How Polygraph Documented COVID Year One in Real Time for The Smithsonian

Posted inThe PRINT Awards

When Washington, DC’s iconic Smithsonian Institute hired neighboring agency Polygraph to design their 2019 annual report, it came together like a dream. “It was a bit magical,” said Jason Mannix, Creative Director. “We could pitch an idea, however crazy, and they would say, ‘Yeah, actually, we do have something like that.’”

Because of the museum’s massive reach, Polygraph was able to play with all kinds of groundbreaking data and materials. The resulting 2019 report was a sleek, modern, artfully constructed publication that featured the first photograph of a black hole on its cover. Polygraph summarized the year with an elegant, optimistic narrative of scientific advancement and social progress— just in time, of course, for immediately drastic change.

“It’s funny— the first book that we did wrapped up, then we had a photoshoot scheduled for April of 2020,” said Jason Mannix, Creative Director. “We decided, ‘Hey, we should move that up,’ and so we did it March 13, and The Smithsonian closed the next day.”

Before they knew it, Polygraph was tasked with documenting one of the strangest years in modern history for a cultural behemoth that could no longer open its doors. An honest portrayal of the year would need to reflect a sudden, urgent move from public to private spaces, and from analog to digital. It needed the stark contrast of quiet, empty rooms and the screeching feedback of crowded Zoom calls, punctuated with an undercurrent of hope that was discernible enough to make sense of it all.

Polygraph’s 2020 annual report delivered this in spades with an astonishing, heartfelt time capsule that earned them two PRINT Awards: 1st Place in Annual Reports and our coveted Best of Show Award. The final product uses bold color palettes, ambitious layouts, and sleek typography to convey the strange, chaotic first year of a shifting current. While it can be tempting to isolate the noise to 2020, its shockwaves still violently ripple through our everyday life. And Polygraph isn’t shying away from the questions this raises; as they continue to report for The Smithsonian, they’ve become unwitting documentarians of a new era, creating the kind of work that wouldn’t feel out of place in a history book years down the line.

I recently spoke with Creative Director Jason Mannix to hear more about the report’s dramatic evolution, the events that inspired its stylistic choices, and the continued attempts to make sense of a strange, electrifying moment in time.

The following interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

The Smithsonian 2020 report is about a year that made it very clear we’re living in a distinct new historical time. How did you convey that with the data that you had?

It was our second time doing it, and we had a really good go the first time around, in terms of building that design trust, and finding those moments of collaboration. So then when the pandemic happened, and we had to do all of this remotely, that trust became imperative: of being able to do the same thing, to try and tell a slightly different story, but to do it without very many assets, without very much new material. It was all sort of sourced from what we could find through the different units of The Smithsonian, through what they had available online, or we could do any custom photoshoots. We were able to finish [2019] out nicely, and then we were in the middle of the pandemic, working on the next one.

Wow. So you were reporting on this very intense year as you lived through it?

Yes and no— I think thematically, some of those bigger ideas for The Smithsonian were always going to be there, but that sort of natural pivot that everybody had to do in terms of: how do you engage your audience that, for the most part, is coming in and experiencing these objects and these histories in real time, in physical space? How do you present those ideas without postponing them? How do you present them in a digital way? I think maybe as a client, they’re pretty well positioned. I think they’ve been trying to work on that sort of engagement for a long time, but to be thrown immediately into that necessity created some real challenges for them, because they had all these exhibits that were in the works that they just suddenly had to pivot to digital, or just put on hold completely.

So for us, it was trying to tell that narrative of some of the exciting things that they were doing, without those really basic human assets of people being in a space— not to say that that’s what we were wanting. I think we always wanted to do something a little bit more maybe poetic, a little bit more reliant on metaphor, to kind of allude to some of these ideas, but to tell that story without people being in spaces, I think, became a very natural progression of the book. How do you make those connections in a way that don’t overtly feel digital, that maybe still feels physical, but slightly universal, between all the units within The Smithsonian?

How do you create an annual report for a museum that couldn’t be opened pretty much the entire year?


How did you decide what felt essential?

So we’re finishing up the annual report right now [for 2021], and I think that’s a great question, because when you have so much, it does have to get filtered down. So for us, it’s sourcing so many different images, trying to find different juxtapositions where we can, trying to accommodate different audiences where we can. And so within those last three years, we’ve been able to feature more prominently particular units of The Smithsonian, while also trying to give a certain amount of representation to all the groups. So for us, at least in this past year’s book, it was about creating layers of texture, where we’re representing either a piece of history or an exhibit in the museum, or maybe a bigger idea within Smithsonian in a couple of different ways on a spread. So that first annual report that we did was a lot about duality and dichotomy within images. So we do simple juxtapositions. And then this year, we were able to try and build in a little bit more to each of those spreads, where we’re getting a little bit of texture from a couple of different things, while trying to connect it in a universal way.

I would love to hear about the visuals, and what inspired those.

The Smithsonian is so diverse— they’ve got research centers all over the world, where you have scientists working on things. Part of the first annual report we did, the cover image was the first photograph of the first captured black hole. They partnered with Harvard; they were kind of doing this big thing, and it became world news, so that’s the scientific breadth that they have. And then they’ve got these amazing cultural museums here in DC, and in New York that are, obviously, just full of artifacts, full of reference. It’s kind of living art history. It’s art, but it’s also a cultural history as well, from different populations.

So it was really cool for us to be able to find images that could speak to each other across those channels, which isn’t easy, and again, trying to get representation to all of them. It was about finding some simple themes that we can start to populate with different ideas, instead of throwing images against each other, and seeing what may be causing a little dissonance, and trying to find that excitement in those individual spreads.

