Contemporary Communication Design Activism – Issue Essay 3.2

“‘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.


Figure1. Black Lives Matter Logo.

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.


Figure 2. Trump Magazine Covers.

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.



Fuad-Luke, A. (2009). Design activism: Beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world. London & Sterlin, Virginia, US: Earthscan.


Budds, D. (2016, September 14). Black Lives Matter The Brand: A social movement is not a corporation. Do the same branding rules apply? Retrieved September 02, 2017, from

Grove, L (2017, August 18). The Cartoonists Who Made Trump a KKK Cover Star. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from

Hilton, N. (2017, August 19). A Visual History of Trump Magazine Covers (Extended Edition). Extra News Feed. Retrieved from

Holmes, O. (2017, August18), New Yorker and Economist covers slam Trump’s defence of white supremacists. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Kagyun, H. & Julier, G. (2013). Global Design Activism Survey, Design and Culture, 5, 2, 237-252.

Roberts, L. (2006). Good: Ethics of Graphic Design. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing. (Philosophy – an Interview with Anthony Grayling). Retrieved from

Rawsthorn, A. (2013, July 15). Expanding the Definitions of Design. New York Times. Retrieved from

Rawsthorn, A. (2015, August 28). INDEX: Design Award Aims to Solve the World’s Problems, a Few at a Time. New York Times. Retrieved from

Thorpe, A. (2011). Defining design as activism. Design Activism. Retrieved from

Thorpe, A. (2014). “Design Activism: To Generate or To Resist?” Current (no 5). Retrieved from


Design Action Collective. (2016). Retrieved September 02, 2017, from


Black Lives Matter [image]. (2016). Retrieved from

Trump Covers [image]. (2017) Retrieved from



Response 6: Reflections

1. What was the most interesting weekly topic we covered in this subject this semester and why? Would you say that this was the topic about which you learned the most, or was that another week? Please explain your view.

The topic that I found most interesting in this subject this semester was Design Activism. Activism is something I was already passionate about so this topic spoke directly to me and I hope to contribute further to activism through my designs in the future. This is also the topic about which I learned the most. There are many different approaches to design activism that I was not aware of.

2. Which set text or weekly reading did you find most interesting in this unit? Can you see yourself seeking out more of the author/s work or by other authors on the topic?

I found Anne Thorpe’s ‘Defining Design As Activism’ to be the most interesting set text in this unit. I have already been seeking out more work on this topic by Thorpe and other authors.
I also enjoyed reading ‘Product attachment: Design strategies to stimulate the emotional bonding to products’, as I could personally identify with product attachment.

3. Which response/task did you enjoy the most? Which response/task was the most useful in building your academic skills?

The most enjoyable task was Task 3 on Michel Gondry, mostly due to the entertaining videos.
Response 3: Journal Research to be the most useful in building my academic skills as it involved sourcing reliable material and a critical analysis of the author’s arguments. Response 1: First things first manifesto 2000 and ‘Ten footnotes to a manifesto’ was also useful as I got a chance to practise demonstrating my own view point.

20th Century Type: Proposal



Mood Board:

1930s mood board

3 Aspects (in order of hierarchy):

  1. Times New Roman
  2. Stanley Morison
  3. Linotype & Monotype hot metal machines






Made with Photoshop



Made with Illustrator


Layout Practise:


Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 6.21.35 pm

 Information Sourced From:

Butterick, M (n.d.), A Brief History Of Times New Roman, Typography For Lawyers, viewed 5 September 2017, <;.

Joshi, T (2017), ‘Stanley Morison’, Alchetron, viewed 12 September 2017, <>.

Mann, M 2014, ‘Where Did Times New Roman Come From?’, New York Public Library, 9 December, viewed 5 September 2017, <;.

Type Gallery – Times 2017, Font of the Week, Linotype, viewed 5 September 2017, <;.

Image References:

‘Monotype Caster’ [image] 2010, Monotype Imaging, Wikipedia, viewed 5 September 2017,<;.

Rothenstein, R 1923, ‘Morison’ [image], Stanley Morison, Wikipedia, viewed 5 September 2017, <;.

Stephen Nolan, ‘TimesNew Roman Poster’ [image], in Stephen Nolan’s Type Specimen, Pinterest, viewed 6 September 2017, <;.

‘Times New Roman’ [image], Times New Roman, Wikipedia, viewed 5 September 2017, <;.

Response 5: Letter arguing for funds

Dear Mr. Faux,

I am writing to you on behalf of Acme Charities to request funds for research and implementation of our latest initiative.

As the pace of change in the world increases, so too does the gap between the have and have-nots. Did you know that currently, only 16% of the world’s population have access to the most basic computing technologies? This is of course, largely due to the high cost of today’s technology.

Acme Charities aims to address this with our 50×15 initiative – an effort to develop new technology and solutions that will deliver affordable internet access and computing capabilities to 50 percent of the world’s population by the year 2015. To help achieve this goal, AMD have designed the Personal Internet Communicator (PIC), a device that allows users to access the Internet, create documents using a word processor and spreadsheet tools, view pictures and video, send and receive e-mail, and play games at an affordable price. The PIC opens up a new world of communication, recreation, and education.

