From Pentagram to political slogans: Designer Harriet Richardson on her witty and disruptive practice
The London-based designer explains how her creative drive comes from wanting “to leave the world better than I found it”.
Harriet Richardson had been working at Pentagram’s London office for four years when she took part in an event that changed the trajectory of her career: the 2019 Youth for Climate strike. Expected to be one of the biggest climate strikes in the UK and 120 other countries, Harriet knew she had to attend, even if it meant going during work hours. Attending with a small group of colleagues, Harriet says that being designers, they knew they couldn’t turn up empty-handed. Hurriedly putting together a handful of protest signs, Harriet plucked a number of slogans off the top of her head, including “I don’t want to live on Mars with Elon Musk”, “I should be at work” and “I can’t swim”. Conveniently, puns and quips are something that have always come naturally to Harriet: “I’ve always loved words,” she tells us, “so I never miss an opportunity to use them.”
What followed in the days after the protest is what Harriet describes as her “15 minutes of meme-fame”. A one-second clip of her marching with the sign “Leonardo DiCaprio’s Girlfriends Deserve a Future” (playing on the widely discussed topic of DiCaprio seemingly refusing to date women over 25) went viral on Twitter, amassing a massive 2.5 million views. She went on later to be interviewed by Refinery29, S Moda and The Guardian. But instead of simply providing Harriet with a sweet moment of internet stardom, the event also made Harriet aware of the power that simple, well-executed design could have. “The real time mass-acknowledgement of a piece of design that I’d created was incomparable to anything I’d felt before. Added to this, the fact that the motivation behind it was for a greater good was truly a wonderful feeling,” she reflects. “I remember thinking: ‘I wish I could do this all the time.’ And then realised the only thing stopping me was the belief that I couldn’t.”
Harriet Richardson: Luxury Flat (Copyright @ Harriet Richardson, 2022)
Harriet Richardson: Bend the Truth (Copyright @ Harriet Richardson, 2022)
“If I’d have been born 20 years earlier, I’d definitely be an ad man coming up with lines for a new kind of razor or something.”Harriet Richardson
Since then, suffice to say that Harriet has done her fair share of reflection and she now understands the ethos, inspiration and creative drive behind her work to be made up of two things: the “yearning to be both understood and acknowledged by others”, alongside “a want to leave the world better than I found it”. Moreover, the event only solidified her love of wordplay and belief in its power. “I think conveying a message can be done in so many ways, but simple straightforward ‘punchy slogans’ have been proven to do the job over many years,” she says. “If I’d have been born 20 years earlier, I’d definitely be an ad man coming up with lines for a new kind of razor or something.”
Presently, much of Harriet’s time involves creating work that sits at the intersection of art and graphic design – a blend of disciplines she sees as more “expressive” than graphic design alone. She’s also certainly not someone to restrict herself to a single means of output. Alongside making prints and posters responding to various events, crises and global issues, she also works in branding, writing comedy, talks and even “subversive fake news articles”, all the while “helping ethical companies run by progressive people express themselves creatively”. Actively choosing to not take work from companies that don’t align with her ethics is also something that has come with Harriet’s career progression. “You would think the hardest part of my development as a designer would be turning away well-paid work for big capitalistic corporations, but it feels fucking great,” she laughs. “Once you start turning down immoral work, you’ll never look back.”
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Harriet Richardson: Climate March Poster 2019 (Copyright @ Harriet Richardson, 2022)
Born and raised in Manchester, Harriet tells us that she was “fortunate enough” to have a very creative upbringing; both her parents were graphic designers. Her industry-savvy parents did try to to steer her away from a career in the arts, however, and instead hoped she would do something more financially stable. “Luckily,” Harriet says, “I’ve never been very receptive to advice and ignored them completely.”
Going on to study graphic communication at the University of Central Lancashire, Harriet graduated with 3 D&AD Newblood awards, resulting in a job offer in London. Soon after moving to London, Harriet was contacted by Pentagram partner John Rushworth and asked to interview. Getting the job, and working at Pentagram for four years, Harriet says, “taught me the fundamentals of proper practice in design, paired with the all-important craft of running a business, which I will value forever,” and also, amusingly, “gave me the invaluable experience of working closely with (and occasionally annoying some of) the most well-respected and established designers in the world.”
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Harriet Richardson: Fragile Girlie (Copyright @ Harriet Richardson, 2022)
Outlining the projects that Harriet sees as underpinning and defining her ethos, she tells us that she often returns to some of her earliest protest posters, “for the realisation and opportunity they’ve provided me”. One such piece is her poster Fragile Girlie, which Harriet explains errs much more to the art side of her work, using fragile box tape to realise its message. “This was inspired by a much-needed breakdown I had following the cancer diagnosis of my mother,” she says. “It’s also been the inspiration behind a body of work named Femme Fatality, which I am currently working on.” Another is a piece that arose in collaboration with Glastonbury Shangri-La Art Festival, working around the theme of ‘Telling the Truth’. Reading “Never Look Directly at the Sun”, the piece urges its audience to boycott the “fake-news producing publication”, which was an integral mouthpiece in spreading damaging misinformation during the aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989. “To my delight, it reached a wide audience of people who shared my hatred of The Sun and ended up raising over £15,000 for charity,” Harriet says.
Then, a few years after making Never Look Directly at the Sun, Harriet explains that she became aware that the artist Hayden Kays had created a similar piece of work 10 years prior. It could easily have descended into a sticky situation around questions of creative ownership, but Harriet instead had a “great discussion” with Hayden on the topic of how small our creative point of inspiration can be. For Harriet, the instance has led to a deeper understanding of the specific creative sphere she works in: “Originality is something that I am extremely passionate about, but coming up with ‘catchy, memorable, culture-based work’ can come with its limitations.”
Other of Harriet’s projects are more conceptual, often using design as one part in a larger exploration of current issues and discussions. On the more “obscure” side of her work was a recent fake Photoshopped article, suggesting that Harriet had written an article for The Guardian entitled ‘New Male Pill Should Turn Semen Blue’, in which Harriet highlighted the disproportionately negative impact of contraception on women. Originally an April Fool’s joke, the fabricated piece led to Harriet actually writing a piece about the stunt and its message in The Guardian – “very meta!” she laughs. Currently, Harriet is working on a talk entitled ‘Why I’m currently having a mental breakdown and how you can benefit’, which she’s touring around UK universities. In the talk, she discusses the events that led to her “design awakening” and the positive impact moral creativity can have.
Looking to the future, Harriet is in the process of creating an intimate exhibition space at the Barbican, where she will showcase her aforementioned body of work, Femme Fatality, “a collection of art exploring sex, violence and male-dominated environments”. And, on a particularly exciting note, Harriet tells us that she soon to be launching her very own creative practice, one that will “harness creative thought for good”, solely working with companies with a high standard or progressive practice. “I intend to embrace working fluidly in the space between art and graphic design, and hope to collaborate with even more wonderful creatives and organisations to work towards a better tomorrow,” she says. “That’s all a girl can ask!”
Harriet Richardson: Never Look Directly at The Sun (Copyright @ Harriet Richardson, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.