For the first ten years of her career, artist and designer Sarah Boris churned out an impressive portfolio of books, exhibition graphics and visual identities at leading institutions like Phaidon and the Barbican. When she started her own studio in 2015, her focus shifted towards making public art commissions and self-initiated projects in the form of screen-printed editions, sculptures and murals. More recently, you might know Sarah from her scroll-stopping artworks that touch on everything from political freedom to climate change and women’s football. Bold, typographic, and charged with emotion: her posters usually end up being shared many times over, striking a chord with creatives and activists on various platforms.
Memorable projects include the Fragile UK flag she created as a response to Brexit, her self-published book Global Warming Anyone?, and her various fundraisers for organisations like Unicef. Sarah is also a regular speaker at festivals and universities and is often busy running art and design workshops around the world. To learn more about how she does it all, we asked Sarah a few questions about her creative process, her approach to designing for political impact, and what’s next on her career bucket list. See our conversation below.
‘Fragile UK’ flag by Sarah Boris; and ‘Global Warming Anyone?’ book by Sarah Boris.
Hi Sarah! As you know, we’re big fans of your work. Can you tell us a little bit about your background? What was it that first drew you to art and design?
Thanks so much for the nice words. I am attracted to many forms of manual work and ways of making art, which is why I am trying a lot of mediums at the moment (textile, wood, stone, paper etc). I always painted and drew a lot until my A levels / Baccalaureate. I studied art and type design in Paris (Olivier de Serres and Estienne) and then did a Master degree in London at London College of Communication, University of the Arts (LCC, UAL). It’s the possibility to express myself that drew me to art and design as well as feeling contentment when I create. Both are a means to share a view, an opinion and sometimes take a stance.
Before starting your own practice in 2015, you spent the first years of your career working for heavyweights like Phaidon and the Barbican. How and why did you decide to make the switch?
I had the mounting desire to pursue more personal projects. I decided to make the switch in order to have more flexibility. There were definitely a few triggers such as the opportunity for my first solo exhibition as part of a larger festival in France. In order to dedicate time towards the exhibition this felt like the right move.
How do you like being your own boss? What’s one great thing, and one not-so-great thing about it?
The best thing has been the freedom to develop personal projects. Currently I am developing a project on language which I am hoping to release in 2023. The not-so-great thing is that it can sometimes feel like a lonely venture and it takes a lot of personal commitment to make things happen.
What are some things you do to stay inspired — and sane — as a creative?
I walk a lot. That’s the thing that keeps me most sane. It’s also when I find the most ideas. Everything inspires me when I’m on the move. I also love going to public libraries. I was recently at the Barbican Centre’s public library and they have a wonderful collection of books and music records which you can listen to on site. I find libraries really relaxing and important spaces which should be preserved. They are quiet havens.
I also like going to exhibitions. One of my favourite exhibitions last year was Art & Life: Anni and Josef Albers at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
‘Subverting the Rainbow’ artwork by Sarah Boris; and ‘Le Théâtre Graphique’ artist book by Sarah Boris.
How selective are you about the projects that you take on?
A lot of the projects I take on are in arts and culture. I ask a lot of questions at the initial meeting. I think it’s important to remember interviews are a two-way process. I think this helps to figure out if working together will be a good fit and if we get along. It also helps address practical questions.
I would say that my personal projects and artworks are definitely dream projects and I often feel I should find a way to dedicate more time to them. I have also come to realise that they more often lead to new commissions as they are more distinct and uncompromised in the making.
More recently, you’ve become known for creating artworks that touch on themes like climate change, Brexit and the Ukraine war. Why do you feel strongly about engaging with these kinds of issues?
I engage with issues for different reasons. These can be personal ties with the issue but also because I strongly feel empathy. Brexit profoundly affected life as we knew it in the UK. My family of friends in the UK is essentially European, and many have left since the referendum. I feel it left an open wound on many levels. Before the referendum happened, I could feel the change coming with fundamental things like education, health and freedom of movement all under threat. This is how I came to create the Fragile UK flag in 2015. It was my way of expressing my thoughts on the changing identity of the UK. Visualising the union jack with ‘fragile’ tape felt like the most effective way for me to share my feelings. I later on created a WE LOVE EU marque which people could print at home and use on placards in marches.
