“‘Design activists’ are contemporary designers who undertake projects based on their ethical concerns and a sense of social responsibility. The objects, communications, spaces and systems that they design, improve lives and benefit communities and the environment”. (Swinburne Online. DDD20004: Contemporary Design Issues. 2017).
It is the author’s belief that racism is one of the biggest social problem of our times. It is the root cause of global inequality, poverty, class disparity and social disharmony, both within nations and between nations. Furthermore, recent times have seen racism reemerge from the shadows and become more prevalent which needs to be combatted in new and innovative ways.
This essay will look at some of the design elements used to counteract or disassemble racism, generate change and improve lives for people of colour. In doing so, three recent projects by designers will be explored to help understand how design activism has responded to contemporary social problems and why the contributions of designers is important.
The first example looked at will be the Black Lives Matter campaign and how it uses powerful visual identity and branding to frame challenging issues. The second example will use the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ (which was not an uprising against racism, but against inequality and authoritarianism – which are closely linked to the first and third examples) to demonstrate how design activism can build capital and surpass national localities, while the third example will use a number of prominent US magazine covers to examine how an idea can spread and increase it’s reach by being featured in publications.
Before we start, we must first look at the definition of design activism. Thorpe (2011, p. 6) outlines four basic criteria to define design as activism. Firstly, it must publicly reveal or frame an option; secondly it must make a contentious call for change and thirdly, work on behalf of a neglected, excluded or disadvantaged group. Finally, it should disrupt routine practices or systems of authority.
Fuad-Luke (2009, p.27) states that “Design activism is ‘design thinking, imagination and practice applied knowingly or unknowingly to create a counter-narrative aimed at generating and balancing positive social, institutional, environmental and/or economic change’.
Some have argued that all good design is activism, however as Fuad-Luke points out, “activism is focused around contemporary social, environmental and political issues” (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p.27) and “some forms of social capital divide societies while other forms strengthen societies.”(Fuad-Luke, 2009, p.7). Furthermore, he suggests “that being an activist is part of a…desire to contribute to a greater societal good.” (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p.20), which is not a criterium that all designers would meet.
Thorpe (2011, p.1) takes a slightly differing position in which she claims that “activism can be progressive as well as regressive”. Indeed this is true, however regressive activism does not fit the criteria of contributing to a greater societal good. Some people might argue that all design is progressive, however, both Thorpe and Fuad-Luke agree that not all good design constitutes activism because whilst they may work towards improvements to daily life, they aren’t necessarily on behalf of a neglected or excluded group. For example, a designer developing billboards for McDonalds, who believes that their work is contributing to childhood obesity and capitalism would hardly be called a design activist.
All design elements can undoubtedly be applied appropriately to activist work. One design element in particular that has long been associated with social and political discourse is graphic design. (Fuad-Luke, 2009. p.18). Mollison and Holmgren (as cited in Fuad-Luke, 2009) says the voices of graphic designers regularly bubble up during times of social and political change. Fuad-Luke (2009, p.18) also points to the recent republishing of the First Things First manifesto as “an indication that graphic design still has a very central role to play in activism’s wider purpose”.
Design writer and editor, Diana Budds says “Visual emblems are the fuel of social justice movements”, noting examples of it’s use in the 60’s and 70’s by the antiwar movement and the Black Panthers, as well as a 2016 revival of an NAACP banner from the ’20s by artist Dread Scott as a symbol for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“While branding is typically more of a business strategy than a tool for grassroots activism, establishing a visual identity was crucial for Black Lives Matter” (Budds 2016).
Black Lives Matter (BLM) has become one of the most widespread social justice movements of this decade. BLM campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people and uses powerful visual identity and branding to frame these challenging issues. The wordmark can be seen on social media, on t-shirts worn by celebrities and sprawled across urban walls.
The logo (Figure 1) was created by the Design Action Collective, a studio that provides graphic design and web development services for activist, non-profit, and social justice organisations. Their website states “we aim to help build and strengthen progressive movements fighting for economic and social justice.” (Design Action Collective, 2017)
Design Action Collective graphic designer, Josh Warren-White (as cited in Budds 2016), says “It’s bold, strong, militant, and carries strength and tone. Being easily replicable was the main goal since we know within movements people don’t have budgets to do professional printers–they’re hand painting logos, and the level of skill to replicate a logo by hand varies. We wanted to make something that people could pick up and use in myriad ways.” The logo is freely available online.
Kaygan and Julier (2016, p. 238) declared that “while design activism is visibly a global movement, it is also responsive to local issues and challenges.” (p. 238).
In January 2011 during the Egyptian Arab Spring protests, an Arabic pamphlet titled “How to Revolt Intelligently” was circulated, a 26-page, roughly illustrated guide providing basic tactics for Egyptian demonstrators.
With similarities to BLM, the activism among the region’s artists and designers surpassed national localities. For example, the same graphic stencil, which spelled “revolt” in Arabic, spread from the streets of Cairo to the walls of Beirut. Graphics were also shared via social media and designers’ blogs. One such blog run by a collective in Syria has a collection of solidarity posters designed by the group online, to be freely downloaded. (Maasri as cited in Kaygan and Julier, 2016. p. 244)
When an idea spreads, by being featured in publications it has reach. (Thorpe 2015)
More recently, the covers of numerous magazines around the world (Figure 2) have criticised Donald Trump for his firebrand politics, racism, xenophobia and threats to liberty.
In the wake of Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists for a violent rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the killing of a counter-protestor, The Economist depicted Trump shouting through a Ku Klux Klan megaphone and uncharacteristically for the magazine, ran no cover line “because that image said it all and it didn’t need words,” according to Economist editor in chief Zanny Minton Beddoes (as cited in Holmes 2017).
In the same month, a New Yorker cover, titled “Blowhard”, presented Trump in a boat blowing wind into a sail shaped like a KKK hood, whilst Time’s cover, took a different approach with an image of a figure wearing jackboots, draped in the American flag, giving the Nazi salute.
These magazine covers constitute design activism by comparison to Thorpe’s four basic criteria. Both The Economist and the New Yorker have publicly framed the problem of Trump’s reluctance to condemn violent right-wing protestors in Charlottesville while Time has illustrated the challenging issue that is white supremacy disguised as patriotism.
All three make contentious calls for change in the way the US President addresses racism and how the American public respond to the rise of the so-called “alt-right”. They are all forms of action on behalf of neglected and disadvantaged groups (people of colour and migrants) and as a bold statement from these magazines, were aimed at disrupting routine practices.
The impact of design activism is acknowledged and promoted by the Danish government through the INDEX: Award which recognises projects that use “design to improve life”. Since it’s introduction in 2005, “design schools across the world have begun courses on sustainable and social design”. (Rawsthorn, 2015).
In conclusion, one would have to agree with Maasri (as cited in Kaygan and Julier, 2016. p. 244), when she said “The increased interest in design activism globally in recent years may bring positive changes to the field in general, however, there is the question of how transnational forms of activism in design may bring meaningful change to the communities they intend to serve. (p. 244).
The important thing however, is that designers remain active in social issues as no contribution can ever be discounted.
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