2021: The year in images

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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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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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