While I dabbled in making art during my schooling days, it was always painting and drawing and the occasional collage for me--I was always intimidated by the computer know-how and skill required to learn something like graphic design. I could appreciate what I thought was good design, and cringe appropriately at ugly fonts and bad kerning, but I never really learned that much about the medium itself--both as a fine and popular art form. So when I had the opportunity to speak with graphic designer and fellow Swarthmore alumna Alicia DeWitt about her practice as an artist and her approach to her medium, I took it with enthusiasm.
Alicia DeWitt is a Boston-based MFA candidate in graphic design at Boston University, but originally studied biology and painting at Swarthmore. Her personal graphic design manifesto, which is discussed in the following interview, contains the five key points: "We are engineers, We are artists, We are mediators, We must teach ourselves, and There is room for everyone." Viewing her works and style in light of these five statements is particularly illuminating. She has designed poster campaigns, organization logos, and creative re-imaginings of literature and the form of the book, deftly using both positive and negative space for maximum effect and impact, combining the "artist," the "engineer," and the "mediator" roles in a way that is effective and engaging.
Deborah Krieger: How did you get started as an artist? What made you decide to do it professionally?
Alicia DeWitt: I think that it took a long time for me to think about myself as an artist, because it took a really long time for it to become a full time pursuit for me. At an early age, my grandmother taught me how to knit and my mother taught me how to sew, so I was always making things on top of all of my other activities the same way that they had. I kept it up. I’d always had sketchbooks and I was constantly gifted with art supplies by friends and family but it was never something I shared with people. I had school work that it seemed was more valuable to people, so that’s where I focused a lot of my energy. By the time I started formally learning about visual arts and making in college, I was surprised by how I was able to grow so quickly once I felt like I was allowed and encouraged to prioritize my artwork.
I’d had a really positive experience painting as an undergrad, but I didn’t quite feel like I’d found my medium. After college, I started working in arts communication, and actually worked a lot with designers. What I discovered, was that all along there was this whole world of artists shaping my experience everyday and I was fascinated. I couldn’t believe the range of creative work open to graphic designers. So from there I had to re-work my portfolio; I started creating client work and inventing projects of my own relying heavily on my visual arts education. A labor of love really. I felt like design connected my undergraduate majors (visual art and biology) so perfectly.
DK: What teachers, mentors, or other artists were particularly inspiring to you?
AD: My undergraduate professors were constantly telling us not to be “precious” with our work, and that has really stuck with me. I think especially with design that you’re creating on screen, there is a ton of space to undo, redo, over-write, start over, so there is no reason not to erase something and try something different, or look back ten versions ago and pull out something that really worked. Syd Carpenter told me during my final critique that she saw “some elements of design in my work,” which I completely did not understand at the time, but just shows me how she truly understood how I was working.
IOtA: I read that at Swarthmore you exhibited painting and sculpture. Why the switch to graphic design?
AD: Yes! I was predominately a painter as an undergrad. I was creating paper sculptures of my subject matter and then translating those reductive forms into my paintings. Once I actually discovered what design was, I thought, "wow, these people are working between so many fields, I’ve only scratched the surface.” I couldn’t help but work inter-disciplinarily and that was so at the core of graphic design. There isn’t one form. You’re constantly pulling in photography and illustration and typography and then you turn it into something else, a tactile object or an animation or a web experience. I just needed to be at that intersection.
DK: What are some of the particular challenges associated with graphic design versus more traditional media?
AD: There is this important element of communication that other artists aren’t bound by as much. So much of my work starts with, "what is the story" and "to whom is it being told", and I use that to inform every decision I make. If you aren’t working with your own content, it can be difficult to say the words in your voice. On top of that, there’s utility. You have to be sure that your work can be interacted with in the intended way. Maybe it’s a logo; can it be read as a favicon? Maybe it’s a postcard; can it legally go through the mail? When it’s your own work, sometimes you have to make up the form as you go. I created a piece this spring that involved my own poetry and I needed it to feel like there was an element of randomization and obfuscation to the typography so I decided to create a mobile. I ended up learning how to sculpt wire, use a laser cutter, and staining wood for the sake of that one story.
Part of communication also has to do with convention. People get used to seeing things a particular way, so when you change them, or disrupt them, you’re saying something. I love playing with that. There is an element of surprise and subtlety that can deeply impact someone’s perspective.
DK: How has your study of biology intersected with your artistic practice?
