“PSDs, PTSD and inner peace”: How two friends are disrupting design discussions via a podcast
Started by two friends and graphic design confidants, Graphic Support Group facilitates open, personal and practical conversations on the practice.
The design industry, particularly the corner in which graphic designers inhabit, could be considered a romanticised construct. On the surface, it’s an industry that is simple and clean, where we create thoughtfully driven projects with inspiration plucked from piles of curated books atop Vitsœ shelf-lined walls. In reality, the industry is often made-up of individuals who are insecure and intimidated.
While fine artists might put work into the world to provoke, it appears that graphic design, a communication-driven service, has to people please. Work has to connect with audiences yet equally be something they won’t expect. It has to satisfy clients and the online community who will instantly judge it. Not to mention there will be constant comparison to the projects that came before it and to adjacent individuals in the field. Find yourself in a group of graphic designers and these issues soon come to light amongst deep sighs interjected with awkward, self-effacing laughs. However, a new podcast named Graphic Support Group, makes room for these discussions, facilitating open, personal and practical conversations on this ever-complicated practice.
Hosted by Drew Litowitz (a “creative suiteheart” and senior designer at Wolff Olins in New York) and James Chae (a designer and educator based in Seoul), each episode of Graphic Support Group centres around an interview with a designer hacking away at “past traumas, spiritual mantras, PSDs, PTSD and inner peace”. During the show, creatives are asked a series of questions – these are sent beforehand given the more sensitive sentiment to your usual design podcast – which lead to eye-opening conversations about just how much this practice can burrow into one’s head. A theme is then identified for each episode, from Eric Hu discussing the concept of “overcorrection” in design, Cem Eskinazi on “anxiety” or Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna on “adaptability”. The listening experience is therapeutic, obviously, both in the frank discussions it encourages but also in James and Drew’s production style. Mistakes, difficulties, long pauses and mumblings are all kept in – there’s even a helpline.
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Graphic Support Group: Episode Two with Somnath Bhatt (Copyright © Graphic Support Group, 2022)
Although only releasing their first episode in March of 2021, Drew and James have been having similar design-focused conversations for a number of years now. First meeting on Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) MFA programme, the pair were drawn to each other for they were both “black sheep” amongst “the polished design work being done in the programme”, explains Drew. “RISD prides itself on not having a house style, but there is a style that tends to be a little more traditional and conservative,” adds James. “I don’t know if disgruntled is quite the right word, but I think Drew looked to me to discuss his insecurities, and those insecurities were my issues with the programme.” During their time in New England – in between “cold days eating shellfish” – the pair offered the other a shoulder to lean on while attempting to learn design. This soon blossomed into a friendship based on an appreciation about the practice, and them both being comfortable with discussing the wider industry’s flaws.
“Why am I putting people on pedestals? They do deserve to be on pedestals, but maybe so do I?”Drew Litowitz
Throughout their subsequent careers, James and Drew have remained close friends and design confidants. The possibility of a podcast first developed from the concept of a part-solo practice, part-collective Drew dreamt of creating. Titled Graphic Support Group, they decided to structure it with the aim of supporting; the designers who come in and out to create projects would support each other, and in turn support their clients. As a result, conversations would be a key part of this practice – leading Drew to reach out to James about the possibility of starting a podcast to kick things off. James – whose practice includes interviewing designers first through his early blog Graphic Hug and now his publishing label Pudding, which explores the interactions between design and music – had always thought of moving into podcasting, but refrained until he had someone to banter along with in the process. As you’ll hear on any episode, their friendship and personal experiences makes for a perfect partnership of honest hosts.
“We talk to people who are interested in imperfection, the fringes of beauty and what design really is.”James Chae
The key byproduct of the conversations Drew and James facilitate is the idea of “humanising and demystifying the designer”, explains Drew. An individual who “always was, and continues to be, starstruck and attracted to these figures”, the result on his own practice has been a niggling sense of comparison. “In my personal life, it’s been this struggle of 'wow I could never be like this person'. But as my career developed, I gained confidence and became friends with these people. I realised I could just do these things too and, in fact, why am I putting people on pedestals? They do deserve to be on pedestals, but maybe so do I?” In sharing this internal monologue, Drew was met with designers – even those he romanticised – who often felt the exact same. “I thought it would be fun to record some of these breakthroughs.”
The selection of guests providing such breakthroughs features a long list of designers and artists creating the most compelling work today. The secret to James and Drew’s curation, however, largely depends on their own feelings towards a guest’s work – they're appreciators of design that sits slightly left field. Essentially, they’re looking for others who identify as black sheep just as they did as students. “We talk to people who are interested in imperfection, the fringes of beauty and what design really is,” says Drew. “I think because of that, the people we have on [the podcast] have been keeping these feelings to themselves for a long time.”
