from the natural world—both in my practice as an artist, and as a human being. I learned that recently there was the
discovery of a so-called “Wood Wide Web,” a social network between trees. This underground network of invisible fungi and bacteria have the capacity to send healing nutrients to other trees across species that are ailing. On the surface, a hiker in the forest would assume that each tree is a singular entity. All the while, there exists a network under the forest floor that connects them all. Those trees we thought were standing
alone were actually holding each other up.
As the word Coronavirus fades from our collective memory, I want to remember how small the world actually is. While considering my role in effecting change as an artist, I want to hold close the understanding that I alone cannot change the entire world. I can, however, work to lift up the voices of the unheard and perhaps change the hearts and minds of a few people along the way. I want to maintain the belief that I am not alone and that collective energy can bring about awareness, action and meaningful, measurable change.
During the spring and summer of 2020, I collected fallen leaves from a towering magnolia tree in my neighborhood in Washington, DC. Experiencing the impacts of two pandemics at once—COVID-19 and continued police brutality against Black bodies—I used the cemetery as a space for processing my anxiety and grief. I began to perforate the names of dozens of Black women murdered by law enforcement into the fragile yet resilient surfaces of the fallen leaves.
(Magnolia is an ongoing project currently on view at The Cody Gallery at Marymount University in Arlington, VA, and is featured in Of Care in Destruction: The 2021 Atlanta Biennial at Atlanta Contemporary.)
Killed by police on Oct. 29, 1984 | Age, 66
Killed by police on Sept. 5, 2015 | Age 27
Killed by police on April 30, 2015 | Age 26
Killed by police on Nov. 21, 2006 | Age 92
Killed by police on Oct. 12, 2019 | Age 28
Photo Credit: Kasey Medlin
(Editor’s Note: For more from Durrett, click here.)
Founder, The Design Culturalist
2020 served as the backdrop to a historic moment in remote work history: an exodus of workers from the traditional office to a home office, on a scale that has never been seen before. I took this transition one step further, and decided to leave my role as creative director at a San Francisco–based design firm to become my own boss. Like many creative leaders during this time, I have been on a journey to understand how to manage teams remotely, but now with the added challenge of also being an independent contractor. While most people associate “the future of work” with the rise of the entrepreneurial generation or the development of new “work-from-anywhere” models centered on employee wellness and mental health, I find myself exploring the inevitable next wave of people management.
I have worked at the intersection of strategy, product, advertising, and editorial for more than a decade—from launching story-driven experiences at Godfrey Dadich Partners to building multidisciplinary teams at The New York Times’ award-winning T Brand Studio, GQ magazine and Facebook. My job as a creative leader has always been about finding the balance between inspiring teams to drive creative productivity, and nurturing each talented soul’s professional advancement. For me, there is no distinction between leading people and directing the work. My personal philosophy and approach to being a people manager relates to direct communication, leading compassionately, and advocating for optimism.
Initially, all of this was difficult. The abrupt transition to remote work was jarring for me, and invoked a deep sense of loss since creativity and collaboration have long been colored by iconic images evoking a high degree of physicality—the team huddled together in a messy studio space, brainstorming with expressive gestures and visual props, ideas flying. It was hard to keep my team engaged, curious and energetic on Zoom (only later did it help me to understand, via Priya Parker, that facilitating virtual gatherings is an artform). And I knew there was probably much to learn from the small percentage of companies (like the design software company InVision) that have gradually built remote cultures over the span of years and swear by it … but I quickly realized that what drives engagement at work is the same factor now as it was pre-pandemic: an employee’s relationship with their manager.
Being forced into remote work has exacerbated an underlying issue at many companies, which is: Most don’t provide the necessary tools to foster great (or even good) people leaders. With hybrid work models becoming the new norm—in which fully in-person and remote work will be two ends of a fluid spectrum of options—the role of the “boss” is effectively evolving. And organizations will have to recognize the effect on corporate culture. It’s widely known that people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses; informality in hiring, feedback and evaluations can lead to a lack of consistency and fairness, and deprive employees of opportunities to grow. This is even more common in the creative sector, where creative output overshadows career development and burnout is common. People who did not lose their jobs during the pandemic are slowly gaining the confidence to leave stable positions with benefits if they are unhappy at work. New research is showing that two-thirds of millennials want to start their own business and up to 30% of people want to continue working from home, essentially turning a large percentage of the global workforce into self-employed freelancers. In this context, we all need to rethink how fulfillment and purpose can be cultivated and sustained in an increasingly contract-based economy. The idea is that work isn’t something people come to the office for, it’s something they do.