AD: I’ve always thought that I was so interested in design because it fits so neatly into the analytical and exploratory world of my interest in science research. I’m constantly looking for trends and ways to organize the content and data that I’m working with. There’s also so much problem solving, you start to feel like an investigator. A lot of research and play has to happen in order to uncover the right way to execute a piece. Outside of process, I like to use natural phenomena as visual metaphor to tell a story. A lot of these kinds of visuals resonate, because they start to feel familiar for the audience. It helps evoke a certain concept and maintains abstraction. In the end, you get a visually engaging composition packed with underlying meaning.
DK: I’m not familiar with Borges, but your project involving his Library of Babel looks fascinating. Can you talk more about that work?
AD: I’d read the Library of Babel for the first time a couple of years ago, and was stunned by how vividly so many of the descriptions of the world embedded themselves in my imagination. When I revisited the story for part of a project for my MFA program, I really wanted to break down what it was that felt so compelling to me without literally illustrating the plot. This major element, of course, are the books of the Library. There are infinite volumes all filled with indecipherable text. And I just kept thinking, this would be our story if the answers of the universe were just plopped down in front of us. It’s infinite, it’s bewildering, but it’s the underlying machinery that propels everything. When I thought about our “underlying machinery” I thought a lot about DNA and started filling the inside of the book’s French folded pages with this typography that felt both controlled and random. I started manipulating the text of the story to emphasize the fact that this too would become as indecipherable as the rest of the universe. For me, the result is both alien and familiar, and it’s part of what draws me to magical realism and science fiction and general.
DK: How would you characterize your style, if at all?
AD: I wouldn’t say that I necessarily have a style. Especially when it comes to client work, I can feel myself going through a familiar and practiced process, but there tends to me multiple answers to design challenges. I used to get frustrated with how disparate a lot of my work was coming out. A few days ago, I pulled together several pieces and said kind of frustratingly during a crit, “Look at this. I like all of these, but none of these look a like!” My classmates pointed out similarities between them that I really took for granted, or just couldn’t see. I was suddenly being told that the visual motifs of these pieces showed off this visual tension between order and chaos. I was shocked at how right that felt. I’d had drawings and illustrations from years before where I was consciously thinking about this, and I guess I didn’t stop thinking about that when my medium changed.
DK: Can you talk more about your personal graphic design manifesto? What made you decide to write one?
Well, the manifesto was initiated in my MFA program during my Design Theory class. Most of my classmates designed pieces that embodied the principles of famous design manifestos (like the Futurist Manifesto, Dan Friedman’s Radical Modernist manifesto, the Gropius' Bauhaus Manifesto, among others) but I wanted to work on my own. I’d been a self taught designer until I reached my grad program, and just needed to write out a lot of what I was feeling about the design world and where I fit in it. I think that in the end, it came out very inclusive, and I designed it as a poster book with tear away postcards, because I think art books are always so expensive and inaccessible. I liked the idea of it being torn to pieces and still having value in it being shared. The concept really embodies the idea of a design manifesto that tells all kinds of designers that they're part of this tough, layered culture of inventors and makers.
DK: Do you find any challenges getting people to take graphic design as an art form as seriously as more traditional media like painting, drawing, sculpture, etc? Or do you find that people are more open-minded about what forms art can take?
AD: It’s complicated. A lot of designers have a practice where they create highly visible client work and completely experimental personal work right along side it, and I think maybe that’s just how it is. So many design programs are in fine arts departments and are BFA and MFA programs, because it makes sense to use similar approaches focusing on craft and voice to create visual compositions. In the end, we have the tools and practice to go either way, so I think it’s really up to each designer how to present her body of work.
When I tell people outside of the the art world that I’m a graphic designer, they immediately think “so, you’re an artist" (or at least artsy) because they’ve interfaced with so much design work, and know there’s this major visual component. I’ve been getting charcoal pencil sets and sketchbooks (which I love) from coworkers and family members for years, because design feels absurdly artistic to them relative to their own work.
DK: Are there any current or future projects that have you particularly excited?
AD: So I think I always have a ton of irons in the fire, but I’m trying to transform a lot of that energy into work for my thesis. My partner (also a Swattie) is a science journalist, and I’m working with him to create some data visualizations for an upcoming feature. I’m doing similar work for NOVA Next, PBS NOVA’s online news publication. A few classmates and I also received a grant to launch an online showcase for artists and educators looking for more inclusive discourse by underrepresented graphic designers, so we’re gaining traction on that too.
(All images courtesy of the artist.)