Design writer and teacher Liz Farrelly talks to Centre for Design History’s Harriet Atkinson about design during the pandemic


Harriet Atkinson: Hi Liz, perhaps you can start off by introducing yourself?

Liz Farrelly – Hi, I’m Liz Farrelly, an educator working at University of Brighton, co-leading Cultural and Critical Studies for Graphic Design and Illustration students and am researching museums and design. I’ve worked in publishing as a writer, editor and journalist and curated exhibitions about design. I use Instagram (@lizfarrelly1) and Twitter (@lizfarrelly) to celebrate found objects and focus on design seen “on the street”.

HA – We’ve agreed to have this conversation because we’ve both been thinking about how the pandemic this year has altered the way we’ve seen things, the things we’ve seen and the way we’ve noticed designers are working.

LF – Yes, during lockdown our daily routines completely changed. There seemed to be three distinct areas in which people were looking in different ways and sharing their observations and thoughts: first, within their home, because, suddenly, more people were at home rather than in their studios or institutions. Secondly, out in the urban and suburban environment and in rural locations too. Thirdly, in how people were dealing with their screen presence. So we saw a cross-over between those places because people were spending more time in each. One theme that came up was creative people going through their back catalogue and sharing work that may never have been digitised. People were concentrating on their homes too and doing those jobs around the house that are often left undone, but in a creative way and then sharing that creativity, inviting us in. And people were seeing their environment with new eyes as well. An inspiration for me is Teal Triggs’ Instagram feed, where she posts photos of “things you see from the top of a bus” and uses the hashtag #isolationwalk to document things she sees while travelling the city, building up an archive of observations. I adopted a version of that, #thingsseenonwalks, and noticed that with such a disrupted schedule, those walks became extended, and slowed down, providing more time to look. The urban environment was much quieter too; Elli Michaela Young went on amazing walks around central London where she lives and took photos of people-less urban-scapes, which were both peaceful and eerie.

One of the first messages I noticed during lockdown was from APFEL, announcing their re-designed website, which made me think about how people were using their time constructively, perhaps as work plans were put on hold. On the home front, Morag Myerscough was seen on Instagram renovating a room into a home library, taking her signature aesthetic, which she’s applied to public spaces and hoardings, and scaling it right down into a painted interior, almost like a historical “cabinet”. It was so interesting seeing her process and experiencing her home, rather than the usual showcase of work. The lockdown shone a light on designers’ human side, their off-duty side, as they had time to be contemplative. Dave Williams, an Illustration lecturer at Brighton, went through his back catalogue, which was so interesting to see; his commercial images are different to what he’s doing now but you could see the roots of his abstract, painterly work in those earlier images. Valerie Furphy, of textile duo Furphy Simpson, who I follow, was showing drawings from her student days at the RCA. I thought these revelations, seeing designers considering their own work and how it is presented, were so interesting, especially for younger designers; they showed progression in careers, presented by people who had time to look back at their own work and to share it, and so much work from the 1980s and 1990s has never been digitised and is in effect invisible.

HA – Yes, I guess that time allowed people to take stock and it’s so interesting that it engendered this instinct to look back at earlier work – what do you think that’s about?

LF – We see our younger contemporaries documenting every aspect of their careers, because they’re used to having the means to do so using social media; My Space (launched 2003), FaceBook (launched 2004), Tumblr (launched 2007), Instagram (launched 2010). Designers in their 20s and 30s are very comfortable creating an online presence for themselves; now people in their 40s and 50s, who perhaps thought that they didn’t have the time or space to do so, are thinking, let’s recreate a trace of our earlier years too. This might feed into a fascination with analogue image-making technology too; it’s interesting that the 35mm slide has become something of an icon for younger generations, and they’re rediscovering 35mm film SLR cameras, and using transparencies and different photographic formats in their work as well, beyond the digital and the camera phone.

HA – I know that there’s been a shift in that direction for a few years now but did that become more acute in the last few months, do you think?

LF – Again, I’d suggest that people had longer to look! Much of the interest in slides and old cameras was fed by flea markets and car boot sales, but of course those closed during the lockdown. On that front, we were starved of inspiration…

HA – Where was your lockdown spent?

LF – At home in Kemptown, Brighton. Our regular walks and cycle rides were out of Brighton, up over the racecourse and golf course, out towards Lewes on the South Downs, and along the undercliff path to Rottingdean. We stayed very local. What about you?

HA – I live in Kentish Town, north London and spent lots of time biking around. The quiet, uncanny eeriness of normally busy London was so striking and pleasurable.