Such an approach also alters the way in which the pair prepare for an interview. They research as a journalist would, “but part of the process is teasing out our own assumptions about the person, or the thought process behind the work,” describes James. The audience then hears this discussion live, as the pair “share a lot of those assumptions, or operate off a lot of those assumptions, and let the guest prove or disprove those assumptions”. Of course, the visual aspects are just as important – “aesthetically if you look through the guests there is a reflection of our tastes,” says James – but such details are rarely discussed on the podcast. Instead, interviews lean into why work is created much more than necessarily how. "There’s only so much you can write about people sitting in front of their computers moving pixels around and making it compelling," continues James.
This style of interviewing centres around recurring questions posed by James and Drew. Tactfully asked, these can range from simply, “How has your attitude been towards design lately?” or “Could you tell us the last experience that has affected you psychologically or emotionally in your design career?” The result often leads to meandering and deeply personal revelations.
For example, mirroring the language of a therapist in an episode with the designer Noah Baker, Drew begins by asking what Noah would like to discuss about how he’s feeling today, which leads to a conversation around freelancing and employment. Further episodes dig into the effect that creating and sharing work can have on the individual, from a conversation with Erik Carter on being present while critical on social platforms, to discussing Eric Hu’s feelings towards the design industry being youth-focussed, and James thoughtfully asking the designer: “What was the pressure like in something simple like turning 30?” A heavily sensitive but deeply necessary conversation also features between James, Drew and the co-founder of Studio Yukiko, Michelle Phillips. A thoughtful example of how comfortable Graphic Support Group’s hosts make their guests, this conversation around balancing team relationships as a founding partner develops into Michelle openly sharing her experience of mentally balancing the studio after herself and co-partner Johannes Conrad had their first child.
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Graphic Support Group: Episode 19 with Mindy Seu (Copyright © Graphic Support Group, 2022)
“I think what we’re really trying to do is create a space where people feel comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities both within their emotional psychological life, but also their design life.”James Chae
By focusing on the emotion felt in the process of design, Graphic Support Group – even in just the 27 episodes shared so far – is breaking down a sense of gatekeeping the industry has unfortunately developed. Decades of discussion around design has led to heralded figureheads leading aesthetic outputs, in turn making those who didn’t adapt to such trends feel like outsiders. But what Graphic Support Group also reveals is how these figureheads are often feeling the same. For instance, in James’ case, some of the most interesting conversations he's had centre around guests discussing “the manicured and curated personality versus who they are in everyday life". Drew adds: “For a long time in design, elitism and prestige were the most important aspects… I think what we’re really trying to do is create a space where people feel comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities both within their emotional psychological life, but also their design life."
Humour is additionally a key tool in how the podcast’s hosts achieve this openness. Even the name is an example of this, conceived as “a sentiment that is genuine, but to call it outright ‘Graphic Support Group’ is a deadpan joke,” says James. “We want to be really genuine, pure and intentional about our desire to create a space for support and care, but we also want it to be a pleasant experience. We don't want to take it too seriously, because at the end of the day, we’re talking about design which we are passionate about.”
Although juggling Graphic Support Group amongst their own varied practices, the pair are dedicated to continuing the podcast and developing into the original practice Drew dreamt up initially (a few projects have already been released). In the future, they are toying with the idea of a literal Graphic Support Group Zoom, for example – “with everybody who wants to vent”. But, they are also starting to consider what they owe their audience as it begins to grow, especially when providing this new perspective in terms of graphic design media. “I think we strive to talk to people who are self aware and struggling internally to have some of these conversations themselves, but I think our goal is to broaden that,” explains Drew. “We’ve had conversations like, 'Why don’t we have a top brand designer on the podcast?' and 'Why don’t we have the old guard of design, or famous people, academics, production, maybe even students?' We want to bring in more perspectives. We’re building the groundwork for more of what James and I would say is interrogating the headspace of the avant-garde, or the outsider, but what does it mean once you’ve created that ground?”
After speaking with the pair and listening to episodes of Graphic Support Group, it’s already clear that this is a ground they have offered one another. Both in friendship and collaboration, Graphic Support Group showcases the possibilities of sharing a wider conversation amongst a like-minded individual in this industry – even if it’s open-ended. When discussing creative outputs, James says, “There has to be a story in design. If you’re telling the story, what’s the punchline or what’s the kicker? But this is the story of not having that. The whole point of this podcast is what happens if you just express some of the things you wouldn't necessarily think other people would be interested in.”
Copyright © Graphic Support Group, 2022
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.