Katherine Young will tell you that her work as a graphic artist only has the chance to influence people for one second. Much of her work is seen in passing, out of the corner of the eye—it’s on Facebook and Instagram, in print magazines, on postcards, posters, or e-mail.
People may look at these designs quickly, but they take a long time to create. The idea is that if it’s engaging and eye-catching, people might decide that they’re interested in a topic and want to learn more. On the other hand, if they don’t even look, Young considers that she has failed.
One of her current clients is a library, and she provides this example: “You might be really interested in learning how to use a 3-D printer, and perhaps your local library has classes on how to use a 3-D printer, but you never find out because you never glance up at the plain poster on the Library Events bulletin board, you never click on the boring looking ad on your Facebook feed, and you throw away the postcard about the class that you got in the mail because you thought it was junk mail.”
As a result, her job is not just to provide information but to make people take notice. Much of what she designs is naturally engaging—thanks to her instinct as an artist—but a great deal of it has been learned through years of experience. She’s constantly asking herself, “Who wants to see this and just doesn’t know it yet?”
Young loves that she gets to promote the “good stuff”—literacy, lifetime learning, free programming, and libraries. She also is proud to say that she’s made a career out of being an artist, something that is not stereotypically seen as a financially viable career path.
“There’s a stigma in our society around the concept of the starving art ist,” Young says. “People perpetuate it without realizing it. In college, professors push full-time internships with no pay. Friends and family ask for favors and free work when these things actually take a long time.”
This means that starting out, she had to take jobs that barely paid enough for her to get by. It took her a decade of working as a graphic designer until Young finally felt established enough to refuse free work or work that didn’t pay well. “I think I could have said ‘no’ sooner, but I think I believed the stereotype too,” she adds.
Starving No More
Today, though, Young has made it. She’s completed work for Disney, served as a designer for LucasFilm and VISA, and had her work featured on the Today show. She is proof that artists don’t need to be starving, and she’s so passionate about her work that even when she’s off the clock, she’s still designing.
She’s always creating, working on all sorts of side projects and posting many blog posts on all types of art.
This is how she discovered that sometimes the answer to “Who wants to see this and just doesn’t know it yet?” can turn out to be a pretty good chunk of the Internet. You may have seen the side-by-side comparison of the actual September 2016 Girls’ Life magazine cover that focused on dream hair and how to wake up pretty versus Young’s empowered redesign featured “Girls Doing Good” and “Your Dream Career.”
Young’s inspiration was an online post that showed a Girls’ Life cover beside a Boys’ Life cover. Boys’ Life had articles on exploring your future. The Girls’ Life cover had teasers like “My First Kiss,” the quiz “Are you ready for a boyfriend?,” and cover model Olivia Holt from the Disney XD series Kickin’ It. The two magazines are not brother-sister publications—Boys’ Life is a trade magazine of the Boy Scouts of America with a specific mission statement, while Girls’ Life is a general interest publication. But still, Young saw that something was off, and she wanted to provide an alternative view.
In her redesign, instead of kisses and boyfriends, she offers the first-person narrative “My First Miss (Miss the big shot and still win)” and the quiz “Are you ready for AP Class?” Her cover model was Olivia Hallisey, the 2015 Google Science Fair grand-prize winner who designed a low-cost, portable test for Ebola.
She posted her mock-up, labeled it “Courtesy of Every Girl in the World,” and sent out a tweet. It took her 10 min to mock-up the new cover. To say it wasn’t meant for public consumption would be false—it was a blog post after all—but Young’s readership was mainly people she knew. She wanted to put her own spin on things: “I made the cover for me and my friends,” she says. “We believed we can do better.” The post went viral. Maybe having a post go viral is what some people dream about, but it’s can be overwhelming when the post takes off. It’s a complete loss of control—your work can be appropriated by anyone for any reason. There’s no stopping it, and everyone has an opinion. And yet there’s this amazing pride.
Young says she still receives e-mail about the cover daily, and while the messages are mostly positive, every once in a while a negative one sneaks in. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “Getting trolled with a negative e-mail does hurt, but it also just blows my mind that someone would take time out of their day to make a complete stranger’s day worse.”
“It’s important that we not worry about that one negative e-mail out of a hundred,” Young adds. “I want other artists to continue creating even if they come up against any opposition like this. Stand up for what you believe in, even if 1% throws crazy at you. Your voice needs to be heard.”
If the point of Young’s art, though, was to get people to take notice— mission accomplished. The power of graphic design is on full display. We’re experiencing something that we haven’t seen before, a chicken-or-egg kind of question: Are magazines like Girls’ Life giving girls what they want—or are these magazines driving more of the narrative than they’re willing to admit?