On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. This act of defiance helped trigger the modern civil rights movement, and the iconic photograph of Parks sharing a bus with a white man will forever be part of our cultural memory. However, this photograph was not taken on December 1, 1955. It was, in fact, a staged photo op taken one year later. The bus in the photograph was not the same bus in which Parks made her stand, nor was the white man in the photograph the white man who told Parks to vacate her seat.
“[Leaders of] the civil rights movement were masters of the design process,” says Stephen Duncombe, co-director for the Center of Artistic Activism in New York City. “It wasn’t that this everyday racism wasn’t the reality, but it was a reality most people didn’t see. The civil rights movement utilized aesthetic vision and the design process to take what was invisible and make it visible. They had to think in terms of stories that could be captured in one picture.”
What Duncombe is describing is design activism in a nutshell. Also referred to as socially conscious design or graphic intervention, design activism harnesses the power of visual communication to address civic and societal problems and mobilize social change.
The practice of design activism is nothing new, as art has always functioned as a vehicle for protest, but the 20th century saw it implemented on a much larger scale. The European art movement known as Dadaism, for example, utilized anti-aestheticism to protest the bourgeoisie status quo of the early 1900s. The Visual AIDS Artistic Caucus created the Red Ribbon Project in 1991 to raise AIDS awareness and provide a symbol of solidarity. The graffitist Banksy has been creating satirical, anti-establishment street art since the early 1990s.
“Every protest that’s created is actually a design process,” says Duncombe. “Good activists are always thinking in terms of design and aesthetics.”
In recent years, graphic design in particular has become a major component of the design activist’s toolkit. Powerful, user-friendly design software is now easily accessible to anyone with a computer, and social media can disseminate the medium to large audiences at warp-speed. Graphic design has actually made it possible to engage in design activism from the comfort of your own home.
“Nowadays there can be no excuse for creating a lousy pamphlet or lousy poster,” says Duncombe, “because with a little bit of work and some talent, Kinkos can be printing you out beautiful 8-foot by 20-foot banners.”
Duncombe cites 2014’s People’s Climate March as an example of how technology’s influence on graphic design has professionalized the graphics of activism.
“You can see that the look of the march looks different than marches from 20 years ago. People had banners which were easy to read, that could be seen from large distances, that were captured well on film.”
Melanie Cervantes is a prolific design activist and co-founder of Dignidad Rebelde, a socially conscious graphic arts collaboration. The group produces volumes of eye-popping posters and graphics, many of which are created for mass reproduction. Cervantes acknowledges that this operation would prove much more difficult if the graphic design tools were not so advanced.
“We create a ton of work, and I just think it would have been very, very different if we didn’t have access to the technologies that we use: our computers, having scanners, the [Adobe] Creative Suite.”
Cervantes is in awe when she thinks back to how things used to be done. “I start asking people how they did it back then, and they start showing examples of using vellum or tracing paper and colored pencils and tracing over a full layer of an image. That’s how they were switching out color, and I’m like, that’s so time-intensive.”
Much of Cervantes’ work has been subject to the instantaneous dissemination and decentralization afforded by our digital age. Without her knowledge, her pieces have popped up across the world as graffiti stencils, in newspapers, or in the office of someone she’s never met, in a place she’s never been. After watching footage of Tunisian riots in 2011, Cervantes was inspired to create a poster that showed solidarity with Egypt. When the piece was finished, she posted it on her website as a PDF. Then she went to bed. Within twenty four hours, activists in Bangkok and Thailand had printed the PDF as large format posters and taken them to protest outside the Egyptian embassy.
“This happened while I was sleeping,” Cervantes says.
Design activism is more accessible, and in light of Cervantes’ experience, more distributable, than ever, but many of its principles still remain the same. Duncombe argues that even though the Internet has enabled activists to reach more people, design activism should still be done at a local level. The key is to identify the signs, symbols, and aesthetic forms that resonate with your particular environment. What works in Portland might not work in Houston. What fails in Cleveland might succeed in Tallahassee.
Duncombe also stresses that designers should not allow themselves to be sidelined to a mere poster making role. Instead, designers should do their best to actively participate in the activism process.
“There’s a tendency for activists to say, ‘Well we’ve figured out the campaign, now we just need a nice poster.’ I think that actually limits the creative potential of having the designer be part of the activism process.”
Furthermore, an effective campaign must establish clearly defined outcomes, says Duncombe. “Oftentimes people will say they want their activism project to raise awareness about an issue … well what good is people’s awareness being raised? You can do so much more. Once you’ve raised their awareness, then maybe you can get them interested. Interest is different than awareness. And after you’ve gotten them interested, you can suggest something for those people to do.”
Graphic design is a relatively new trend in the storied tenure of design activism, but it’s already evolved to the point where some design activists have been able to turn their passion into a sustainable career. Design activist Noah Scalin is one such forerunner, and has been involved in the design activism community long enough to have seen it change firsthand.
“Design activism has gone from being more of a fringe movement to being almost mainstream,” says Scalin. “Once the computer became big it leveled the playing field. Now anyone can do it and make it look great. You have the opportunity to make an impact like you never could have before.”
Scalin is the co-author of “The Design Activist’s Handbook” and the founder of the socially conscious design firm Another Limited Rebellion. He has also helmed many socially conscious design projects, including Plant The Piece, which addressed gun violence while advocating for agricultural development.
“Design activism offers you the opportunity to align your work with your beliefs,” says Scalin. “Using our skills, we can help voices which are not being heard, get heard.”
With the recent push for green living and sustainable development, design activists have more opportunity than ever to make an impact. Not long ago, Another Limited Rebellion was hired by a dating service company. The company was not particularly eco-conscious, and had no immediate interest in going green, but through Scalin’s reputation as a design activist, and his obvious passion for environmental ethics, he was able to convince the company to adopt more eco-friendly business practices.
Scalin envisions a society where “every business is a socially conscious business. Where every designer does good. Where it’s just a given.”