I believe that the people managers
of tomorrow can act boldly to reimagine an employee experience that is more purposeful, individualized and mobile. Leaders will need to have both emotional and relational intelligence, be more explicit and vulnerable, and create a sense of togetherness even if not physically together. The good news is that neither creativity nor collaboration are weakened by distance—they’re merely altered. So instead of thinking about post-pandemic “normalcy,” I’m preparing for the year 2040, when most companies will be decentralized, the majority of the workforce will be self-employed and the project-based economy will be prevalent. The notion of the “office” space will be more fluid and synonymous with community, acting as a place that enables rather than hosts. And people won’t belong to a single team, but rather many teams, each centered around a specific goal or project.
Personally, I’m now focusing on building a dream life instead of a dream job, where I can consult, teach, speak and make room for small pro-bono design projects that align with my values and affect change in the world. I am lucky to be working with clients—such as Airbnb, Giant Spoon, and The Plant—on projects ranging from developing global brand systems to scaling creative operations. For most of these projects, I find myself leading fully distributed teams and hiring from my existing network—a mix of generalists and specialists—in order to get the work done, while embracing a more flexible workweek. Mid-pandemic (in December of 2020), I also became a member of the Institute of Possibility, a collective of 21 individuals working to redesign our world for deeper, generative connection. Over the years, I’ve come to care deeply about using my voice and privilege to help create inclusive and connected communities, especially for womxn. My hope is that this platform will amplify my commitment to supporting these causes and addressing gender-based disparities in the design industry.
Now more than ever, there’s urgency (and rightly so) to take the necessary actions to advance racial equity on our teams, lead conversations on sensitive topics and foster engagement instead of retreat. With more distributed-first models, we can ensure that our teams—no matter their employment contract status or location—more accurately reflect the diverse populations that we aim to serve. We can effectively design (and facilitate) a more equitable future if we want to. That’s the future of creative leadership that I want to be part of and help shape. That’s “the future of independent work” we should be getting ready for.
Senior Director, New Product Ventures at Gannett
Post-pandemic normalcy probably includes:
Still wearing a mask, even after mask requirements are no longer required
Working for brands that are remote-friendly and pandemic-tolerant
Continued focus on mental health to address trauma
Finding inspiration and enjoyment in activities, restaurants, etc., that we took for granted pre-COVID
Continued focus on being a cashless society and touching public things less without sanitizer
Working to help rebuild institutions that matter and dismantle ones that don’t
Short-selling of purely physical companies, and designers continuing to be angry at Wall Street
Working on projects that fill empty storefronts
Site Architect/Development Lead, IBM; Co-founder and Outreach Lead, Tech Can [Do] Better
Pre-COVID life was pretty standard. Nothing stands out except for the ability to go into the office and talk to other people. There were also free snacks on the fifth floor of our office. That fact made us competitive with anyone in the tech industry, in my mind.
At the beginning of the quarantine there was a constant feeling of uncertainty, and some days, that morphed into a constant low-level hum of fear. For everyone but the most adamant homebodies, constant quarantining meant that new ways of working, interacting with friends, family, and contacting people overall had to be discovered in parallel. Pretty much everything changed in a matter of weeks. There was an end in sight, then, very quickly, there was no end in sight.
On top of that, the news cycle in 2020 wasn’t just about COVID. Behind the constant updates of talking heads and death statistics, the national conversation about racial injustice went nuclear. The state was saying “don’t go outside.” The news was showing people getting hit in the face with rubber bullets. And where was I? I was locked in my house basically competing against myself to see who could watch more Netflix. In the end, there was only so much streaming television I could take, there were only so many video games I could play, and I could only watch so many movies before I started questioning whether this was something I wanted to do—or, after losing all external entertainment, it was the only thing I thought I had left.
It wasn’t that there weren’t more shows; there are always more shows. I just ran out of passive distractions that made me feel like I was using my time for something worthwhile. Sitting on the couch watching things that other people made wasn’t the pastime it used to be. I wanted to make something. I decided, to do that, I would have to take an active interest in figuring out what, if anything, I could do with the feeling of boredom, malaise, and frustration that made up the bulk of 2020.
