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Graphic Design: An International Conversation

UH’s Joshua Unikel reflects on his overseas residencies and research.

From the United States to Greece, China to Bulgaria, School of Art (SoA) lecturer Joshua Unikel travels the globe expanding his design research by participating in international residencies and exhibitions. In the past two years, Unikel has done residencies and exhibited in China, Bulgaria, Greece and the U.S. This summer, he’ll return to Greece to continue research he began last summer while taking part in a residency on Crete, the largest island in Greece.

In the meantime, Unikel’s work is currently on display in South Korea as a part of Czong Institute for Contemporary Art (CICA) Museum’s “Objectified 2019” group exhibition and this fall, his work will be shown in “Futurespective” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Portland, Maine as part of a group exhibition organized by the international collective DesignInquiry.

Unikel, one of the newest members of the SoA graphic design faculty, says these experiences continually impact his work and inform his approach to teaching at UH. Learn more about his time abroad, why he started designing and how opportunities around the world have changed him as a designer for the better in our Q&A below!

How did you get into graphic design?  

I had an interest in both graphic design and creative writing at a fairly young age. I took to the computer as a kid and for whatever reason when I would write a group of poems or a few short stories, I always put them into Microsoft Word to find just the right font. Then I’d design a cover for them in the latest version of PrintShop that my family had, print it and bind them to make my own books. I was constantly making them. In high school I also made a lot of compositions out of freely constructed words and letterforms in Microsoft Paint. It’s embarrassing, really, especially thinking about the software I was using. But I think that even as a teenager and adolescent I was already starting to have an unusual, complicated relationship with language, writing and typography.

How does graphic design make an impact?

It happens in all sorts of ways, I think. Graphic design is all around us, giving compelling forms to what we read and wear, buy and scroll through. Fused with that, graphic design has probably always had a way of engaging with pressing sociocultural issues and asking political questions. I’m thinking, for example, about the poster as a visual form, which has always played a role in political change and engaging people in asking questions about their culture.

Why are you interested in international residencies and opportunities?

Residencies are a great way to get plugged into the local graphic design and arts scene in a country outside of your own and learn more about its traditions. The residency I did last December in Sofia, Bulgaria, for example, was at an amazing organization called World of Co. The residency included time and space to work as well as a host of lectures and workshops, everything from language lessons to working with local master craftspeople. It let me get embedded in a lot of what’s happening right now in Sofia quicker and more deeply than I ever would’ve been able to do on my own.

There’s also a practical side when it comes to the research side of design. Unfortunately, not everything is searchable online or available in archives in the U.S. I’m headed back to Greece this summer because the topic I’m researching — the occupation of Greece during WWII and its impact on the community of Jewish Greeks — isn’t very well documented, so there will be people to interview as well as books and artifacts in the libraries and museums in Greece that I wouldn’t be able to find Stateside.

What advice would you give to your students about studying or working abroad?

Students should definitely take any opportunity they can to study or work abroad. But I also know that when I was a student I couldn’t afford to go abroad. So taking classes or reading books about international design are also great points of contact. It’s all a way of expanding your notion of where graphic design comes from and how it’s being made right now. It lets more voices into the conversation, and in my opinion, reminds us that graphic design has always been a diverse, multicultural and international discipline.

Here at UH, graphic design is extremely international. Our faculty is from Ireland, South Korea, Switzerland and the U.S., collectively. We teach our students about designers and traditions from all over the world, as do our colleagues throughout art and art history. So I’d definitely recommend classes in graphic design and throughout the School to any students interested in this aspect of graphic design.