2021: The year in images

The year’s defining moments offer insight into the elements that drive, unite, and inspire us as we face the future.

While 2021 was marked by challenges and change, a clearer view of what’s ahead is coming into focus. Business and society are setting their sights on sustainable, inclusive growth amid the ongoing economic recovery.

But what does that look like? Art can reinforce or enhance coverage of a world in flux, so as the year draws to a close, we asked McKinsey’s designers for a view on the images that helped bring our insights to life. How do you capture, in a single photograph, the effects of the ongoing pandemic or the nuances of the Great Attrition and the talent crisis? What art best expresses the power of digital or the interplay of sustainability, inclusion, and growth?

The designers’ selections showcase some interesting new directions. Static photography remained effective in many contexts. But you’ll also see illustrations that allowed for thoughtful treatments of abstract concepts. Adding motion—through animations or using video as a storytelling device—also helped up the impact of our visuals.

Here’s McKinsey Global Publishing’s visual take on 2021. Read on for a new lens on the standout moments that made it unique.

McKinsey Quarterly 2021 Number 1:

Reset: Time to redefine the next normal. Again.

In 2021, the world was reemerging from a year of lockdowns and physical distancing. As business and society sought to move forward and reimagine what’s next, many were redefining their operating models, harnessing digital technologies, and seeking to kick-start growth. This image aptly captures the idea of putting wheels in motion for a reset—moving from “pause” to “play,” and proceeding with momentum and purpose.

The economic state of Black America: What is and what could be

The pandemic highlighted glaring racial disparities and their impact on Black America, including an estimated $220 billion annual disparity in current Black wages versus the wage amount at full parity. New research acknowledged the challenges while still painting a picture of hope. This warm image of a Black father holding his young daughter, woven into a video that highlights Black professionals at work or at leisure, sheds light on the possibilities and the promise of a world where a Black child can unlock her full potential and embrace a brighter future.

Five charts that set the tone as New York Fashion Week 2021 kicks off

Clothes returned to some catwalks in 2021 as the fashion industry began to rebound from the pandemic’s worst effects. This close-up of a woman securing a glitzy mask, a glint of determination in her eye, sets the tone for an article that examines five themes shaping the postpandemic fashion industry.

America 2021: Rebuilding lives and livelihoods after COVID-19

As a new US president stepped into the Oval Office, the country contemplated the year ahead—and so did our series of articles on some of the themes associated with the transition. This animation of flowers blooming from a 3-D rendering of the continental United States suggests growth, renewal, and resilience rooted in the spirit of courage and determination.

The risks and challenges of the global COVID-19-vaccine rollout

In early 2021, the COVID-19 vaccine signaled a turning point in the pandemic. The stocked vials in this image evoke an amphitheater—tall and majestic—standing tall over a hopeful, packed crowd. Now, as vaccine boosters and another variant have entered the scene, a captive audience once again awaits a shot of hope.

One move companies can take to improve diversity

This haunting silhouette of a Black woman obscured in shadow evokes memories of all who remain unseen, unheard, and undervalued, despite hoping for more. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, the unseen will not only look to the light but also emerge from the shadows.

Our future lives and livelihoods: Sustainable and inclusive and growing

This bespoke illustration presents three interlocking circles that highlight interdependent elements crucial to the future of growth. Economies must expand to deliver on goals for the future, but that growth shouldn’t come at the expense of sustainability or inclusion. The image conveys that idea elegantly by emphasizing how all three work in context and in harmony.

Help your employees find purpose—or watch them leave

The pandemic prompted many to reflect on their sense of purpose at work, and they were willing to walk if they weren’t feeling fulfilled. For employers, seeking to pin them down with unfocused efforts may be an exercise in futility. This image of butterflies evokes the purposeful departure of these employees, winging to greener pastures with urgency.

Solving the net-zero equation: Nine requirements for a more orderly transition

While the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions is not yet in sight, it’s not completely out of reach. This image of a steady hand grasping a protractor and a leafy branch delivers an empowering message that much can and should be done to help bend the curve—driving economic development and inclusive growth while protecting the planet.