Around June, before the office closed down, myself and a few co-workers had come together to take a look at the landscape of racial injustice across the tech industry. The national conversation around race had touched companies like Google and Facebook. They had been called out in open forums. A magnifying glass was on their hiring and retention, and they were ready to listen. Whether they were ready to change was still to be determined. But with everyone talking about race in America, we were in the spotlight, and it seemed like the time was right to take on a piece of responsibility for making things better for others out there like us who may not have been as lucky. There was an opportunity there. So we took it and started a nonprofit.
The nonprofit is Tech Can Do Better. In less than a year we have a staff of 50+ and an active community of about 250 people. We use research, best practices, advocacy and legislation to push tech companies to increase equitable hiring, treatment, and overall push for better outcomes for underserved populations, focusing on the Black community and spreading through the BIPOC spectrum.
In the short time we’ve been in existence, I can see work we’ve done in people’s hands across the country, and it feels better than seeing the long-awaited finale of any show. I spend a lot of time talking to people outside of my immediate bubble now. I’ve become a better listener and a better speaker. I’ve also lost that sense of malaise. A Zoom call full of teenagers called me “cool.” I think I’ve peaked.
When the country is vaccinated and everything is open again, I want to continue doing this work. I want to invest time in helping my community and put energy into advocating for others. I hope to be more intentional with my time and money, spending it where it can do the most good. I also want to take the optimism that I’ve grown through advocacy and point it towards other things. Somehow believing you have the power to push giant tech companies to change—but also having no hope that COVID will ever go away—seems backwards.
(Editor’s Note: Read more about Tech Can Do Better here.)
Partner/Designer, Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv
Working collaboratively and in person has been at the core of our practice for decades.
If we had to plan for the physical separation in advance, it might have been completely overwhelming, but we had no time to worry. Projects kept coming in, and we simply had to make it work. We established all-staff Zoom meetings (which we had never done in person) that turned out to be more horizontal and participative. In these staff meetings, everyone would share their screens, present their work and defend it, which has been a powerful incentive. I personally found that when sketching at home, I have been completely engulfed and undistracted.
Just as essential has been the relationship with our clients. Being together in person in the same room for logo design presentations, talking through strategy and explaining the reasons for our design decisions, is irreplaceable, we thought. Under these new circumstances, every detail of our remote presentations meant even more: each application, the introduction of each concept, the storytelling, structure, rhythm, transitions—we even accounted for the color shifts over Zoom.
Everything we’ve had to learn and invent throughout the pandemic will stay with us and transform our practice. We are more nimble, we have more options and more ways to be connected, and we are less tied to geography or to physicality. However, we also look forward to spending time around the coffee machine and to taking the elevator together when leaving the office at the end of the day.
Among all the clients we worked with in 2020, the companies that moved the most aggressively during the pandemic were those moving content online—both legacy brands and newcomers.
The Discovery corporate group—with its origins in the early ’80s and now encompassing gigantic brands like Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, the Food Network, Animal Planet, HGTV, Travel Channel and Eurosport—wanted to move quickly into the streaming space with a new direct-to-consumer service, discovery+. They needed a mark to help discovery+ become known as the overarching brand for its many familiar programs, as well as to propel the launch of the new service.
On a completely different end of the entertainment field is the competitive esports team Panda Global. Esports is now a massive commercial interest with in-person tournaments gathering audiences of thousands, social media feeds, live-game streams and other online communications.
The pandemic accelerated the branding process for both discovery+ and Panda Global—but they had opposite needs. The established client wanted to look like a digital brand. And the young digital client wanted to look like an established brand.
As an illustrator, I typically get assignments from art directors, and usually the themes of the assignments are in line with what interests me. But a year ago everything changed. Who could have known that our lives could change so quickly and drastically? I realized at the time that there would be a long period of uncertainty, and I wanted to start a project that was meaningful to me and would occupy my time. I had an idea on the backburner, and that was to research and paint portraits of extraordinary women, which I began to do. It was so helpful to immerse myself in the lives of these amazing women and to learn about their difficult circumstances, and how they dealt with their situations with tenacity and courage. Staying home and masking while out seemed like a small sacrifice by comparison.
As luck would have it, the amazing Chip Kidd expressed interest in the project, and the result will be a book of the work to be released this fall. Pre-pandemic, I typically waited to get assignments, but when this pandemic is finally over I am determined to be much more proactive doing personal projects that are meaningful and helpful. Life is too short to waste time.
Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Design Army
Who said we have to go back to normal? We can’t hang on to the past like an old VCR living in a new Metaverse world. The future is all about staying ahead of the next normal. We will need to think and create like an elastic brand and be able to adapt to unpredictable consumers, new technology, new media, and new clients. The next normal is working smarter and learning to love the uncertainty. My new motto for 2021 is “CHANGE or DIE.”
Editorial Director, PRINT; Host, Design Matters
The past year has meant no travel for installations and talks, but I’ve enjoyed slowing down, finding new rituals, and spending more time in the studio. The silver lining to such a global tragedy is that on a personal level I’ve been able to reflect on what’s important, and start to align my values with what I create. Although my workload was much lighter this past year, I created a few pieces that were meaningful for me: “Come Hell or High Water”—created with charcoal from Australia’s bushfires as a call to the determination required to face the impacts of climate change head on; “SHE/HER”—created for the Here I Am exhibition in Canberra; “Only Together,” a piece for the UN’s social media campaign to call for vaccine equity; and “Thank You Essential Workers,” the artwork displayed in Times Square at the beginning of the pandemic. Right now I am taking on fewer commercial projects while focusing on an upcoming exhibition at China Heights gallery in November.
Interaction and Visual Designer; Founder, Where Are the Black Designers?
It’s been quite difficult to visualize what post-pandemic normalcy might look like because the next question that follows is, “in what sense?” In terms of justice and racial inequality? In terms of the workplace? In terms of all of that within design? Is my new normal being the Black person that is going to keep advising allies and companies about how to overcome their diversity issue?
Parts of my new normal are uncertain because I feel like my new normal is slightly based on non-Black allies and how willing they are to participate in the fight toward racial equality as the pandemic has unveiled. To counteract that, I am also trying to visualize what things I need to unlearn and learn as a designer and a human being to have a decently healthy new normal—whether it is saying “no,” or telling my co-workers and superior that I am not feeling 100% today due to the daily stream of Black trauma. For me, the question is not about the new normal. The question is, “How do I keep my peace to survive in this ugly new normal and therefore help my people survive?”
Head of Sustainability, Pearlfisher
If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit we have been forced to face uncertainty—uncertainty that has infiltrated every possible nook and cranny in our lives beyond work. Some of us have adjusted, while others have tried or at least had a tougher time adapting to what we can. From the blurred lines of work and life to isolation and no end of the pandemic in sight—uncertainty has been the only constant.
The truth is, certainty isn’t guaranteed. Not even in pre-COVID “normal” life. It was all an illusion to justify how we were living our lives and pushing ourselves to work, create, produce and play … harder.
It’s as if COVID pulled back the covers to reveal that what we’ve been afraid of has actually been there the whole time. Like the now-spoiled reveal in that movie The Sixth Sense—we’ve all been dead the whole time. Just kidding! Well, kidding-ish. But, we were in and amongst uncertainty and could have seen it the entire time. We just didn’t want to, or more likely, weren’t in a place where we really could.
Uncertainty can be stressful. It’s been supremely stressful for those of us that still hold on to the false illusion of security, that anything out there is guaranteed. For those that did face it, we’re now in a place where we can decide if we’ll let uncertainty defeat us or empower us.
I’m letting it empower me. I’m letting the fact that I don’t know who or where I’ll be in two months drive me—celebrating the “now” instead of focusing so much on trying to control the future. How many people do you know that made a career shift, life change or a combination of the two during this time? These are folks that let uncertainty be their fuel—fuel they might not have discovered had COVID not forced the curtain to get pulled back. And so I choose to ride with this newfound energy, not against it.
A few months ago, I created a new role for myself as head of sustainability at Pearlfisher—the first of its kind agency-side, and a first for me. Who knows how it will ultimately be received by our clients and peers. That doesn’t matter right now. But what does matter now, today and into the future, is that I had the courage to make it happen, where pre-COVID, I didn’t. And it’s because I’m OK with uncertainty.
How will you let uncertainty affect you?
Graphic Designer, Art Director
I’m not sure how much my “old normal” and “new normal” will differ much post-pandemic! I started working independently in 2018, so I had a good two years working from home before COVID hit. When most people started working from home, I was flashing back to when I had to figure out my home office situation, get used to working alone, and the blurring of boundaries.