LF – I liked to go out really early in the morning to avoid people! Less people made it easier to spot oddities, such as objects fly-tipped that you thought might be treasure, such as a set of drawers without the cabinet, filled with rocks, just sitting on the pavement! You were able to see human interventions into the landscape in more surreal ways because there weren’t any people around; three odd signs on sticks, that I saw on the usually out of bounds golf course – a circle, a square and a triangle – made me think of the Bauhaus.

HA – I liked the way people were signalling from one house to another through signs, messages and paintings. Our neighbours had Jeremy Deller’s “Thank God for Immigrants” poster (created by Deller in collaboration with Fraser Muggeridge, to raise money for Refugee Action and The Trussel Trust in their window, while my kids painted a series of rainbow NHS messages and signs with words of encouragement and optimism.

They surprised friends with chalk messages on the pavement outside their houses. We had local hoardings with anti-government work by Led by Donkeys, which appeared after government adviser Dominic Cummings broke the lockdown rules, announcing “If one person breaks, we will all suffer: stay alert>government hypocrisy>saves lives”, mimicking the look and tone of government alerts. I was intrigued by the way local shops and businesses developed their own, ad hoc signage systems, even in big supermarkets, before official signage was available, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do.

LF – People had to improvise. Outside our local shop, “acquired” traffic cones were combined with stripey tape and handwritten signs. Because we were all queuing up, the window became an ad hoc noticeboard. Notices, signs and petitions would appear there about all sorts: “Ban 5G Masts” and pleas from Anti-Vaxxers. Another impromptu messaging hub sprang up outside the pub around the corner, when the chipboard hoarding over the windows was covered with rainbow drawings. There was a flowering of spontaneous creativity alongside this opportunity for us to see our environment in new ways.

HA – So you talked about screens being significant to how you were experiencing the lockdown. What were you watching – were you investigating museums online, for example?

LF – They were on my list of things to do but where did the time go! The V&A, MoMA and National Archives did a great job of engaging with audiences online providing material that could be used for teaching. The BBC made a useful four-part series about museums in lockdown, Museums in Quarantine  which was used for teaching. There’s an interesting article by Nigel Ball on the Eye blog where he talks about his experience teaching graphic design online, encouraging engagement by directing students to online events staged by creatives and cultural institutions, and how much more democratic they are online because they allowed greater access for students outside London.

I found a really beautiful graphic design project that “through the screen” in an article in Paper magazine – with an interview on Youtube too; M/M (Paris)’s Spring 20/21 Menswear Show-in-a-Box for the luxury fashion brand, Loewe. Instead of staging a traditional runway show an acid-free archive box, containing a paper version of the staging and clothes accompanied by a soundtrack, was mailed to a much wider audience, in an attempt to recreate the experience of being at the show. It’s interesting to think about all these layers of screens that we were experiencing during the lockdown, but that it also brought some viewers back to playing with paper versions of a real-world experience.

HA – Because of my own research into government communication design and messaging, I was watching what our government and public transport were doing in this respect during the pandemic. Lisa Godson sent me infographics that the Irish government had produced to explain their road map through the pandemic at a time when the British government was a complete failure in this respect, as they seemed to have no visual means for explaining what was ahead and what their planning might be. It was always, only that little virus symbol; for a long time there was nothing suggesting that they had designers helping them communicate. Transport For London – trains, tubes, buses – led the way on developing a simple, repetitive public messaging campaign.

LF – I think that newspapers were doing this messaging most successfully; The New York Times seemed to have their infographic team working 24/7. I became a fan of Bloomberg News stories on Twitter, which featured engaging photography and infographics for stories from around the world. It’s interesting you mention that image of the virus because it was Alice Rawsthorn and Paolo Antonelli’s Design.Emergency account on Instagram (where they interview practitioners about projects speaking to the emergency) that brought the medical illustrators, Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins from Atlanta, to a wider audience; they are the team that created the visualisation of the virus, “CDC’s official medical illustration of SARS-CoV-2” and turned a microscopic image into an icon recognised worldwide.

Another initiative of design educators and professionals – the Creative Skills Network  – was set up to offer young practitioners the chance to engage with experienced mentors who suddenly had more time on their hands, as lockdown changed their work patterns, whether they were educators or working in industry.

HA – So turning to think about what’s ahead, as you start the academic year: the pandemic has clearly changed the modes by which you’ll be teaching but would you also say the pandemic had changed the material that you teach too?

LF – We are still covering key ideas and there is consistency there but some elements have come to the fore: propaganda and protest, for example; the role of news and media in creating information and / or fake news; the DIY response; how to work from home; discussion around wellness and well-being. But, in the long-term, it may be more difficult to motivate students into the idea of a career in the design industry, as perhaps they see the need to become more self-motivating, while also being self-sufficient and community-minded.


Image credit: Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Fraser Muggeridge, to raise money for Refugee Action and The Trussel Trust