Creative Output in Crisis

As a history hobbyist, I firmly believe we can always learn new things based upon history. Recently, while seeing some poster designs from WPA designed during the Great Depression time, I am impressed by how the artistic community shed a light on its own industry. Those influences can still inspire the creative fields during a time of hardship.

For someone who is unfamiliar with the WPA, it was created by an executive order from President Roosevelt in 1935. The goal of the Works Progress Administration(WPA) was to provide a paying job for any family whose primary wage-earner was unemployed. There were many different kinds of WPA projects, such as parks, bridges, roads, courthouses, schools, and hospitals which were all constructed by WPA workers. Museums, city halls, and swimming pools were constructed as well. Although some people joked that WPA stood for “We Poke Along” because they felt the WPA employees didn’t work very hard, but we still can’t overshadow the motivation of this program to provide incentives for people to return to work when possible. To this day, most communities in the United States have a park, bridge, or school that was built by the agency.

Federal Art project studio. Photo from WPA Poster History
The WPA assisted and trained women who found themselves unemployed during the Great Depression. Posters from Library of Congress: WPA Posters

The artistic community was also sponsored by the government that time. The Federal Theatre Project, Federal Writers Project, Federal Music Project, and Federal Art project were all branches of the WPA intended to assist out-of-work authors, artists, actors, and musicians.

Anthony Velonis(born 1911, New York, New York), whose poster designs were featured in “WPA Poster Project: When Government Sponsors Art” by Jeannie Friedman (originally published in PRINT XXXII:IV, July/August 1978), introduced the silkscreen process to the WPA poster division in New York City. When he first walked into the studio, all the posters were painted individually by hand. There wasn’t an organized system for designers to create art projects in massive production. By introducing the silkscreen process to the team, designers were able to see their designs from beginning to the end in the same place. (Though people might feel alien to this term nowadays, it’s likely you’ve probably worn some T-shirts with a printed design done that way at some point.) That process led to a valid and much more efficient way to produce art, and also brought a new design thinking for the commercial reproduction process.

National Park Poster sets. Posters from Library of Congress: WPA Posters

By the 60’s, artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Andy Warhol were creating fine art by using screen printing, which set up a symbolic milestone of ‘Pop Art’.

Warhol’s famous Marilyn Diptych is perhaps the best-known example of screen printing as an artistic form. Image from MFA

Nowadays, all the 35,000 original poster designs created by those artists during the WPA are buried in the basement of the Library of Congress. However, needless to say, many designers like Anthony Velonis and his silkscreen process have encouraged how people in the creative field can give a leg-up to the community and society, especially in a time of real economic hardship like now.

The current pandemic has turned our life to a totally different direction. To most of us, we’re struggling with the aftermath, including the anxiety that comes from the uncertainty of the workforce. People might argue the point that the time is reminiscent of the Great Depression. But it won’t eclipse the urgence that we need some actions such as a “Digital WPA”. It simply reflects the intention of human nature who want to support other people around us from good Samaritans.

The current status of designers have turned over quite tremendously compared to the predecessors. With the surging influence on the internet, designers have been involved with a much wider range of industries and have been considered a major aspect of a business. Designers have become good communicators to forecast the potential changes to balance the discrepancy from multiple sides. The onus and possibilities from designers have soared in so many different ways overtime. What isn’t a design nowadays, right?

In fact, people must see that in order to deal with the impact of the pandemic, a series of deep changes are converging into a new impetus to promote the economy. We have probably seen or been experiencing something new after the pandemic. To give you a local example, there’s a new grocery delivery service called “Fresh Harvest” since the “Stay-at-home” order has begun. At the first glimpse on their website, it looks like a grocery delivery site like many others. While diving into their site, it’s actually a team of temporarily closed restaurant owners who try to maintain employment for their current employees after the pandemic. The fruit and vegetables they deliver are directly from the sources where they usually order for the restaurant. This way, not only the supply chain can be sustainable, but many restaurant workers could do tasks that are desperately needed to cope with the pandemic, such as coordinating with orders and distributing the delivery process. To go further, more diverse restaurants can join communities like this to keep their business running, even for meat and dairy products.

There are also other digital tasks besides just dealing with the local grocery community. As all the schools close down at this point, remote education is playing a big role among teachers, students and their parents. Zoom video could be a temporary solution, however, the software itself is designed more for a business meeting environment instead of for teaching. What about if we need to digitalize the assignments and teaching materials in one place? How to make sure students will take part in the class as efficiently as possible under a virtual environment? How can teachers work with parents to encourage relatively lower grade students to complete tasks? Nowadays we can find numerous educational Apps for remote education. But we’re still facing many problems to catch up with everyone’s needs since the segmented market. The need for accessible remote education has become vital. On the bright side, it can turn into a promising opportunity for designers who are truly doing their share in promoting students’ remote learning skills, and thereby promoting the right tool for them. Meanwhile, we can see the needs from airport security, government filing and medical tracing which can be converted to digital tasks with workers supporting remotely.

Posters for children during WPA. Posters from Library of Congress: WPA Posters

After WWI, the Art Deco movement pushed forward people to accomplish a new aesthetic standard regarding visual arts, architecture and design.

At the end of the Great Depression, the Bauhaus Movement in Germany reshaped the purpose of design that was to generate designs for mass production in a simple, rational and accessible way to all people. Their revolutionary contributions still go a long way to inspire how we live today.

The design profession also became organized as it never had before after WWII.

As a ray of hope, we may look back upon our current experience. We’ll certainly see more prosperous economy demands with more promising opportunities. As Velonis states about the WPA, “The whole thing was exciting for me. It was an education, and it enriched my whole life.”

Experience Designer @projekt202. Translator