#CombatCovid, An Interview with Poster House and Select Artists

#CombatCovid, An Interview with Poster House and Select Artists

New York City’s creative community has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in diverse and meaningful ways. Poster House, PRINT Magazine, Time Square Arts, and Out Of Home advertisers joined forces to clad New York City’s billboards in thoughtful PSAs created by over 20 designers and artists, including Paula Scher, Zipeng Zhu, David Plunkert and Milton Glaser. The 10,000 spoke with those artists and select members of the Poster House team to learn more about the campaign, aptly named #CombatCovid, its execution and overall impact on New York City.

JULIA KNIGHT, Director, Poster House:
Tell us about your background, your role at Poster House, and the inspiration for the #CombatCovid project.
I’ve been in arts administration for more than 10 years in New York City, assisting in the organization and implementation of many different kinds of arts projects including residencies, exhibitions, events, and publications. I was approached to be the Founding Director of Poster House at its very inception, helping to put in place the structure and mission of the non-profit. I then worked alongside a team of extremely talented individuals who created the organizational identity, the physical space, and the programming that would carry on our mission as the USA’s first poster museum. #CombatCovid was created when thinking about how Poster House could continue its mission to educate and create community through posters, even though we had to close the museum to the public. I was initially inspired by an article in Print Magazine in which Steven Heller looked back at posters from the polio epidemic in the 1950s. PSAs in general have such a long history as important communication devices in public health crises; it made sense for us to reach out to the design community and ask them to contribute health and safety info as well as messages of strength and solidarity with those on the frontlines of the pandemic. 

What feeling do you hope your You Me poster design is able to convey to New Yorkers and people all over the world during this time?  
My poster was designed to both remind people to physically distance themselves from others and to also subtly express a degree of the danger in not doing so.

Can you tell us a little bit about the process of #CombatCovid?
This is an important health message and not one that is especially happy. The idea of physically separating yourself from friends and others is alienating. I struggled with the tone. I didn’t want to just write a message and I made a poster that expressed the physicality of the situation. It was originally designed for the city digital signs but was not used there because the city found it objectionable, even scary. I merely wanted to demonstrate what was necessary without comment.

You designed the iconic I ♡ NY logo in 1976, decades before the advent of digital billboards. How did the form of the screen (and its possibility for motion) influence your poster?
All technologies when implemented changed culture. The appropriate response in the change for technology is to acknowledge its existence and apply it to generate new ideas.

Your design selection to feature in the #CombatCovid campaign is an animated version of your New York Is About New York poster in which you feature the Empire State Building. What led you to include the iconic landmark in your original design?
Curiously enough, there are a few symbols of New York that haven’t been exploited. But the Empire State Building is one of the most understood by people as a symbol for New York. It is particularly true when that symbol is violated in some way.

Your poster Stop Hunger in the #CombatCovid PSA initiative sends a strong message to New Yorkers. How did you adapt your design style to help prospect a call-to-action?
I’ve been combining the mannerisms of outsider and folk art with conceptual ideas for a number of years in my work relating to theatre posters. The #CombatCovid poster is drawn in a style similar to the amazing Bill Traylor, where I’m trying to balance organic and geometric forms in a very simple fashion to keep the messaging clear and universal, but also with some emotion and warmth. The big conceptual idea is the empty stomach and empty dinner plate echoing the same stop sign-shape. I tend to prefer a limited color palette and, in this case, the fiery orange-red background does a lot of the heavy lifting to reinforce the call to action of stopping hunger. 

Many creatives are coming together for various initiatives around the world. What makes #CombatCovid unique?
#CombatCovid very much centers around the epicenter of the pandemic crisis in the US… namely New York City, but the messages of the various posters can likely resonate around the country and the world that are experiencing the same struggles, anxiety and fears. Technologically, #CombatCovid is unique in that it’s a social poster campaign that has the advantage of being shared on the streets of New York City primarily on electronic screens.