I love working from a home studio. Like most creative people, ideas and sparks of motivation come at different times of day and night, so it’s nice to adjust my schedule based on how I’m feeling that day or what I need to prioritize. I want to keep cooking myself lunch, do random house chores or even do a workout in between emails instead of coming home to a list of more things to do. All that said, not being able to interact with people and working alone is really tough. I miss human connection, and work-wise, I even miss having crits with my peers. That’s why when I started freelancing, I made sure to keep in touch with friends as much as possible. I also have some crit buds, and we send things back and forth because designing in isolation is never fun.
It’s been interesting seeing agencies and studios shift to working remotely and hearing them talk about new business calls and kicking off projects remotely. These are all things I had been doing, but I guess it felt super scrappy since I don’t ha
ve an official studio space that I rent (trying to keep to low overhead costs). But now that we’ve all been forced to work from home, I hope this new way of life, working remotely, will become a common thing.
Illustrator/Graphic Designer/Co-founder of Spur Design
Other than having to close our studio temporarily and work from home last year, the biggest professional challenge has been the restriction of travel, which has resulted in very little in-person contact with existing and potential new clients. A hard outcome of that restriction was the cancellation of pending projects that involved exhibits and live performances. To be clear, I think these restrictions are certainly reasonable and rational in the face of a deadly (ongoing) pandemic, but I’m hopeful that the “new normal” will eventually involve more travel (safely!) and casual pop-ins … even if that likely involves wearing a mask. Zoom meetings are here to stay, and they’ve been immensely helpful, but they don’t replace personal interaction or walking around a museum space.
2021 has so far had more up and down in terms of workflow than 2020. Our new normal will involve updating our studio, and doing a mix of online and live book launch events for [Spur co-founder] Joyce Hesselberth’s upcoming children’s book Beatrice Was a Tree. We’ll also begin reaching out to existing clients that put work on hold, and continue to expand our present client base. More importantly, we’ll try to keep the fire stoked for future plans!
I’ve been fortunate enough to stay pretty busy during the pandemic. I work at home and have been working on a number of long-term projects throughout, so the work transition was an easy one.
What has been topsy-turvy has been the rest of the world around me. A number of my family members in Florida and Cuba were stricken with COVID, so that has been a worry and continues to be. Seeing my kids missing out on parts of their childhood has been difficult. Witnessing and commenting on the political insanity of the past year also took a toll.
My focus after the pandemic is not going to be about work. The past year has taught me that everything we take for granted can be taken away from us overnight—everything from freedom of movement to family and democratic institutions. We did come close to having a coup in this country, something I never imagined.
My main focus after the pandemic will be to spend time with family and friends who I haven’t seen in a year or more, spend time in the sun in Cuba and Florida, and to travel with my wife and daughters.
If there is something I’d like to do more of artistically, it is to paint, sculpt and make things that are a bit more detached from the daily grind of the news cycle we’ve been hostage to for the past five years. I don’t plan specific directions in my work, I react to what is going on in my life. Making this shift, spending time with the people I love, in places I love, is sure to bring new ideas and directions in my work.
I was already working alone in a home office before the pandemic hit. I shut down my old office on 6th Avenue a few years ago so I could be around more for my twin boys. So the move was valuational, and in my pre-pandemic thinking, temporary. The plan was to see the boys into middle school and then start commuting again to an office space in the city.
The main difference has been that it is much harder to work here uninterrupted. I used to have absolute quiet from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Over the past year, with the boys doing homeschooling and my wife, Emily [Oberman], setting up Pentagram/NJ in the next room, it’s virtually impossible to get anything done. Or at least as much done as I used to. And I have almost as many projects in the studio as I always do.
New normal? Seriously, I have no idea. I assume the boys will be going back to school soon, and I also assume that Emily will be working from her office in Manhattan—but you know what they say about assuming.
Lyric book/new release for They Might Be Giants, titled BOOK. The entire book was typed on a ’70s IBM Selectric typewriter.
Founder, Eight and a Half
Now that we know just how short life can be, we will be less inclined to take jobs that won’t make us happy.
