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Inspiring Sociocultural Discourse Through Graphic Design

School of Art’s Joshua Unikel discusses how the discipline can spark change through conversation.

Joshua Unikel, an assistant professor at the UH School of Art (SoA), uses graphic design to pull audiences into a visual place and inspire dialogue about history, culture and geography. With this motive in mind, the Houston-based designer has taken part in residencies and shown work internationally in China, Greece and, most recently, Bulgaria. 

“International exhibitions promote global engagement,” Unikel says. “It sets the scene for people and ideas to come together and kickstarts compelling dialogue.”

Earlier this summer, Unikel’s works gripped audience’s attention at 2019 Sofia Art Week (SAW) in Sofia, Bulgaria. The cutting-edge festival addressed sweeping conceptual questions such as: What do we need to lose, chop or cut to see through and truly begin? What must we as a society do to get to the root of greater sociocultural conversations?

SAW reinforced Unikel’s understanding of design’s global scope. The event also gave him the chance to study Bulgaria’s rich design history and thriving art scene, overlooked and left out topics in US conversations surrounding design history.

“By being involved in events like Sofia Art Week, I get to be a part of that broader conversation and engage with the larger landscape of what’s happening in design and art,” he says.

This fall, his work will appear in the Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA, Florida State University Museum of Fine Art and Athens Institute of Contemporary Art, giving audiences across the country the opportunity to examine his work, which explores social engagement, diversity and connections. Unikel, who describes himself as an “interdisciplinarian at heart,” is very interested in using typography to investigate culture and social practices, mores and conventions. The upcoming works will display diverse typographic print, including a project created during an artist residency in Crete, Greece that grapples with the city’s colonial history and features every official language used throughout the island’s history, from Ancient Greek to Arabic.

“In prints like these, I’m attempting to let language and letterforms ask larger social questions about language: its history, its sociocultural implications and its flexibility as a verbal, literary, visual and physical medium,” Unikel explains. “I am pushing graphic design’s potential to connect the public to greater conversations.”