American Experience

Featured Key Art

Bringing history to life

SJI is proud to be the exclusive creative partner of the PBS documentary series American Experience. As their agency of record, we have produced key art for dozens of their timely films, which feature compelling stories from our country’s past that inform our understanding of America’s place in the world today. American Experience documentaries are known for shedding light on important, untold stories from our country’s history, elevating marginalized voices, and providing context on present-day struggles for justice and equality. SJI is honored to play a part in connecting audiences with these important and enlightening films.

American Experience documentaries tell nuanced stories about some of the most charged and controversial moments, topics, and figures in US history. Each piece of key art we create for this series needs to boldly communicate the subject matter of the film in a manner that is respectful of—and unflinching about—the topic at hand. It’s our job to take these films’ complex subjects and relate them in a way that is simple, clear, and emotionally resonant.

The throughline of all American Experience films is emotion. These documentaries explore the real, human emotions animating American history, and it’s this quality that viewers respond to above all. Our key art needs to strike this same emotional tone in order to both connect with audiences and accurately represent the mission of American Experience as a series.

We take a broad, expansive approach when creating key art for American Experience documentaries. The wide range of art forms, styles, and devices we draw from reflects the variety of the documentaries themselves. Whether we end up utilizing historical photography, illustration, or some combination of the two, we find a way to relate the key takeaways of each documentary in a way that makes sense for the film, both aesthetically and thematically.

Focusing on Black American history, these documentaries shine a light on underexposed stories from the past that remain just as relevant today. Some of these films, like Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space and The American Diplomat, elevate the contributions of Black cultural and political figures who were unsung and overlooked during their time. Others, like The Blinding of Isaac Woodard and The Busing Battleground, illuminate forgotten flashpoints from the Civil Rights Movement. These films are a testament to the lives, work, and struggle of Black Americans throughout history, as well as their lasting impact and legacy on our culture today.

These films spotlight the iconic figures and epic personalities who shaped American culture, politics, and life for better or—more often—worse. These men wielded outsized influence over the nation, using their unprecedented power and platforms to advance their agendas, beliefs, and aspirations. From the fundamentalist evangelical preacher Billy Graham and the ruthlessly conspiratorial senator Joseph McCarthy, to the extravagant media tycoon William Randolph Hearst and the beloved author L Frank Baum, these men forever changed how storytelling was utilized—and weaponized—in America. These documentaries, in turn, tell the stories of their lives, work, and impact with the nuance and complexity that American Experience is known for.

Women’s stories are essential to American history—and to the American Experience series. Films like The Vote and Voice of Freedom highlight women’s individual and collective power in the movements for suffrage and civil rights. The Sun Queen and The Code Breaker illuminate the work of two extraordinary women who were pioneers in sustainable energy and cryptology, respectively. In Casa Susanna, we learn about a modest house in the Catskills region of New York that was a safe place for trans women to express themselves and find community in the 1950s and 60s. These documentaries celebrate the lives and accomplishments of many groundbreaking women whose stories and struggles are as relevant today as ever.

This documentary series also explores the lighter side of the American experience, focusing on important moments in pop culture, fashion, and beyond. Woodstock turns the lens from the musicians who played the legendary festival to the impromptu community that sprung up from the audience, while Riveted reveals the fascinating history hiding behind your favorite pair of blue jeans. Because there is always more to the human interest story than meets the eye.

“After a few years of working with SJI exclusively, one would think that we would be used to the high quality of their output, but with every project, I’m continually blown away by the creativity, intelligence, thoughtfulness and artistry they consistently demonstrate in their work for us.” CHIKA OFFURUM DIRECTOR OF AUDIENCE DEVELOPMENT

Design Process
For the American Experience documentary Fly With Me, the story of how the first female flight attendants of the 1960s ended up fighting for equal opportunity in the workplace, the SJI team explored a wide range of design approaches to telling the story in a simple, clear, iconic manner. Once concepts were generated, the team similarly explored a wide range of photographic and illustrative styles, including some retro typographic and advertising styles appropriate to the time period.

American Experience brings to light events that might otherwise be lost to history. Flood in the Desert tells the story of the St. Francis Dam disaster, and the efforts to erase it from popular memory. Taken Hostage introduces us to the real people in the Iranian hostage crisis, who are often forgotten in the shadow of the international conflict. The Eugenics Crusade delves into the insidious movement to produce “healthy babies” in the US, which led to the institutionalization and forced sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans. Despite the historical efforts to obscure the specifics of these events, American Experience excels at telling the whole story.