2020 is a dumpster fire: Besides the global pandemic, people in the USA have suffered devastating hurricanes in the South, raging infernos in the West, and unemployment nationwide. Moreover, widespread outrage at the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police led to a vast citizen uprising of protests and riots. The murder prompted a new generation of graphic designers to raise their voices in protest for social justice, becoming part of a tradition stretching back to the 1960s, and even earlier.
All history is narrative; deciding how to shape and transmit that narrative is a huge part of its authenticity—and in the case of protest design, whether the narrative will change people’s hearts and minds enough to sway them to support the cause. Knowing the audience, and what strategies will generate a message that will reach them best, is a graphic designer’s most effective tool.
The role of the designer as documentarian is rarely journalistic or objective but is fueled by personal beliefs and passion. Writer Primo Levi, who described his experiences in concentration camps during the Holocaust with a calm, clear-eyed fury, felt the need to bear witness with such urgency that he compared himself to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, who ambushed guests on the way to a wedding feast to tell them of his misfortunes. Upon his liberation from the camps, Levi relentlessly told his story to everyone and anyone who would listen, almost like one possessed.
By taking part in protests, photographers and designers document firsthand what it was like, providing a valuable record to counter “official” versions that may serve a very different agenda, often political. The civil rights photographs of the 1960s—images of police turning dogs and fire hoses on unarmed protesters, teenager Elizabeth Eckford marching into her newly integrated high school through a crowd of hate-filled faces, activist Amelia Boynton Robinson lying unconscious on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama after a beating by cops during a freedom march—are worth far more than the proverbial 1,000 words. They say, simply: Here’s what I saw. You OK with this?
Not all protest groups have been as attuned to design as the Black Panthers, who understood the potential of a unified image campaign as a powerful tool. Thanks to Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture (and AIGA Medalist) Emory Douglas, one of the organization’s most effective weapons in its outreach to African Americans nationwide was its use of striking graphics. The bold artwork featured in The Black Panther newspaper, posters and flyers was guided by Douglas’ realization that potent images would speak loudest to members of poor communities with low literacy rates.
This approach also worked for the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, where the messages of the new Russia needed to be dispersed throughout a vast country with a largely illiterate population, and for American labor unions during the early to mid-20th century whose membership would best be reached by a blunt, immediately comprehensible message, often communicated via printed posters and leaflets. Today’s media-savvy designers know how to telegraph their message to a wide audience using this time-honored protest format as well as newer channels such as social media and self-published books and merchandise.
In 2013, Alicia Garza—a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter organization and co-creator of the BLM hashtag with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi—contacted Oakland-based studio Design Action Collective to create the Black Lives Matter logo. During this summer’s protests, the logo and slogan appeared on T-shirts, hats, posters, social media, signs and hand-held banners as well as on giant murals painted directly on streets, and on statues of Confederate figures. By including the built environment as part of their communication strategy, designers kept their message in front of people in a more permanent way and on a larger scale.
Andrea Hu and Jonai Gibson-Selix, students at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, participated in the city’s 14,000-person–strong BLM protests this past June. Though the students didn’t attend with the intention of generating a design project, they decided to use the images they shot that day to create a black-and-white photo essay book, Rise: Philadelphia. Thirty percent of funds generated by the book are donated to organizations fighting for Black lives and communities, and the first printing sold out within weeks.
“I’ve been living in the USA for six years now and picked up my camera right around 2016, when Trump got elected. Around that time there was a whole lot of craziness and I wanted to document things,” says Hu, who is Taiwanese-American. “With the BLM and George Floyd protests, I wanted to be there as an ally to show support. It was Jonai’s idea to create this book after the protest, because we had this feeling that it’s a historical moment, and so many outrageous things happened within one afternoon. It was like creating a time capsule.”
Gibson-Selix says, “I was there to support but also to document, photograph and capture that day, because Black history is often warped and it’s important for Black photographers, writers and any other artists to document. If Black people don’t tell their own stories, no one else is going to do it accurately.”
An individual may feel overwhelmed, even helpless, when confronting the enormity of systemic social woes such as racism, but each dot in the aerial photos of 2020’s BLM protests illustrates a person, and together they make up an army with a powerful, unified voice. The right to demand change through protest is alive and well, and designers continue to play a critical role in the conversation. As a democracy, we must be grateful.