Sometimes seeing the wrong Tweet brings my mood crashing down so hard that I don’t even get as far as posting the artwork I logged on to share.
Entire days can be spent achieving the bare minimum in the aftermath of another skirmish with the news and it’s been getting worse. The climate crisis. War. More political deceit.
Each time a world problem wipes me out, it takes me a little longer to restore mental balance. This is an unsustainable cycle. World problems are not going away, nor are the news and media outlets whose business it is keep us tuned into the doom. So, what can we do to break it?
Empathy and sensitivity are critical assets in a designer’s toolkit – our blessing and our curse. When a person’s mood suffers, creativity – given its symbiotic relationship with our feelings – follows suit.
Can we harness our anger?
Lately I have been questioning the value of making art, designing things and writing stories as part of a new endeavour, The Creative Condition, which explores the nature of creativity. At the same time I’ve been trying to process bad news in the background.
Eventually I’ve emerged from this malaise, by embracing a different negative emotion: anger. I feel contempt towards those I deem responsible for warmongering, political corruption and the climate crisis, so to alleviate the powerlessness I feel, creativity has become more vital and my way of working through the insurmountable things in my life.
Facing these issues alone is impossible, but visual communication, by its very nature cannot function in isolation. After all we can quickly and at little or no cost, amplify information and ideas. I chose to study graphic activism in my university dissertation because I took great heart from this, seeing how one image, message or action, when designed and delivered effectively could be transformative. The ability to provide a voice for causes that matter is nothing short of wizardry. Remembering that I possess this magic has been a vital tonic.
Lessons from Ken Garland
Several years after I’d studied his First Things First Manifesto, Ken Garland was kind enough to welcome me into his London home studio. I’d begun directing a campaign on behalf of Campaign Against Living Miserably, exploring whether the emotional benefits of artistic expression that helped me through life’s challenges were enjoyed by others. The answer was an emphatic ‘yes.’ Ken was one of my interviewees and we discussed how creativity can empower any person, to some degree, on both a professional and personal level. Belonging and purpose are vital to human happiness and no matter the form their creativity takes on, it helps them to identify with a cause or other individuals and create a sense of belonging to social groups of like-minded people. Tellingly, every designer that I spoke to for the CALM project, revealed various levels of displaying introspective/overthinking tendencies and the vast majority of them managed the down side of this with creative outlets.
Ken, then in his 80s, paced around his studio with the fire of a person in their 20s, enraged by the ills taking place in his world. He spoke openly, with passion and determination to do something about it, and I left with renewed vigour, eager to contribute in the same way he had to many causes throughout his life.
The creative response to injustice
Despite the injustice we can feel in turbulent times, the work we make in response need not be aggressive. Instead owning our creativity according to personality, skills and schedules is more powerful than shouting louder than the next person.
Inspiring examples of this are everywhere, often in the same room.
When Dotto founder and former studio-mate Danielle Molyneux was feeling overwhelmed and angered by political deceit she juxtaposed a defiant message with a visually playful and upbeat typographic piece. It read: IF YOU TOLERATE THIS and invited the viewer to interpret the meaning for themselves.
Micah Purnell has been creating work in public spaces on billboards, delivering a positive message to balance advertising’s tendency to highlight, or even instil in us the feeling of inadequacy.
His KINDNESS AT ITS PROPER LEVEL billboards blew me away; beautifully timed celebrations of the community spirit that flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. His stickers and building sized banners in Manchester will remind you that YOU ARE ENOUGH.
By supercharging our creativity with our emotions instead of bottling them up, we are anything but powerless and seeing this work reminded me that there is no shortage of people willing to work for something better.
The most impactful work is often simple and instinctive. Craig Oldham’s book, In Loving Memory of Work is a stunning example of the power of the personal. Craig referred to ‘kitchen table creativity’ in reference to seeing family members and his local community in Barnsley making posters, banners and other graphics during the 1984-85 miner’s strike.
Artist and producer Dawinder Bansal’s British and Indian-Kenyan heritage is the heartbeat of her inclusive, thought-provoking work across film, theatre and publicexhibitions. Her ability to invite members of the public to step into her world, and encourage them to rethink their worldviews through visual, experiential and participatory design is a standout example of the macro in the micro.
During a recent book cover design project, my research exposed me to the scale of homelessness in Los Angeles. The jaws of despair opened once more until I noticed the next image, from a report on Positive News, covering the design and build of 300 small homes for the same homeless community. These colourful, functional, innovative rows of houses offered a solution to a problem and lifted my spirits; a reminder that amidst the chaos, good things are happening. Quitting troubling news will not resolve it. Reading only the happy stuff cannot remedy the paralysing uncertainty at the core of the biggest ills of our time. But better managed, balanced consumption of current affairs can provide us with the right amount of motivation and source material with which to create work to make a difference.
Creativity plays a critical role when facing the things that haunt us. If, as we have felt so often in recent years, one piece of information can be so destructive, then is this not proof that the opposite is also true?
You can listen to an audio version of this article in full, below.
Ben Tallon is exploring “the nature, behaviour and psychology of creativity” as part of The Creative Condition. This is a current podcast and a book is set to follow in late 2023.