Like many design educators, I pursue two primary activities: I design, and I teach. Along the way, I’ve come to realize that a common, fundamental purpose underlies my approach to both pursuits: I aim to move people.
One of the benefits of working as a graphic designer in academia is that I have the freedom to pursue not just client-based projects but also independent projects. I care deeply about the environment, the arts, community, farms, food, health and place, so I can choose to pursue and develop graphic design projects that support these interests and causes. As renowned designer Michael Bierut points out in his essay “Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content,” “the great thing about graphic design is that it is almost always about something else.”
I’ve also come to realize my creative work is compelled by two forces that are at times contrasting and at times complementary: the joy of making visual things, and the gravity of issues to address in the world. I can trace this duality back to my undergraduate career, when I studied both studio art and environmental studies. These disciplines continue to inform my graphic design work, which is often situated at the intersection of environmental consciousness and visual communication.
Design for the Common Good
My graduate thesis project, for example, centered on this question: In what ways can the design of an exhibition prompt people to change individual habits for the common good? Beginning with the admittedly broad intention to address climate change through graphic design, I focused on food, which is a largely invisible consumer of fossil fuels. My project evolved to become “A Fork in the Road: The Time and The Place for Local Foods,” a multimedia gallery installation that visualized both the staggering externalities of our conventional, industrial food system and the possibilities inherent in alternatives such as local food systems.
The more I’ve researched and learned about what might move people or change their minds — and the more I’ve explored how to do so via visual communication — the more I’ve come to recognize the potential inherent in incremental change. When aiming to move people to alter habits and/or perspectives (whether about food or something else), I believe it’s crucial not only to provide “what” an issue or topic entails, but also “how” one might respond — which can facilitate hope and/or action.
Being both an educator and an optimist, I design projects that present nonprescriptive options for change alongside or through data. One substantial piece in “A Fork in the Road” was “East Tennessee Eats,” a calendar that visualized the seasonal availability of all local foods within a 100-mile radius of my graduate school. I produced two versions: a large-scale installation of banners for the gallery, and a small-scale wire-bound version for purchase. I’ve re-localized this seasonal calendar for each of my homes since, repeating the research and design process first for “Iowa Ingredients” and then for “New Hampshire Nosh.” At Colby-Sawyer, a large-scale version of the latter is displayed in the Ware Student Center dining hall.
It’s been an interesting, long-term creative exercise to repeat this project every few years in a different locale. Each time, I encounter new complexities in the research, and I can’t help but consider changes large and small to the information design system I’ve developed for visualizing this content (i.e., the colors, typefaces, structure and layout). For example, when working on “New Hampshire Nosh,” I tried changing the structure from 12 single-month banners/pages to four three-month banners/pages that depict each season as a whole, allowing one to identify patterns over a longer increment of time. Now that I’ve tested this version, however, it’s evident that the monthly calendar is a more usable and readable format, so this project is undergoing more revisions.
Repetition — or, more specifically, iteration — is a fundamental part of the creative process in design and art. Making multiple versions of something lays the foundation for an exhaustive, in-depth approach to creative problem solving. Whether it be three versions of an album cover to present to a client or 100 hand-drawn sketches (which I require each student in my Identity System Design class to create during a logo design process), iteration necessitates moving beyond the first obvious solution. Further, iteration is one way to synthesize joy and gravity in my creative process. Joy and play figure into the very practice of iterating: the open-ended, nonjudgmental process of brainstorming, sketching and imagining possibilities. This play can then yield an informed and inspired solution with which to address an issue or cause.
Design for Healthy Eating
In creative work, as in scholarship, one thing leads to another. Building on my interest in food and combining it with a deepening interest in health, I’ve embarked on two related projects: Vegetable Know-How and “First Foods.” The former is an informative booklet: a visual, recipe-free guide to cooking and storage methods for 50 vegetables.
A student sparked the idea for this project when she looked at one of my seasonal food calendars and asked, “Okay, so now I know when kohlrabi is available, but how do I know what it is and what to do with it?” This user feedback was obvious yet profound, and it prompted me to consider how I might use design to teach people more about vegetables — and perhaps to move people to consume more of them.
The current national dietary guidelines suggest you “make half your plate fruits and vegetables,” but many of us fall short of this goal. In a simple, color-coded table format, Vegetable Know-How aims to address this gap by presenting a recognizable icon for each vegetable (“what it is”) cross-indexed visually with the storage and cooking methods for which it’s suited (“what to do with it”). Each storage and cooking method is introduced with a simple icon and a general how-to description. Not only is this project educational in content, but in process as well — as Jessica Madden ’16 worked with me as a research assistant and substantially contributed to both the research and initial design processes.
After becoming a parent, my interests in food and health evolved to include babies and children. I began to research when infants can be introduced to various foods, and I developed “First Foods” as a visual compilation of this research. In form, it’s a cross between a timeline and a periodic table: a color-coded chart that maps recommendations for the introduction of vegetables, fruits, protein sources and grains between six and 12 months of age. I hope that other new parents will find it a useful, consolidated resource that can hang on the refrigerator for reference during that important first year. Perhaps it will inspire them to introduce a greater variety of foods to their children — in other words, perhaps it will move them.
Legendary designer Saul Bass said, “I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.” Sometimes when I’m playing in my studio, I feel much the same way. In my continual quest to combine joy and gravity, however, I might co-opt part of his statement and say this instead: I want to make beautiful things that inspire people to care.
Associate Professor Hilary Dana Walrod is chair of the Fine and Performing Arts Department. She joined the faculty in 2012 and received the 2016 Jack Jensen Award for Excellence in Teaching. Professor Walrod holds a B.A. from Williams College and an M.F.A. from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. See more of her work at hilarydana.com.