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What Design Can Do: Spark Social Change

Four studios and projects reveal the challenges of visualizing an activist movement and the problems in need of creative solutions when design is invested in change.


In its adolescence, design was invested with vision. Its ambitious exponents claimed that it could imagine new structures for society; design would give birth to an inclusive, collective language and help craft a new positive reality, delivering the world from exploitation and inequality, forging a utopian future in its place.

As graphic designer Neville Brody and historian Steward Ewen asserted during the 1989 AIGA conference in San Antonio in the great and still very relevant paper Design Insurgency, this optimistic idealism faded as design reached middle age. “Design is shackled by historical amnesia. The sense of social vision that once inspired it is but a dim memory,” they wrote. “Obedient to the orders of corporate clients, designers are cogs in the wheels of commerce. They serve as pastry chefs in glorified soup kitchens, doling out mass-produced visual gruel.” The First Things First 2000 manifesto, published by Adbusters in 1999, similarly asserted that designers pledge “to put their skills to worthwhile use” and address the “unprecedented environmental, social, and cultural crisis” of the times.

These were calls for design to envision and invent instead of advertise and confirm, to inform and educate instead of promote wealth and power; a call to arms that in the current state of affairs triggered by aggressive Trumpist instability and strengthening alt-right movements around the globe is relevant and needs urgent revisiting.

In recent months, designers and the creative industry at large have notably been using their skills to resist and organize, to inform and educate. The major effort led by the Amplifier Foundation meant the solicitation of hundreds of graphics for the women’s march from image-makers across the United States. Artifax, led by L.A. studio Use All Five, are faxing artworks by designers—including Pentagram, Open, and Isabel Urbina Peña—to local government offices to protest the Trump administration’s gutting of the National Endowment of the Arts. Art director of the New Yorker Françoise Mouly and cartoonist Nadja Spiegelman are publishing political comics newspaper Resist!. In Germany, designers at Public Positions have been combatting Syrian refugee dislocation through poster workshops.

Sites like protest-signs.com offer free, downloadable signage; 2hoursaweek.org send out daily emails with concrete actions that creatives can take; and there are countless Google Docs emerging that invite designers to add their details and make themselves publically available for organizations seeking graphics, like Designers Available. In the midst of this vital floorage of creative political energy, in makes sense that Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic have been collecting submissions for a second edition of their 2005 encyclopaedia of dissidence, The Design of Dissent.

Creative modes of resistance and collective practices exist and are being built, and it’s important to consider their significance. How can we support and contribute to their existence and expansion, and promote design with social vision so that it’s practical and enduring enough to achieve the kind of transformation it works towards?

The central issue is what Design Insurgency and First Things First 2000 highlighted, and that’s to do with definition—the pervasive understanding of what graphic design’s role in society actually is. Both manifestos locate design’s primary current role as the bound right-hand of corporate commercialism, instead of as a potential tool for social transformation.

Image by Partner & Partners.

The design of activism on the other hand, is commonly understood as just that—as a part of activism—as opposed to being an energizing example of design’s potential. There are special one-of issues of magazines dedicated to activism, there are exhibitions of protest art: design for change is given its own separate, sidelined category.

Since 1998, Artists’ Cooperative Justseeds have been producing graphics for grassroots struggles, and New York’s Interference Archive explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements through exhibitions, workshops, and talks. These groups and many of the aforementioned self-identify as activists first and designers second, and they are viewed as such by the cultural industry. What if practices like these—none of which viewed primarily as design—were not slotted into the category of activism and dismissed as such by the industry, but instead understood, discussed, and taught as the most courageous and vital examples of what graphic design is capable of?

We need to consider what we validate highest through profiles in magazines, in exhibitions, in award ceremonies, and in the line-up of main-stage conference slots. During this period of instability and dangerous normalization, design historians of the future will not look back kindly at the industry’s championing of catchy Nike campaigns over output that’s strengthening grassroots causes or directly challenging that idea that our political situation is normal and fixed.

Image by Partner & Partners.

It could be that instead of the omnipresence of stories about navigating client-designer relationships, the cultural sector focused on stories about community-designer relationships, and the intricacies, practicalities, and problems needing solutions when designing for a protest and for social transformation.

The following studios and projects reveal the challenges of visualizing a movement: the problems in need of creative solutions when design is invested in change. These challenges give way to a new set of criteria that should determine what we understand, discuss, and teach as the most important examples of what design can do. 

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1. A dynamic, living, breathing movement can’t (and shouldn’t) be summed up with a singular design or image produced by one person or designer.

