Regardless of whether you’re a seasoned Eye on Design reader, you’re new to the site, or you only *occasionally* stop by (hey, we still love you), we relish our annual opportunity to serve as your tour guide to the best articles we published in the year that was.
As an editorial team, we work closely with writers to dive deep beyond the baseline eye candy of the design world in a quest to develop those stories that truly merit that tiny ocular endstop. ( ) This list is a highlight reel of some of our favorites—along with a few words about what resonated with us about each piece, and what might resonate with you, too.
So dive in and explore.
We promise: There’s something here that is befitting of your very own eye on design.
Glowy, Gauzy Diagrams Are the Self-help Books of the Instagram Age, by Margaret Rhodes
If you’ve been on Instagram anytime in the last year, you’ve probably seen them—the hazy, colorful posters that vaguely look like infographics. Writer Margaret Rhodes certainly noticed, and she documented the trend in a smart piece that pulls thread on how, and more importantly why, this zeitgeisty aesthetic took hold. In a year where anxiety became a constant thrum in the background of our lives, this piece explores how those feelings manifest visually and how they are connected to self-help movements of the past. —Liz Stinson
Are Mockup Designers the Most Influential Designers of Our Era? by George Kafka
One of my favorite things about being an editor for a place like Eye on Design is that I can ask people smarter than me to write about things I’m interested in. A few years ago, I became fascinated by those blank mockups designers use to show work in their portfolios when a student of mine showed a series of branding applications across tote bags, business cards, and even a physical space. A couple weeks later, a very big design studio shared a rebrand they worked on and used the exact same mockups. What does it mean, I kept thinking, that a big design studio and an undergraduate design student are presenting their work the same way and getting mockups from the same places?
In this article, George Kafka explores these questions and more—all while providing insightful interviews with the designers who produce such mockups—to think about what it means to make design work that will only ever be seen online. —Jarrett Fuller
The CIA Has Always Understood the Power of Design, by Theo Inglis
The CIA kicked off 2021 with a trendy rebrand that was, for a moment, the talk of the design town. (As Theo Inglis perfectly summarized it: “To see the CIA launch a contemporary rebrand that has been likened to electronic music fliers or a generic tech conference identity was a start to 2021 that we didn’t see coming.”)
But rather than offer, say, an aesthetic critique of the logo and website, Inglis took readers on a dive into little-known corridors of graphic design history. As it turns out, the CIA and the profession aren’t as strange of bedfellows as they might seem. Expect secretly funded publications as weapons in the Cultural Cold War. Wild MoMA ties. Strategically deployed art exhibitions in the USSR.
The piece is fascinating and even a touch frightening—and perhaps a poignant reminder of design’s power, which the agency seems to have recognized long before other sectors. —Zachary Petit
Graphic Designers Have Always Loved Minimalism—But At What Cost? by Jarrett Fuller
While trend pieces often follow a familiar formula (here’s a thing I’ve seen + give it a name + root it loosely in the past), this article by Jarrett Fuller takes a different approach. In it, he serves a thoroughly incisive answer to the question of why designers love minimalism so much. Fuller walks us through how minimalism is tied to industrial shifts and historical moments in art, leading to a state where the world no longer conveys process or values, only aesthetics. In the process, he’s able to tease out what we lose as a culture and a profession when we rely on subtraction to communicate the messy nuances of the world. —Liz Stinson
While we like to think typography is the domain only of the graphic designer, artists throughout history have incorporated type, language, and letterforms into their work. If an artwork has type in it, is it graphic design? Do artists think about typography differently than graphic designers? How is typography received when it’s in a gallery as opposed to a book, a poster, or a brand? What can designers learn about type from artists?
In this sweeping survey, Meg Miller gives us new ways to think about communication and meaning, allowing us to see typography not simply as a tool, but also as poetry, material, and language. —Jarrett Fuller
You might have seen various versions of the First Things First manifesto over the years, from Ken Garland’s 1963 original to the 2020 update—but like me, you might have been missing some of the connective tissue and narrative threads that bind them. This article (by Rick Poynor, who republished the original manifesto in his Eye magazine and was a signatory on later installments) provides just that. While First Things First remained consistent in its focus on ethics and the role of the designer in the world, here Poynor examines the ways in which the document has evolved and kept pace with the ever-fluid industry.
And hey: It’s all history that you can be a part of. As Rick Griffith says in the piece, “A designer should never feel like they are too late to add their name to something this important.” —Zachary Petit