Infusing life, laughter and colour into courses, lectures and even clothing: The creative designs of Sarah Murray

August 14, 2023 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

“Let not the tyranny of the PowerPoint template reign supreme.”

This declaration appears on the personal website of Sarah Murray, an associate professor with the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Classics.

To liven up her lectures when teaching classics like the Iliad and Odyssey, Murray battles the doldrums of the PowerPoint template by creating colourful lecture slides and course posters that have become an integral part of her teaching.

“I find it more fun to teach when the students are having a good time,” she says. “And it seems that engaging visuals do a lot of the work in keeping students focused on the intellectual journey I’m trying to take them on.”

Murray first got into graphic design to make some extra cash as a graduate student at Stanford University.

“I was living in Palo Alto, California which is very expensive,” she says. “The cost of living there is so high that I was always looking for ways to make some money.

Two class posters using Soviet-style imagery
Two class posters by Sarah Murray. 

“For a while, I was doing the very glamorous work of setting out cheese and wine for receptions following department events. But at some point, a better-paid position for a grad student to do graphic design opened up. I didn't have any experience with graphic design, but I'm generally able to wrangle most computer programs through trial and error. So I told them, ‘I can do it!’ And then I figured it out from there.”

One of her first and favourite posters was created to promote the defense of her dissertation, titled “Trade Imports & Society in Early Greece: 1300 – 900 B.C.”

Poster with the title: Trade Imports & Society in Early Greece: 1300 – 900 B.C. with an image of  donkeys with packs climbing down a mountatin
One of Sarah Murray's first and favourite posters was created to promote the defense of her dissertation.

In the classrooms where she now teaches, Murray can tell if her imagery is engaging students through chuckles, more raised hands or livelier discussion.

“It's more fun for me too,” she says. “I don’t take much delight from filling out bullet points in a PowerPoint template and then reciting them in class. On the other hand, it's very satisfying to bring something funny or aesthetically pleasing into the world that didn't exist before. So I enjoy that aspect of it.

“As far as pedagogical utility goes, having some visual jokes in the slide deck keeps students paying attention for two reasons. First, because they think something funny might appear on the screen at any moment. Second, if they actually laugh when they are supposed to, that helps me have a sense of whether people are following along with the lecture content.”

Where does she get her inspiration for the images she creates?

The first inspiration was the art of mid-century travel posters. Noted for their vivid colour, posters, print ads and brochures were the most common way for travel companies to reach their customers from the late 1800s until about 1950.

“There's such a rich body of these beautiful posters, which are both fine examples of genuinely excellent design and captivating reminders of a bygone era of travel,” says Murray. “So my earlier posters would often try to begin from that visual world. Then, I would try to envision what it would look like if, instead of advertising an exotic vacation destination, you were advertising a course about the Odyssey, and let things develop from there through the strange mechanism of the human imagination.”

Another source of inspiration comes from a trip she took to Georgia (the country, not the U.S. state) when she finished her PhD. There, she was struck by the imagery used in Soviet-era propaganda posters.

Lecture slide with an illustration of Hera eating little people
A lecture slide titled, “Hera did not like the Trojans.”

Powerful agents of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, the posters served many purposes — some stirred patriotism, others slammed illiteracy and laziness, while others still condemned the evils of capitalism and praised socialism.

“It sounds scary, but the Georgian propaganda mosaic artists in particular were incredibly talented,” says Murray. “While a lot of Soviet art was deliberately destroyed after the fall of the USSR, many mosaics have been preserved specifically for the reason that they are genuine masterpieces.

“So I would say that I entered a new phase after the Georgia trip, so that a lot of the post-Stanford designs attempt to capture the spirit of muscular propagandism more than dreamy, aspirational travel. This phase also coincided with a decision to start making my own custom ‘merch’ featuring some of the propaganda themes.”

Two T-shirts using Soviet-style propaganda imagery
Two of Sarah Murray’s clothing designs, inspired by Soviet-era propaganda posters.

Having created about ten different designs for T-shirts and hoodies so far, this project was born out of finding a way to combat boredom during the COVID pandemic.

“My daily routine involved waking up, working, running, working and going back to sleep, which became pretty tedious after a while, so I started working on these designs in the evening as a way to relax,” says Murray. “It's very different to what I'm doing most of the time, which is reading academic scholarship and trying to compose complicated research arguments. Of course, that’s really engaging and fulfilling in its own way.

“But creating a visual design, it's not so much an intellectual process as an aesthetic and imaginative exercise. It helped me sink into a few hours of immersive, pleasant internal productivity. And I genuinely like having my weird bespoke shirts. They make me happy. I wear them all the time.”

A T-shirt with words: Bays of East Attica Regional Survey Project with 3 mountain peaks with searchlights on them
Bays of East Attica Regional Survey Project T-shirt.

Murray will be wearing her designs next year when she’s on sabbatical to focus on her research, which includes being the co-director of the Bays of East Attica Regional Survey Project situated around the bay of Porto Rafti in Greece — an archaeological project that aims to expand scholarly knowledge about the history of this area.

She’ll return to teaching in the fall of 2024 with a new repertoire of posters and slides that are sure to spark laughter, thinking and discussion.

“In some ways I’m being selfish in that I like to make them,” she says. “And I think the material we're studying is really fun. There are a lot of interesting, strange things going on in the ancient world.

“You can play that up in a way that piques curiosity. It's not just that I want the students to pay attention to me in that moment. I want to get them thinking excitedly about the little bits of magic that you can pull out of even old texts.”