New York-based studio Partner & Partners puts campaigning before client work, and was founded by a team of three designers, Kathleen Scudder, Zach Mihalko, and Greg Mihalko, in 2013. Its identity for an exhibition at Interference Archive about renter rights movements has now become unanimous with housing demonstrations. Through open-source availability, this We Won’t Move poster has been used across the globe, hung in the windows of estates in London and across the wooden porches of San Francisco—a global slogan of defiance amongst a plurality of other images that resist.

Most recently, Partner & Partners designed the site for The Illuminator, an art-activist group who rose to notoriety during Occupy Wall Street, and now it’s seeking funding for its self-directed project called Next Vote, a simple website where users will reliably see upcoming elections and ballots in their zip code from local to national scale. “Our political foresight should be as familiar as checking the weather,” say the studio.

Partner & Partners locate a central, special function for print in protest: the production of posters, leaflets, flyers, and booklets takes on another meaning in our post-digital context. “If we continue to view movements from a distance, a (2D) design perspective, and never really get involved or join in a physical, emotional way, then we run the risk of perpetuating a kind of apathy, thus relying on a smaller and smaller subset of people to actually demonstrate,” say the studio. This idea chimes with a second powerful potential for print, and that’s its ability to move outside of our self-imposed online networks of insular like-minded individuals. Its physical nature not only affirms the largeness of a group—the image of thousands of signs of defiance is a powerful one—but, in the form of leaflets and magazines, it also means the distribution of messages to those who don’t readily agree with or understand other perspectives, and who aren’t familiar with certain ideals.

The output and thinking of Partner & Partners illuminates a set of questions for a new criteria when valuing design: How is it simplifying complex information in a way that inspires action and participation? Is it encouraging people to get involved, to be a physical body adding to a positive mass? Is it reaching out to people beyond those who already agree with a cause? And how it educating individuals to consider new ways of thinking?

2. Activism depends on genuine engagement, and good design is essential for that to happen. It does not have to be pretty, but it does have to be functional.

A 13-member, worker-owned cooperative, Design Action Collective creates imagery solely for grassroots organizations and activist campaigns. It’s best known image is the ubiquitous Black Lives Matter logo—a design that conveys strength and seriousness, that asserts itself as statement and fact, one that cannot be questioned. As an open-source, high-contrast type logo, it’s easily reproduced with a desktop printer or photocopier, which is key for its need to be quickly, cheaply, and widely distributed.

“When you have a large decentralized network or a coalition fighting a common campaign, there are many voices to negotiate,” says Design Action Collective, of the challenges of creating for large-scale activism. “Presenting a strong and unified visual message, and one that isn’t convoluted or watered down with all the information, is the challenge. Facts can be found on a website. The poster, social media graphic, or homepage therefore needs to strike to the heart immediately, and have a legibility or usability that can be easily understood, or that challenges assumptions and creates psychic breaks for people.”

Most of its logos and websites are conceived in a number of hours—when working on campaign or movement work, time is a luxury. “You could say we have an unconscious toolbox, where successful, tried, and true styles are stored,” say the collective. “When working with organizations connected to movements, you learn that their design needs are mostly unplanned and they might need an image ready by the afternoon. It’s important to be prepared for rapid response; we’re constantly reshuffling our schedules to accommodate the latest crisis, which in these times, is happening more and more urgently.”

Image by Mark Titchner.

Open-sourced themes have made work easier when it comes to quick turnaround. “That, however, underestimates the importance of working from the ground up with real content, creating custom architectures and designs,” say Design Action Collective. “Instead we end up forcing the content into generic tech frameworks.”

The everyday practicalities that Design Action Collective highlight suggests more criteria for evaluating contemporary design that deals with new conditions. Is it functional, even if it’s not pretty? Is it easily reproducible, if that’s what’s required? How is it navigating the need for speed under the pressure of a quick-turnaround, while simultaneously working with the bespoke needs of a cause? How is it uniting a multifaceted ideology, with various histories and complexities, into one powerful, single, resonating sign? 

3. Don’t be swayed from telling what you believe is the truth and say it in a clear way so that it that cuts right to the issue.

A central role design can play is laying truths bare and uprooting lies or close-off mind-sets. Protestors of the late 90s attempted to do this by tactical aesthetic interventions in public space; neo-situationist hijackings transformed the street into an arena for sarcastic billboard manipulation and play. Interventionists like Billionaires for Bush portrayed corporate CEOs protesting for the President, highlighting the marketing of demonstration; Adbusters shot into the popular imagination; the Pink Bloque (a riot grrl-inspired response to the aesthetics embodied by the Black Block) distributed feminist literature and zines.

