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Ed Shems: Suspended in Transition IDD 2022

The theme of the International Council of Design’s International Design Day 2022 is “Suspended in Transition” – the odd place we find ourselves, caught between crises and the hope for a new normal.

We asked Graphic Artist Guild Members what role designers and illustrators play in effecting change for a better world, and how they, as a working professionals, are meeting the challenges of this new world.

“Creatives are explorers, and we can help reveal truths and hopes to the people who view our work. Truth is inclusion, and hope is kindness.”
logo for International Design Day 2022
image of a partially pixellated headshot of Ed Shems

Ed Shems

Illustrator, Cartoonist, Designer, Writer

How have you adjusted to the large-scale changes in how we work and interact with our clients and our communities?

I still remember presenting my sketches and final illustrations in person to my first client, and realizing that even as a visual creative you have to be able to sell your work with your words. The viewer needs to get inside your head—if only just a little—in order to understand the approach you took to get to the final piece. That was 30 years ago, and while the sketch/art/design delivery mechanism has improved greatly, good communication is still essential at every point of a project.

What’s the best way to communicate with your clients and your intended audience? It’s whatever method that clicks for you (and them) which allows you to be consistent. That might simply mean sending email updates, or it could mean integrating task management software.

That said, sometimes your client will choose for you, and it may take you out of your comfort zone. And sometimes your client will do everything in their power to challenge your efficiency! A client of mine migrates conversations and requests midstream between email, texts, and voice messages, making it a challenge to organize input and requests.

Has your perception of the role you play as a designer or illustrator changed in response to the various crises we’ve been experiencing? Has it affected how you work, what projects you want to work on, or how you want to engage?

To help create more awareness towards underrepresented populations, I’ve become much more intentional when creating the images I put out into the world. I recently spoke in a Twitter Space about the necessity for illustrators to see through society’s biases, and I believe it’s our responsibility to push our art directors as well as our contemporaries to be more open-minded and inclusive. When we’re asked to draw a police officer, for example, what visual should go through our collective head? What if the callout specifies a male doctor–shouldn’t we push back? It’s important to imagine outside of what our clients are requesting and represent beyond what would likely come up in a stock photo search.

Every few months I receive a postcard from a local music school for kids with an illustration of an all-white collection of kid musicians. That postcard does not reflect my community, and I’m willing to bet it doesn’t reflect the diversity in that school either- it was just a lack of awareness or perhaps a spot of laziness. I recently turned down an illustration job where the client wasn’t interested in a diverse group shot despite my strongest reasoning on their behalf. As I had no interest in participating in something that felt so stagnant and unaware, and as I was fortunate enough to be in a decent financial position, I declined the job.

How do you believe designers and illustrators are positioned to help imagine and create a better future?

I think designers and illustrators are positioned to help realize a more realistic present! To do this, we need to insist on getting our way whenever possible. It can feel scary to push back at an art director, and it can be daunting to try to be more intentional in your work, but to me, this is the job. As someone who loves creating for kids, I want them to feel included in some way when they see my illustrations. I keep thinking about the Instagram image that went around at the end of 2021 of a young boy named Kenzo seeing himself in Disney’s Encanto, and I wish that experience for every child (although not all from one movie, book, or illustration- We’re not trying to tick boxes on a checklist!).

Creatives are explorers, and we can help reveal truths and hopes to the people who view our work. Truth is inclusion, and hope is kindness.

All images © Ed Shems. Used with permission.