You use strong typography and bold colors in your designs, specifically in American. How can simple design elements leave a lasting impact?
I’m a maximalist using minimalist ideas. I feel people often underestimate others’ imaginations and make things too literal, therefore often forgetting about context. The simple design elements are not only making the thinking process shorter, but they also give people room to think and imagine. A little imagination goes a long way.

How did you get involved in the #CombatCovid project?
Honestly, I was contacted by Print Magazine and Poster House. But I think the reason they reached out is that I’ve been making a lot of content surrounding Covid. I started making Covid related content not only in hopes of bringing a little light to the dark times, but also trying to combat the racism I’ve experienced as a Chinese living in America. I live here because I love this country and the people, and I believe we are going to come out of this stronger together.

OLA BALDYCH, Design Director, Poster House and Artist:
As Design Director of Poster House, what are your main objectives for the #CombatCovid campaign?
We were looking for ways to contribute in these uncertain times. The city just shut down and we were all getting scattered information about what was going on. I think we all have abilities to add, participate, and come together to contribute what we can: if you are a musician—make music, a writer—write, a designer—design. It’s taking the time to take action that matters. As a museum dedicated to posters, we always come back to the medium itself for inspiration. The very essence of the poster is to communicate, navigate, educate, and uplift—especially true in the time of crisis. 

These posters were intended for the streets and the only people who were going to see them were the frontline workers: doctors, medics, nurses, folks in public transportation and deliveries, sanitation workers, and people on their essential runs to the corner bodega or walking a pet. Having access to the screens in Times Square, by the Lincoln Tunnel, almost 1,800 screens donated by the LinkNYC, 300 screens in bus shelters from JCDecaux, and more meant that these posters could be seen in all five boroughs and really have an impact. 

I received a message from a friend I haven’t talked to in years. He saw the first run of the designs featured on a LinkNYC screen in Harlem which included Edel Rodriguez’s New York Loves You, Klaas Verplancke’s Safe Lives. Live Safe, and my Stay Strong New York. He said he saw it on his run to a store and had a moment. He reached out to say thank you. And this was just the first of many messages coming our way. The response was heartwarming. This really took a village: the generosity of the design community who delivered the messages in a form of well designed, smart, heart-lifting posters and the advertisers who provided the outlet for these messages. This was the main objective: to bring people together to take action and create a space for the messages to be heard and seen. We were thrilled with how this came together in an amplified voice.

BADER ALAWADHI, Marketing Manager, Poster House:
Poster House has worked on several incredible initiatives, all rooted in visuals. How is the #CombatCovid campaign different, especially in terms of marketing and messaging, compared to other special projects?
I believe what makes this project so different is that it bloomed in its own vacuum. It was a set of different forces that came together and made it happen. As the head of the marketing team in Poster House, that moment was a moment to reflect, to reach out to all of our media partners, and advertising outlets and ask, ‘what are we going to do? How can we contribute positively to New York, to essential workers? What is our role in all of this?’ We were all scrambling to react to the COVID-19 situation that threw everyone off their feet. That is mostly true for the advertising world, specifically the Out Of Home industry which found itself suddenly without an audience. It was also very important from the Marketing side that this campaign reaches all five boroughs and not be concentrated in one space, it was most important that every day New Yorkers see them—those who are walking their dog, getting groceries, going to their essential jobs. Building a partnership this big that included Time Square Arts, LinkNYC, JCDecaux, Pearl Media, and Silvercast meant that we reached that shared goal of ours.

 Mounting this project at this specific time is definitely something we are most proud of. Poster House is a non-profit museum with a strong mission and dedication to educate people on the important role of posters in shaping and reacting to history, yet the venues that delivered these posters to New Yorkers and the world are commerce-driven outlets. This was a rare moment where our two colliding worlds met to show solidarity. Our #CombatCovid PSA project turned gigantic commerce and advertising units in the heart of New York City into a PSA/public-art outlet to send out positive messages of hope, gratitude, and solidarity. It was a rare moment that came in a difficult time, in which we all shared the same goals and values.

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