At its most powerful, design has the capacity to combat false outlooks and experiment in finding news ways to replace dangerous misconceptions. Graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook, responsible for the 2011 Occupy London logo and a signatory to the First Things First 2000 manifesto, has memorably applied a Dadaist, interventionist sensibility to his output—in 2001, he famously raised a billboard in Las Vegas baring a quote from Tibor Kalman: “Designers, stay away from corporations that want you to lie for them.”

Barnbrook is clear about design’s potential in combatting the actions of the current U.S. administration, and the essential role humor and absurdity have in this battle. “Because Trump, and the people around him, are highly narcissistic, I do believe that satire is the best approach, to constantly undermine and ridicule. I am not talking about personal insults, but a calm highlighting of the situation with clear, intelligent thought,” says Barnbrook. “To me, rather than graphics, what has been most effective has been the work of comedians on programs like Saturday Night Live—so design can take a cue from this. Speak clearly, simply, and with humor to a wide audience. Don’t always say you have the answer, just show the problem.”

Interventionists like Barnbrook and others have laid down a criteria before, one that we should add to and build from when evaluating design today: is it challenging and subverting dangerous thinking? Is it revealing lies instead of participating in their propagation? Is it clear, legitimizing, and calm, so that it cannot be easily undermined by those in power? Does it honestly reflect the designer’s own belief? Is it revealing a problem?

Image by Partner & Partners.

4. It’s important not to be nostalgic. Each movement developed the way it it did for a specific reason, and to suit a specific time.

An art class at the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg, Germany arrived at school the day after the news broke that Trump was President Elect with an urgent feeling that something needed to be done to confront the rising spectre of the nationalist and populist right. Together with their professor, the artist Adam Broomberg of Broomberg & Chanarin, the students developed a website for what would soon become the locus of a global art coalition determined to counter right-wing rhetoric. Assertively, it called itself Hands Off Our Revolution, setting out to reclaim the vocabulary of revolution that’s been appropriated by populist movements.

In the months since the site first launched, more than 200 artists, designers, and cultural figures have signed up as signatories, promising to participate in a series of exhibitions and art projects that will take place around the world. Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Anish Kapoor, and Wolfgang Tillmans are a few of the many that have put their name to the project, and to celebrate the launch, Mark Titchner created a series of gifs to disseminate across the web—a typographic statement that switches between sentiments: Hands off…our bodies…our justice…our lives…our borders…our homes.

A simple black and white web design embraces the transatlantic aims of the project, which is to provide space for different movements taking place worldwide. By not referencing any overt aesthetic, and by creating a stripped-back space, Hands Off is an open canvas. “We’re about knowledge generation and facilitation,” says Broomberg. “We’re organizing poster creation and banner campaigns, and we don’t want to impose our own graphics or sensibility onto that.”

The website’s use of Tera as a typeface (a font first recommended to Broomberg by London-based design studio A.P.F.E.L, another signatory of the cause) does subtly conveys the project’s renegade attitude, and is distinctive and timely with its unusual, spiked ends. “It’s got the right feeling, says Broomberg. “It feels like you haven’t seen it before, it’s homemade and artisan but not hokey or nostalgic.”

He’s convinced it is vital not to be nostalgic when designing for a movement, a point that needs to be seriously considered. While some designers creating imagery for protest argue that adopting or referencing graphics from history is important—imagery steeped in protest from the past reminds people of the optimistic hard work that’s been done, the change that has been accomplished—nostalgic graphics, while effective, can also be false promises. Shephard Fairey’s graphics, like his famed Obama poster, draw and play on constructivist propaganda and alludes to the iconic. Yet it is worth considering whether work steeped in halcyon political imagery that, for example, communicates the notion of a massive revolution actually jars with the potential and promise of a new campaign. The Hands Off website, on the other hand, reflects the striking, internationally networked aim of the project, an aim that is relevant in our post-globalized present.

The thinking behind Hands Off Our Revolution’s visuals adds a new set of questions when analyzing design. Is it relevant in a contemporary world? Is it resisting the urge to make false claims? How is it being implemented to reflect a movement’s goals and circumstance, and to respond to the specific needs of the era we live in now?

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These practitioners and their examples make it clear that current conditions and emergencies must encourage social criticism, vision, creative self-expression, questioning, dangerous ideas and subversion in the field. Meeting the requirements of the community, and promoting the liberating power of education, not indoctrination, should stand at the center of the design process. 

 

Madeleine Morley

Madeleine Morley is a design and architecture writer based in Berlin. She studied English literature at Cambridge University and went on to complete an MA in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has written for Creative Review, AIGA, Monotype, magCulture, AnOther, and The Guardian among others.

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