Without access to the internet, many communities are missing out on the benefits and opportunities that computers and the internet provides. With the PIC, these communities could gain the ability to empower themselves in many ways. Separated families could regain contact; remote communities could gain much needed access to medical and legal information and receive fast and accurate health and disaster warnings or announcements; people could start their own businesses or sell their handcrafted wares online, giving them the opportunity to provide for their families; farmers would gain more accurate weather forecasts and be able to learn about new farming techniques; children could access the education they need to survive in the world of tomorrow. In places were education is in dire need, the PIC can not only motivate children but also gives them the opportunity to develop computing skills, access the knowledge of the internet and obtain a passion and ability for learning.

If you would like to know more about AMD’s 50×15 initiative, please don’t hesitate to give me a call on the number provided below. I would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.

Sincerely yours,

Cade Newell.



AMD Personal Internet Communicator (PIC) – Specification. (2007). Retrieved 5 September 2017, from

Culatt, R. (2011). AMD Personal Internet Communicator (PIC). Retrieved 5 September 2017, from

oldadmin (2012). AMD Personal Internet Communicator. Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. 5 January. Retrieved 5 September 2017, from

Rupley, S. AMD: Aiming to Seed Global Net Access. PC Mag. 21 October. Retrieved 5 September 2017, from,2817,1681601,00.asp

Response 4: Communication design activism (Option 2)


Fuad-Luke, A. (2009). Design activism: Beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world. London & Sterlin, Virginia, US: Earthscan.

Lenskjold, T. U., Olander, S., & Halse, J. (2015). Minor Design Activism: Prompting Change from Within. Design Issues, 31(4), 67-78. doi:10.1162/DESI_a_00352

Thorpe, A. (2012). Architecture & design versus consumerism : how design activism confronts growth. Ch5. (pp.128-129). Retrieved from

Journal and online articles 

Budds, D. (2016). Black Lives Matter The Brand: A social movement is not a corporation. Do the same branding rules apply? Retrieved September 02, 2017, from

Clarke, A.J. (2015). Actions Speak Louder, Design and Culture, 5(2), 151-168. doi:

Fallan, K. (2011). “The ‘Designer’–The 11th Plague”: Design Discourse from Consumer Activism to Environmentalism in 1960s Norway, Design Issues, 27(4), 30-42. Retrieved from

Kagyun, H. & Julier, G. (2013). Global Design Activism Survey, Design and Culture, 5(2), 237-252. doi:

Notre Dame News. (2012, May 17). Notre Dame Design Students Bring South Africa together+ to Fight Xenophobia, University of Notre Dame. Retrieved from

Rawsthorn, A. (2013, July 15). Expanding the Definitions of Design. New York Times. Retrieved from

Rawsthorn, A. (2015, August 28). INDEX: Design Award Aims to Solve the World’s Problems, a Few at a Time. New York Times. Retrieved from

Roberts, L. (2006). Good: Ethics of Graphic Design. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing.

Thorpe, A. (2011). Defining design as activism. Design Activism. Retrieved from


Center for the Study of Political Graphics. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Design Action Collective. (n.d.). Retrieved September 02, 2017, from

Design Indaba.

Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (2016). Retrieved July 29, 2017, from

Task 3: Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry’s is a talented film maker and a master of in-camera effects and trick staging.

As explained by Elizabeth Ezra in her book, Georges Méliès : the birth of the auteur, many of these effects used by Gondry were achieved earlier in film by Georges Méliès. Here, I will touch on just a handful of examples by comparing some of the techniques used by Gondry in Bjork’s Human Behaviour music video to the earlier works of Méliès.

In A ta conquete du Pole, Méliès created a tracking effect by placing an object on rails and moving upward toward the stationary camera in a matte shot to give the impression of a person falling from a hot air balloon. In the music video for Bjork’s “Human Behaviour”, Gondry creates a similar tracking effect when a seated Bjork glides backwards through the forrest and again when she falls from a tree.

A matte shot techniques is used in scenes which appear to be showing Bjork’s thoughts. One has Bjork slouched over a table while an image of the bear in the forrest hovers overhead and then transitions with a dissolve. Méliès also employed the matte shot technique, with one his earliest uses of it being in Le Portrait mysterieux/The Mysterious Portrait (1899). Méliès first used the dissolve technique was in 1899 Cenarillon.

This same video also heavily features hand made props, sets and models for the moon, Earth, forrest, cabin background scenery and more. Méliès used model shots in several films, including Eruption volcanique Ii la Martinique/The Eruption of Mount Pelée (1902), Le Raid Paris-Monte Carlo en deux heures/An Adventurous Automobile Trip (1905) and Le Voyage a travers I’impossible/The Impossible Voyage (1904).








There is also evidence of stop motion filming or substitution splicing as well as sequence editing for the moth scenes. Méliès used a replication effect (which he himself called a ‘super­ position’) in films such as Le Melomane/The Melomaniac (1903) and The Haunted Castle (1896). (Ezra 2000). Méliès also used overlapping editing, in Voyage dans la lune, Le Voyage Ii travers l’impossible and A la conquete du Pole/Conquest of the Pole (1912). (Ezra 2000).


BjorkTv (2010). Bjork – Human behaviour (official music video). Retrieved from

Ezra, E (2000). Georges Méliès : the birth of the auteur. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Retrieved from

Méliès, G. (Director) (1896). The Haunted Castle. Retrieved from

Méliès, G. (Director) (1902) Eruption volcanique Ii la Martinique/The Eruption of Mount Pelé. Retrieved from