Getting graphic

Graphic designer Isaiah King on art and activism

Ontario-born Isaiah King, a graphic designer working in New York City, studied graphic design at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) in Boston. When he graduated in 2008, King headed to New York to try and make it big. Now, he has a self-titled company, a multi-disciplinary studio dedicated to the creation of graphic design, branding, illustration, and more. King’s work has been exhibited in array of cities in Canada and the U.S.. In the following interview, King opened up to The Daily about his job as an artist and his take on the place of the artist in contemporary society.

McGill Daily (MD): Tell us about your job as a graphic designer. What type of art do you make?

Isaiah King (IK): I run my own studio, so my day-to-day involves a lot of different moving parts. I develop design and communication solutions, I design, I art direct other creatives I’ve brought on for projects (designers, animators, writers, web developers, illustrators, et cetera), I meet with clients, I make coffee, I do bookkeeping, I illustrate, I animate, I make more coffee.

A design job will play out roughly like this: I’ll meet with a client to discuss the job. We talk about the problems that need to be solved, ideas that need to be communicated, desires, wants, hates, hopes, and dreams. If I need to bring in some other great talented creative colleagues I give them a call. Once all the boring paperwork and money discussions are over the job commences. Brainstorming, angst, procrastination, labour pains, more angst all give way to the birth of a handful of viable design solutions. These are presented to the client. Then we’re in production. From here we roll out our brilliant concept across the entire project. We design and layout, we animate, we develop, we work back-and-forth with the client through a process of refinement that takes us to completion.

Besides my client work I’m constantly working on my own projects. Woodcut printmaking is one of my favourite mediums right now, but I also draw and try to experiment with new animation techniques. These projects evolve very differently from my business jobs, most notably because they do not need to address a specific communication challenge. My personal projects only need to satisfy my critique and my expression.

MD: When at work, where do you draw most of your inspiration from?

IK: My inspiration comes from a broad range of things, some passive, others proactive […] Some of my inspiration comes from outside influences that I consciously seek out. Some of my inspiration comes from seemingly accidental discoveries. A mistake or a new mark or style I stumble into that can lead to some inspiring exploration. [My inspirations include] Alexander Rodchenko, James Victore, Chaz Maviyane-Davies (for graphic activism), Edvard Munch, Banksy, The Vienna Secession (Klimt, Moser, et cetera), and 1960s to 1970s American and Cuban amateur (and some professional) political poster art.

My move into the graphic design realm is owed in part to meeting Chaz Maviyane-Davies. Although I had already discovered and loved activist poster art from Cuba and the U.S.. I had not fully realized design’s role in contemporary public discourse. Chaz has defined his career as a graphic dissident from his roots in Zimbabwe to his professorship at MassArt.

James Victore best articulates for me what graphic design can be at its best. [He says] “I have always tried to make work that has an opinion. My opinion.” He challenges the common paradigm of a designer as a mere service provider, ready and willing to “pretty up” any message handed down by a client. The philosophy of bringing myself, my art, my opinions, and my voice into my design work is very important to me.

I am always striving to marry my personal art and expression with design and public dialogue. Banksy is an artist I see doing this perfectly. His art is by nature public, its expression is personal, and it communicates clearly while creating dialogue (which, in my opinion, also makes it graphic design).

MD: Do you believe that it is important to have an education in art to be successful within the art world?

IK: This is a very tough question and I’m not sure I have a specific answer for it. I will say this – one definitely doesn’t need a formal art education to be a talented, skilled, and relevant artist.
Personally, going back to art school changed my life. It set me on the path that I’m on today. Going to art school was so much more than the sum of its parts. It was more than the curriculum, it was the fellow students, it was the non-studio classes (literature, history, politics, writing, et cetera), it was a handful of exceptional professors, it was the sheer act of taking a huge step forward to enrich myself that made my art education worthwhile.

Art education was important for my ‘success’ (if you can call it that), but I still couldn’t make a universal statement on its importance in success within the art world. We’d need to have a broader discussion on which ‘art world’ we’re talking about and what different kinds of successes look like.

MD: In light of the current economic crisis and political challenges that the United States has been facing, what role do you see the artist playing in contemporary Western society? Do you agree with the growing belief that art is an expressive tool with a powerful political potential?

IK: I agree that art has always been a powerful tool with the potential to work with, fight against, challenge, cast a light upon issues that are political, social, personal, and community related.
How art relates and makes itself relevant to these issues will constantly change. The role of the artist will constantly change. I’ve always rejected the simplistic view that “art holds a mirror up to society.” Though that is one role it can play I think it would be more accurate to say art is society, art is culture. Therefore I think that the artist’s role in contemporary society is, and will be, an interwoven role rather than just a responsive role.

The role of art has gone far beyond just the individual artist. The tools that come from creative training are proving indispensable in our current economy and social environment. Rather than pointing to the relevance of one or more art forms — painting, dance, et cetera — I think we are now understanding the value of creative thinking in all fields. I’d like to reference Sir Ken Robinson here, because he’s much smarter and more articulate than I am. He talks about our current education model being based on the same model developed in response to the industrial revolution. The digital revolution (among other changes) is moving us into uncharted territories at breakneck speed. Our traditional model of education cannot prepare us for jobs in the future that don’t even exist yet. So it’s not that everyone should be a woodcut printmaker and a dancer in the future, it’s that the thinking and training to be those things allows one to tackle problem solving and innovation with a larger arsenal. I believe this is how art is most powerfully (and surreptitiously) relevant in our day-to-day lives.

Compiled by Louis Denizet

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.