A Magazine Designed By Bureaucracy

In the publication O1, each foreign contributor’s word count represents the number of American visas issued annually to their country of origin.

Within the labyrinthine classification system for granting visas to the U.S., the O visa signifies non-immigrant temporary worker visa. Within that classification there are several others, including the O1 visa, which is granted by the United States on a temporary basis to non-immigrant workers “with an extraordinary ability in the arts.”


It’s a visa graphic designer Jenny Hung watched many friends apply for after finishing up graduate school at Yale University School of Art. The process is stressful, to say the least: there’s usually only a small window of time to apply, and the rigorous application process requires applicants to show evidence of their achievements by winning awards, being published, or being otherwise recognized in the field. So Hung turned the frustrating and anxiety-inducing process into an art project, a publication aptly named O1 Magazine, and asked her fellow foreign artist friends to contribute writing. The tediousness of the application process and the broader implications of moving to the U.S.—based on what region you are coming from—is baked into the design of the publication itself.

The most obvious aspect of the design is how its aesthetic mimics the dull intricacies of bureaucracy. “Overall, this first issue is not very pretty,” Hung writes in an email. “It looks utilitarian, institutional, somewhat drab, and is incredibly unwieldy and clunky. It is designed to be kind of ugly, like you’ve just been handed a bunch of tax forms.”

Beyond the text, others messages are being communicated through numbers. In one year, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs, 10,891,745 nonimmigrant visas were issued in 2015. O1’s inaugural issue has a total of 10,891 words. Each of the 14 contributors featured in the issue, all of whom have held U.S. visas, were given a word count that corresponds with the number of visas that the U.S. allots to their home country or region, with each word standing in for roughly 1,000 visas. L.A.-based graphic designer Yuanchen Jiang, for example, worked within a constraint of 2,447 words, based on the around 2,447,000 visas given annually to immigrants from his home country of China. The Zimbabwean-born visual artist Liona Robyn Nyariri gets 359 words, representing the visas available for the entire continent of Africa. NYC-based graphic designer Nejc Prah represented the approximately 1,000 visa available for his native country of Slovenia with a single word: “Banana.”

Artist Hans-Jacob Schmidt, whose section represents Europe and Eurasia (excluding Denmark and Slovenia, regions that are represented elsewhere in the issue) dedicated his 1,103 words to a photograph depicting the activist Angela Davis meeting Erich Honecker, the East German communist party leader, in 1972. Schmidt formatted his text as a conversation between three people discussing the photograph through a visual thinking strategy that limits them to three basic questions. Other entries include interviews, poems, found text, short stories, choreographic notes, and even an advertisement. Though it wasn’t a requirement, most of the texts relate to the subjects of art, politics, or immigration.

The publication works on a few different levels as a piece of information design. On the micro level, there’s the word count—lurking like an encrypted message behind the text, only visible to those in the know (Hung lays out each word count and the corresponding country on the back cover). On a broader, more visual level, there’s the layout, in which the percentage of the total U.S. nonimmigrant visas a country receives corresponds to the percentage of the booklet that section takes up. If China received 20% of the visas last year, for example, Jiang’s writing takes up exactly 20% of the publication’s total text.

Finally, there’s the macro level: without even reading the booklet, you can see immediately that it is modeled after “the tedium and absurdity” of the visa processes, as Hung puts it. It’s a visual language everyone can understand, even if you’ve never had to fill out a foreign workers visa and wait to hear if you qualify to stay in the country you’ve started to call home. The language of bureaucracy is universal.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.