Resilience: The whole-company fitness challenge

As businesses streamline operations to stem pandemic volatility, they must also build resilience to prepare for the next big disruption. This depiction of an athlete expertly navigating a ropes course underscores the flexibility needed for today’s challenges while also connoting strength and agency.

A $300 billion opportunity: Serving the emerging Black American consumer

For decades, the significant potential of the Black consumer has remained untapped. As these textured petals reveal, there are multiple layers to the issue. But retailers that face the ways they are underserving Black Americans could bloom and thrive.

Trends that will define 2021 and beyond: Six months on

Not everything that seemed promising in the first days or weeks of 2021 wound up being as good as was hoped as the months wore on. This image, of a man and a woman studying a series of portraits that play on an optical illusion to draw you to the pair’s reflection, neatly mirrors the accompanying article’s review of whether predictions made in January held up as the year unfurled.

McKinsey for Kids: A tiger’s tale about what nature is really worth

Few animals are as breathtaking and eye-catching as the tiger. To tee up an interactive experience on understanding the value of nature in our McKinsey for Kids series, this animation starts with the turn of a glistening gold coin, a tiger in profile on its face, that morphs into a more realistic mammal appraising the surrounding mangrove habitat as the sun sets.

Why an agile transformation office is your ticket to real and lasting impact

Over the past year, companies have become increasingly aware of how a strong organizational culture aids in times of crisis. For those seeking to gain speed and agility, a transformation could be in order. This stylized image of a high jumper clearing the bar reflects what can be accomplished through a focus on flexibility, nimbleness, and balance.

Being transgender at work

Do you know how to support your transgender colleagues? This image of an inclusivity symbol being held up against a backdrop of skyscrapers signals that leaders may need to look more closely at the experience of transgender employees in corporate America. It accompanied McKinsey’s first article dedicated to the subject, a profound and poignant lens on the importance of looking at the many ways diversity, equity, and inclusion show up in our lives.

Twelve insights for an inclusive economic recovery for New York City

New York can be said to tell a “tale of two cities,” where there’s always been a wide gap between the haves and have-nots. The pandemic only widened that gulf. This photo of a Black mother and toddler embracing puts a human face on why that’s so important.

It’s time for leaders to get real about hybrid

As employees who got used to remote work in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis seek more control over their working lives, this stylized illustration of a crosswalk signal offers a resonant visual metaphor for the gap between leaders’ views and those of their employees on a full return to in-person work. Denying the disconnect isn’t a strategy. It’s time to pause and get real about the hybrid future.

‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The choice is yours

Which came first: The chicken or the egg? This image, of yolk seeping from a cracked shell, alongside a newly hatched chick, calls to mind the age-old question while making a subtle nod to the swirling debates many have had over the reasons employees are leaving their jobs in record numbers. One thing is certain: listening to employees and acting to meet their needs may make the difference between a messy talent breakdown and a thriving brood.

Race in the workplace: The Black experience in the US private sector

Systemic changes to address underrepresentation, advancement, inclusivity, and the geographical distribution of the Black workforce in the United States are sorely needed. The original photographs and videos we produced for this report, which depict the dignified, diverse professionals who have been held back, are a vital reminder of the power that could come from unleashing the potential of promising Black talent.

Author Talks

In the pandemic era of physical distancing and isolation, books have been a balm for many. McKinsey’s Author Talks series taps into the powerful perspectives of the writers behind some of the best reads on business—and beyond. This illustration, of a microphone turned to an open page of text, highlights the power of the written word to engage and inspire.

Looking beyond the pandemic: Could the world economy gain more than it lost to COVID-19?

Many of us put our heads down as the pandemic brought home tough lessons. But swift, deliberate action by global leaders meant things were looking up for many people and businesses. As this image of a woman lifting her head to the sky conveys, the ability to rebuild after tragedy is a testament to limitless possibility, and to the ability to breathe easier in the future—without a mask.

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