I would love to hear about what inspired the choice to make the cover this stripy collage.

Covers are always fun, and always a challenge, especially for an institution this big. We wanted to do something that felt loud, but also had a sense of the cacophony of the year. So there’s the maybe not so subtle nod to this idea of screens, and the layering of screens, that we’re all kind of trapped in these screens. But this idea of really creating a tapestry, maybe with those different screens.

The visualization of too many tabs.

That’s right, that’s exactly right, in a printed format— trying to play off of those different texture elements, where we’re getting scientific shots that are artifacts, and again, playing with color and light within those, so that it doesn’t feel static in any way. You’re really getting this nice layering towards the central piece. Chaos is an aspect here too, I think.

Given the year, I think we kind of organized it as best we could. I think that’s kind of our design style, is to be relatively minimal, or at least elegant in a way, and that scientific sense of trying to keep an eye on things that couldn’t be kept out. But there was this element of chaos to where you’ve got everybody trying to— not fight for attention, per se, but just try to communicate, and try to survive in this really difficult and challenging year.

Yeah, even though everything simultaneously got much quieter and much louder.

Right, right. I think in our heads too, we’re trying to figure out, what are other companies doing? What are organizations doing? How are they telling the story of this year? And I wouldn’t be surprised if many people really tried to play the year safe— for all good reasons. The Smithsonian, I think, just happened to be positioned in a way where they could not tell an optimistic story, but they were reacting in real time, and in some really successful ways, they could be positive about a really, really bad year.

I’m curious about how the darker territory of 2020 affected Polygraph’s process.

I think when you do big, institutional work, there’s always a sense of wanting to play it safe. And when you have a really big group of people that need to potentially weigh in on those decisions, things do get watered down. I think that’s a reality of design, and I think where this was maybe particularly successful is that the team was small— our design team and their team internally— and being able to get things through gates successfully, and without much pushback, I think speaks to the idea that strong visuals can tell a beautiful story.

It was a hard year, and it sounds like you were wrestling with the line of when to be positive. Since The Smithsonian has access to a lot of data, I imagine they had access to information other people didn’t know at the time.

I think that could be true. I think for them, the humanity is such an important aspect of their work, in all respects, and so when humanity is kind of at a standstill, it just makes everything that they do challenging, like all their scientists can’t work in the same way, so those collaborations that are global have to adjust.

There’s a lot of serious images, but [we tried] to show them in a really positive, bright, uplifting way. I think a great example is the letter from the secretary of The Smithsonian. It’s a very serious letter; they obviously have to talk about very serious things in the serious year. But we blew up the Pfizer vaccine, this really tiny little vial that was so important to humanity. We blew that up to a pretty epic scale, as a juxtaposition to say, “Hey, this is this is what humanity can do.” And from a graphic design standpoint, elegant type layout, but huge— and this vial is probably an inch tall in real life— and blowing it up in a poster size, and being intentional about the things that we want to add volume to.

This idea, there’s something kind of quiet, and loud— obviously, pun intended— with the elephant in the room. But this idea of this Zoom, these are all artists for the Archives of American Art, giving virtual lectures where they might be talking about their craft, and their experience in person in front of an audience. They’re actively engaging with thousands of people across the world through these virtual conversations, and they have them all together on screen, [which] I think, again, speaks to that cacophony. It’s maybe not a risk taken, but it speaks to how we learned to adapt, and converse, and communicate in this crazy moment of silence.

It’s still hard to know how to react, especially because there is so much grief we still haven’t processed. There’s an oddly pervasive narrative that the hardship of that time is over, even when every year after 2020 has been really hard in its own way. How is Polygraph continuing to approach that evolution in your work for The Smithsonian?

[2021] is our third annual report with them, and we’ve been working on it for a while, and this one is totally different. It’s maybe a more thoughtful, let’s actually look at this a little bit closer kind of moment. So we had a photographer document the year, whose key was taking photos throughout this entire year, of the museum, of the spaces, of the emptiness that’s there, of people slowly starting to come back, but then again, backsliding.

We had proposed: Can we get a poet to write a poem? And so instead of this feeling, like a narrative— every other annual report has a narrative— let’s actually have a poet who can connect some of the emotional chaos of this past year, and of the whole year— not just the moment, not just the photographs, but of this whole experience. And so for this report, it is exactly that—it’s a poem broken up into six sections, where we’re following one viewer’s experience of the year, and it correlates to a bunch of the photographs that were taken. So maybe you’re saying the idea that, yeah, we haven’t processed it, and The Smithsonian is still kind of processing it too. And it does feels energetic still, and lively in the way that it should feel alive. But it is self-reflective in the way that I think both books are; I think this book happens to be loud, but not disingenuous. And I think it is, to your point, us trying to brush things under the rug. I think there’s a denial that is maybe uniquely American.

I think that’s fair!

I think we want to be optimists, that we hold ourselves in that regard, but yeah, truth is also fundamentally important.

It sounds like you’re really wrestling with how to approach that as the years go on, instead of isolating it to this one year where a lot suddenly happened.

That’s exactly right. And for the Smithsonian too, on the continuum, they’ve been around for 175 years.

Almost as old as America!

So they intuitively understand the American experience, and they’re constantly trying to articulate it, and to hold those mirrors up to ourselves, and up to the world. So many tourists come and look at America through their museums. I think it is fundamentally important that they [describe] it accurately, and I admire that they’re so willing and capable of being creative, and letting creativity shine that light on the American experience.