Graphic designer Dan Polyak talks us through working with the visual world of drag queens in the “drag renaissance”
Based in Chicago, Dan is a go-to name for drag queens looking to diversify their graphic art, logo design, art direction, photography, and more.
- Joey Levenson
- 28 May 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
In the dawning of the age of the wildly successful reality TV franchise, RuPaul’s Drag Race came a renaissance that revolutionised what it meant to be a drag queen in contemporary culture. That meant taking drag beyond the shadowy realms of a nightclub and into the light of day. And by day, we mean the internet. Now more than ever a drag queen’s online presence is important, and multidisciplinary graphic designer Dan Polyak understands this. Born, raised, and still proudly based in Chicago, Dan’s “creative practice heavily features drag queens and queer artists of all spectrums,” they tell It’s Nice That. Being an art director and graphic designer to drag queens is a relatively new niche, but Dan has mastered it to perfection. Now the essential “go-to” for any drag performer looking to build their “brand”, so to speak, Dan is steadfast in working with clients who have a “distinct point-of-view.” In fact, in collaborating with drag performers Dan tells us they aim for nothing less than a “timeless piece that is visually impactful, stimulates a reaction, or leaves you with an ‘a-ha!’ moment.”
Learning graphic art in the Windows-era of off-brand Photoshop, Dan quickly harnessed their skill and began “working in the music industry for a few years creating merchandise for pop-punk bands like Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, and Cobra Starship,” which relied on heavy colour palettes, eye-catching shapes, and “strong and experimental typography,” they say. This eye for the strong and experimental led Dan to work at Metro/SmartBar in Chicago and eventually become its art director. But, “I was yearning for something that connected me more to my queer identity,” Dan explains. So, in a pivot to their “newly discovered queer community” of Chicago, Dan tapped into the “drag renaissance” which was happening in the city at the time. Many friends of Dan were drag queens suddenly being cast on RuPaul’s Drag Race and relied on him “to help them create elevated branding, merchandise, and websites” as they became somewhat of drag superstars. Their outfits, personas, and performances evoked the same kind of strong and experimental graphic art Dan had been drawn to years prior.
“I was able to leave my job and focus on freelancing full-time,” Dan says, noting how more queens began to entrust them with visualising their individual brands. “The process is always different with each queen,” they explain. “Sometimes it’s quick and painless, sometimes it’s a journey.” At this point, Dan has a proven track record for impactful design and strong typography, giving an elevation to drag and queer performance art which was previously not taken entirely seriously in the art and design industry. Dan was one of the few graphic artists stepping out of the regular go-to club flyer promotional set-up for drag queens, instead giving them a signature visual language. Because of this, Dan has built an impressive clientele base which has allowed them to be “able to regularly leave the world of graphic design and do things like on-set art direction, commercial and music video productions, product development, printmaking, video, and photo editing,” they explain. It’s no wonder, then, that Dan tells us they’ve “now worked with more than 40 contestants from every single US season, including multiple finalists and the last four North American winners (Jaida Essence Hall, Shea Couleé, Priyanka, Symone)”.
Ultimately, Dan loves what they do and what they provide for the current drag zeitgeist. “I am a fan of drag and the design-nerd in me usually has ideas of where I would take them visually,” they say. Collaborations within the queer community fuel Dan’s work, and they tell us “it’s now equal parts of [queens] approaching me and me approaching them.” In fact, Dan feels like drag and queer performers who don’t reach out to graphic designers and art directors are missing out. There is something to be said for queer artists collaborating across disciplines. “There is nothing more flattering to an artist than hearing you want to work with them,” Dan stresses. “There really is power in the DMs.” That’s what keeps Dan going, and keeps them hopeful of more multidisciplinary graphic artists coming up the ranks who want to work with stars like Shea Couleé, Detox, and Jaida Essence Hall. “I doubted myself for a long time because as LGBTQIA+ people, we’re told we’re different from everyone else as a negative,” Dan says on why it took them so long to carve out this niche in their work. “But, I realised over time and experience that it’s such a positive thing to be different from everyone else. It becomes your strength.”
Dan Polyak: HOA (Copyright © House of Avalon, 2021)