I’ve been asking myself Where do we go from here? since March 2020, when I, like most of the world, moved indoors full time. A year later, thanks to social distancing and vaccines, there’s talk about “getting back to normal” or finding “post-pandemic normalcy.” But what the fuck is normal anymore? It might depend on where you are in the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—and where sweatpants fit into the equation.
mean getting out of the sweatpants, leaving your home, and heading back to the office or classroom, to congregate, design, work, learn in the company of others. But others may have discovered that an isolated live-at-home situation—that allows you to yell into a pillow three times a day instead of coffee breaks or watercooler talk—is what you’ve been craving all of your life, you just never knew it until Summer 2020 when you wondered, Is it too warm outdoors for sweatpants? Answer: Who gives a shit, because if you’re indoors with air conditioning, sweatpants are the proper choice. On a personal note, I embraced casual wear years ago, but what works for me may not work for you. (That pillow thing? Works too, so does cursing out loud.)
Questions about what works and what’s best have always been top of mind for designers. Does this font work, which grid functions, what about color, which design is better, which design is best? Seeing, learning, making, presenting, and discussing those things can happen anywhere thanks to technology, and we all had to make it work 100% online beginning spring 2020. As a university professor, I’ve had design students attend my online classes from the Carolinas or as far away as Ukraine. I invited guest designers who beamed in from California, Georgia, and the United Kingdom, among other places. Stuck in our own pandemic bubble looking at shoulders and heads in a video conferencing grid, we communicated with people from many miles away thanks to technology.
If/when we get back to the “old normal” and accept the Monday–Friday office routines, Casual Fridays won’t feel as special since it’s been Casual Forever since spring 2020. At the very least, returning to the “old normal” will bring us together again with a newfound appreciation for each other. And yet, tomorrow’s designers may not want a 100% “in the office” experience, preferring some office days, some remote, or a completely online job that lets you work from anywhere. Why not? If it means hanging out in comfy sweatpants 24/7 while getting your design groove on, you do you. Where do we go from here? Nah. More like, Where do you go from here?
I know that things will never be the same after the pandemic. We lost over two million people to this virus. Some of them were my close relatives. But through everything this past year has brought upon us, I have to continue moving forward. As I reflect on this, I’m grateful for the opportunities that having a job has afforded me. That I’ve been able to form relationships with designers and students from all over the world. And that I’ve found new ways to contribute to the design community.
I was already working remotely when the pandemic hit. In fact, I’ve been working remotely as a type designer at Monotype for the past five years. My team works across various geographies and time zones, so even when we had an office, we would still frequently communicate via chat and video conference. I’m happy to trade my commute for more fulfilling, therapeutic activities, like drawing letters. I think that working remotely might be considered more “normal” these days, and I’m on board with that shift.
I do miss in-person meetups, but the shift online has opened up the doors to so many communities all over the world. All of a sudden, New York City wasn’t so far away from everywhere else, and vice versa. Rather than wait for a conference, event, or vacation to travel and meet people in other cities or countries, now it’s very common to organize video conference calls to collaborate and hang out. Lots of bonds have been strengthened during this time, and new ones have formed with designers from all over.
For instance, during the pandemic, I’ve enjoyed participating in Letrastica’s Type Cooker events and the first-ever Latin American Typography Tournament. At times, our online meetups turned into Zoom dance parties with everyone on the call, which was fun. I’ve also attended many online classes and conferences on design, history, education, pedagogy, etc., which before the pandemic would’ve been inaccessible to me and many others for geographic, financial, and timing reasons. This was definitely new to me, and I’m really hoping that these communities will continue to flourish and adapt to a hybrid world post-pandemic. But I still can’t wait to travel and see people once it’s safe.
I’m also an educator, and I’ve been teaching type in person for the past five years. But when the pandemic hit, we had to switch to a fully online environment. I also started teaching a new online course in Display Type Design at Type@Cooper. The field of type design is predominantly male and white, and as one of the few BIPOC type designers in my field, teaching is an opportunity to make a change and bring in new voices. So I started a Display Type BIPOC Fund to raise money and offer scholarships for BIPOC designers to take my class. So far I’ve run the scholarship three times, and each time I’ve been able to fund at least five seats. I’ll continue to teach the class online, and maybe in person once that becomes a reality. I do sincerely hope that institutions that offer online education continue to do so even after in-person classes come back. I really do believe that it’s helping increase access to opportunities, and I’m excited about that.