In response to the war in Ukraine, having previously done a fundraiser with Harvey Lloyd, a screenprinter in East Sussex, I made a special edition of one of my artworks LOVE in yellow and blue, signed and numbered. The full edition of one hundred artworks sold, and all funds raised went to Unicef Ukraine. These actions are a DIY way of expressing our solidarity and are very much a collaborative endeavour.
With climate: I was invited to contribute to an exhibition called Man Made Disaster: How Patriarchy is Ruining the Planet alongside artists such as Guerrilla Girls. This is how I came to create the book Global Warming Anyone: a small self-published artist book containing 120 tweets on climate change by the 45th president of the US. The book ended up in the European Parliament and a Green MP got in touch to order 20 copies which prompted a reprint and expanded edition. I never expected this to happen and it showed how an artwork can become a political tool. Moving forward I’d like to create more artworks to help raise funds for different charities or directly for people affected by war or climate displacement.
‘We Love EU’ placards by Sarah Boris, photographed by Ondřej Vachek; ‘LOVE’ screenprinted artwork by Sarah Boris; and ‘Women play with balls too’ t-shirt design by Sarah Boris.
How do you go about designing for social or political impact?
A lot of my artworks in this realm come from a gut feeling that I feel compelled to visualise in one way or another. Sometimes the idea is instant and sometimes it brews in my mind for a while before I put it on paper. At times I’ll write and sketch but most of the process happens in my mind and then directly on paper. In other instances I read and research. For example, for a project raising funds for women in football, I started researching the history of women in football and found really interesting quotes and facts. I found one quote from a placard held in a demonstration in the 1970s in New York: ‘Women play with balls too.’ Recontextualising the quote in this instance allowed it to connect with history but also add a bold and humorous touch to the artwork.
‘A lot of my artworks in this realm come from a gut feeling that I feel compelled to visualise in one way or another.’
In the last few years, you’ve also done a fair bit of teaching. Can you tell us a bit more about one of your recent workshops?
So far I’ve written new workshops for each university I visit. I feel workshops are a great time to work differently and I’ve made sure that students work in an analog manner when possible during these sessions. I feel manual work is really positive for creative output, much more so than using the computer straight away. The workshops I’ve held have had an individual and collective component and post-Covid it’s been really special to see students come together and help each other out.
In October 2022, I was invited to hold a workshop in an art and design school in Troyes which has a historical cloister and amazing yard. I invited students to create a sculpture in the form of a self-portrait and the final presentation turned into a happening with many personal stories shared on their own personal life journeys, integration, finding one’s place, personal struggles, different ways of thinking and being. It was a beautiful reminder that each one of us has something worthy to share and that creatives are great narrators be it through words or their art. There was a lot of emotion and I feel we will remember these feelings for a long time. I hope that with workshops I can bring out empathy in the group and new ways of creating in solidarity and exhibiting collectively.
Heart Bench by Sarah Boris.
Last but not least: what’s one thing that’s still on your creative bucket list?
This is a hard question. I have a lot of things on my creative bucket list so I find it tough to choose one. I’d really love to do a residency to make some of the ideas I have in mind come to life. Residencies are the best way for me to dedicate time to making an idea come to life and find new ways of making work. I’d particularly like to do residencies abroad to be confronted with a different environment. I would also like to create a public artwork for a park, along similar lines to the heart-shaped benches I made last year. I believe in continuing to create spaces outdoors for communities to gather.
Top image: Sarah Boris with one of her flags, photographed by Lorna Allan. All images courtesy of Sarah Boris.
Seriously Good Advice
This interview is part of a series we like to call Seriously Good Advice, wherein we ask different designers we admire to answer your questions on building (and maintaining) a meaningful practice. If you have ideas for what you’d like to see in our next conversation, reach out to us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.