In 2020, outrage was expressed online and in a series of protests after many became aware of the agonizing death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Earlier this year, former Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and sentenced to over 20 years in prison. The three other officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s death—Thomas Lane, Tou Thao, and J. Alexander Kueng—await trial slated for early next year. In response to Mr. Floyd’s death and to show solidarity, Grace Owen, a 22-year-old digital advertising and visual communication student at Louisiana State University, designed a stylized graphic of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s quote regarding neutrality in “situations of injustice.”
Her artwork gained popularity on social media during the summer of 2020. Owen shares her journey on activism and art since then.
Young Hot & Modern: What sparked your interest in graphic design, and what led you to pursue it?
Grace Owen: I’ve always been interested in creative hobbies. I used to draw on Microsoft Paint all day when I was little and played around with the Adobe programs in high school, but I didn’t see design as a career path until my freshman year of college. I started Louisiana State University studying international law, but by the first week of classes, I realized it wasn’t for me.
I learned about visual communication, which sounded like my dream job, but I hadn’t taken a traditional art class in years, so I was super nervous. I decided to take a leap and enrolled in the classes. A lot of them were studio-based, which is where I started to appreciate art and design. I played around in Illustrator again and shortly after decided to buy an iPad so I could get more serious about graphic design.
I fell in love with it immediately—graphic design came so naturally to me, and it was one of those things I just knew I needed to stick with. And I’m so glad I did!
YHM: What was the main inspiration behind your creation of the Desmond Tutu graphic?
GO: When I saw the news about George Floyd, I was feeling a lot of things—shocked, angry, confused. But I also felt inspired by the outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter. I knew I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know exactly what to say. I saw the quote somewhere on social media, and it stood out to me.
I have a very “go with the flow” design process, so I just started writing the words of the quote on my iPad without an end goal in mind. I was originally worried it didn’t look good enough to post.
YHM: What message did you want to convey through it?
GO: I knew a lot of people wanted to say something, but they were nervous or afraid for whatever reason. This quote flipped people’s way of thinking about the situation—it demanded that they take this opportunity to stand up for what was right. It challenged them to think about how their individual silence and neutrality, though seemingly harmless, allows and perpetuates injustice and violence.
YHM: When it started gaining traction, what was going through your mind?
GO: I was seriously shocked. I made it originally because I wanted to stand in alliance, but the more people started sharing it, I soon realized it was much more than that. It was a call to action. The response was truly unbelievable. I was glad to see that people engaged with it and that it truly touched people.
YHM: How did it feel to see something you created become such an iconography statement for the Black Lives Matter movement?
GO: It was surreal! People were sending me photos from around the world of it being used in protests and posted around city streets. It’s a message that needs to be spread, and I’m glad that I could contribute. We’ve still got a long way to go in the fight against racism and injustice, and design is by no means the cure, but I think it’s certainly making waves and changing the world.
Design resonates with people and gives them an opportunity to learn and grow. Especially in the realm of social justice—it can be difficult to introduce to people who are reluctant to challenge their point of view, so presenting information in a way that’s inviting and helpful is beneficial and more likely to have a lasting effect that leads to a change of heart.
YHM: How has social media impacted your artwork, and how have you been able to use this platform?
GO: Social media is honestly what made me start taking my artwork more seriously. I was creating a lot of graphics but didn’t have a place to put them, so I decided to make an art account. At first, it was just some close friends who followed, but over time, it gained traction.
I use social media as my main business platform. It’s the most efficient portfolio because it shows off my work, as well as my personality and brand. I freelance full-time now, and most of my clients started as followers on Instagram.
YHM: Do you think that social media plays a prominent role in activism?
GO: I certainly think social media has helped turn the tides. When people see their friends and other people they follow on social media speaking up, it encourages them to do the same. It’s a snowball effect that goes further and further down the list of followers, and that’s definitely what assists the surge.
It can be scary to stand up for something even when you know it’s the right thing to do, so I think people were inspired by one another to come together and collectively speak up. And a lot of the information that they are circulating can be truly valuable—whether it’s providing resources, donations, or information.
YHM: Have you seen more activity and protest online than in person?
GO: The more we get the conversation started, the more we’re able to enact real change. Social media is how we spread information nowadays, so I think it’s important that we do so with intention. I saw many protests online and in-person as well, and I think they go hand-in-hand. Of course, not necessarily everyone who shares graphics on their Instagram Story will be attending rallies or having those difficult conversations—but a pretty large amount of them will, and that’s what counts.
YHM: How has your viral image affected your work from here on?
GO: The viral graphic helped push my graphic design career to the next level. It’s opened up opportunities for me that I’m forever grateful to have. It’s shown me how much of an impact design can have and allowed me to realize that it’s my responsibility as an artist to also be an activist. It has also brought me into an amazing community of artists online.
In the midst of unrest and injustice, some use their platform to spread awareness and help the best they can. Owen did this through her art and her artwork quickly went viral, but she’s not stopping there. She has received an outpouring of positive reactions to her Desmond Tutu graphic and has since produced t-shirts, posters, and stickers with the design. To date, she’s garnered over $3,000 in sales and plans to donate the proceeds indefinitely to Black Lives Matter organizations.
Photographs courtesy of Grace Owen