Providing access is only one part of the work. It’s also important to support students even after the class is over, so I put together a class website, displaytypedesign.com, to celebrate my students’ work and make their voices more visible. Education is an ongoing endeavor that needs to be sustained, so around the same time, in April of last year, I also founded Type Crit Crew, an initiative that helps make type designers and type design education more accessible to students everywhere.
Both my online class and scholarship as well as Type Crit Crew make it possible to create and sustain a community of type design students from all over the world. But I’m not alone in this, and I’m grateful to the type designers who signed up as Type Crit Crew instructors and are extending a hand to the current and next generation of type designers. And especially my dear friend Lynne Yun, who through her Type Design School and her own BIPOC scholarship is helping bring more people into type design.
My hopes for a post-pandemic world are that things get better. That the conversations we’re having around access, inclusion, and equality never, ever stop. And that more people look for ways to help in whatever way they can.
Co-founder, Under Consideration
Other than the disruption that the pandemic caused on our business model, where a good 75–80% of our income came from in-person events, I think we are one of the rare cases where our pre-pandemic, pandemic and post-pandemic normals are about the same.
My wife and partner, Bryony Gomez-Palacio, and I have been working from home for 13 years, and it has always been part of our business model. So, the day-to-day has been relatively the same for me, although not so much for Bryony, who had to take on the role of mom many more hours of the day as our two kids—ages 11 and 14 (but 10 and 13 when this all started)—have been doing e-learning from home, and that’s all kinds of distracting. The biggest return to normalcy for us will be having our kids back at school. We love them, but we love them more when they are not at the house for eight hours. For me, it will actually be hard to go back to more in-person meetings, more social gatherings and more outings, because I currently have a routine that repeats perfectly every single day, every single week, every single month, and I cannot tell you how comforting that is for a control freak and introvert like me.
I’ve been working from a home office since 2005, using various iterations of video chat to collaborate. Pandemic guilt set in quickly as I watched everyone scramble to rearrange their lives, while mine stayed largely the same. I have a feeling that my “old” and “new” normal will be pretty indistinguishable.
Chief Creative Officer, Wolff Olins
Post-pandemic normalcy will place into great contrast the lives we once lived set against our new collective path forward. In mental years, the “old normal” feels at least a decade away, as the turbulence of yesteryear has perfectly distorted all sense of time and space. My old self, in hindsight, appears to have an over-appreciation of fidelity—where craft precision held an outsized degree of importance and perhaps overshadowed the concept at the heart of the work.
My future self, having endured many setbacks, limitations, social isolation, and screen-mediated reality, has a newfound appreciation for constraints as a catalyst for creativity, evident in the resourcefulness seen in design artifacts created against all odds in 2020. I hope that we can carry on with the de facto suspension of judgment and acknowledgment of our basic humanness experienced in today’s video verité, as we greet one another in our respective living rooms and makeshift offices, continually interrupted by pets and children alike. What is more important than La Croix and the trappings of offices are rich conversations and the joy of the work, somehow more brilliant in the low-fi canvas of everyday life.
I don’t think it’s safe to say that everything is under control yet. At least not until most people are vaccinated. But I do think some sense of normal is coming back, especially a sense of human compassion, honesty, and care. I’m lucky that I got my shots already, so I can see the people I love again in person. For work, as well, I met up with a new client in person the other day because we were both vaccinated, and I can’t tell you what it’s like when you get to meet someone new in person and share some laughs.
I’ve been working from home for the past five years, and I was very OK with just being inside for a long time. However, I managed to do that with other activities to keep it interesting. Now I’ve become the most domesticated person that I was afraid one day I would turn into. When I’m taking a break from work, I do house chores and cook and cook and cook. I would say I appreciate the new way of remote working. It’s not only more flexible, but it has broadened my project from mostly U.S.-based work to across the globe. I don’t love being on video calls all the time, but I’ve been switching rooms and walls for different Zooms, so I can keep it fun for myself.
Work-wise, I was like a rocket that just kept going. In 2020, I was honored to be a part of the #CombatCovid project that PRINT, Poster House and TSQArts initiated that took over all the digital displays in Times Square. After that, I was invited by Rich Tu to be one of the featured BIPOC artists for the MTV VMAs all over the Barclay Center in Brooklyn. Lastly, I ended my year with my work among other artists like KAWS and Barbara Kruger on the cover of New York Magazine for the 2020 presidential election.
Edited by Steven Heller, Zachary Petit, and Bill McCool