Design activism: what good can graphic design do?


When we think of graphic design, we think of logos, of clients and deadlines, of money changing hands. When we think of activism, we think of marches, of inspiring speeches, of public demonstrations. Design and activism seem as though they couldn’t have less to do with one another. But in fact, design activism is a crucial factor in the advancement of social movements.

Illustration of two people holding up artwork protesting climate change
Design by OrangeCrush

Design is a universal language, one that relies on visuals and symbols, and as such, it carries the potential for viral messaging. This has enormous advantages when put towards something more meaningful than commercial advertising. Additionally, design is a tool, one that anyone can use, whether they are an individual person, a business, or an entire social cause.

Because its capacity to communicate is so powerful, the biggest danger with design activism is sending the wrong message. To communicate effectively, the messenger has to be fluid not only in the visual language of graphic design but the language of protest. To understand how to speak this language, we are going to look back through the storied history of design activism and its evolution onto the digital screens of today.

What is design activism?

Design activism is the use of visual communication for the purpose of promoting or rallying support for a humanitarian cause. Like traditional graphic design, it works by leveraging design elements and design principles to convey meaning through visuals. In this case, that meaning is geared towards a call to collective action.

Graphic design poster protesting climate change
By Bow’n’Pencil

Design activism is also a neutral term: the cause it supports can help or harm communities, and the line between protest art and propaganda art is a fine one. This is what makes design activism inevitable—social causes who do not use design, symbols and imagery in an intentional way can bet their opponents are.

The difference between “social impact design” and “design activism”

The terms “social impact design” and “design activism” are relatively new and often used interchangeably. While they do sometimes overlap, there is a subtle distinction in their goals.

Design for social impact seeks to create tangible change in a community through a design product. In other words, it recognizes that the primary function of design is to solve a problem and channels these efforts towards a humanitarian problem. As such, social impact design usually falls under digital design, industrial design, product design, architecture and urban planning, and the problems it addresses are often more specific and manageable. For example, Design that Matters created the Firefly, an affordable lamp designed to combat infant jaundice in South Asia and Africa.

Photo of a mother placing her baby in the Firefly lamp bed to combat jaundice
Firefly design by Design that Matters. Image via Core77

Design for activism seeks to increase public awareness of an issue, to send a message to the powerful and to rally activists under shared iconography. While social impact design involves the creation of tools and structures, design activism uses imagery to create a moving, emotional effect. Because it does not offer immediate solutions, the social problems it tackles can be larger and more overarching. Design activism typically falls under graphic design, in the form of posters, flyers, logos, color schemes and more. This is largely what we’ll be discussing in this article.

Design activism infographic about misogynistic violence
Design by janetatwork

Design activism can act as the precursor to social impact design, drumming up awareness of cause in order to support a solution. Some design functions both ways, using imagery to create awareness and to fundraise.

Design activism vs. brand activism: should businesses get involved?

Graphic design is often thought of as a function of business, involving the creation of logos, brand identities and marketing materials. This is not an unfair characterization: to be a professional designer is to earn a living making business assets for clients. At the same time, social causes need posters, unified imagery and sometimes even logos just as much as businesses. Graphic design can also be a personal practice, something an individual does to express themselves and advocate for the things they care about.

All of this is why it is worth making a distinction between design activism and brand activism—they are essentially the same thing, but brand activism comes from businesses. Although both are advocating for a humanitarian cause, you can’t help but consider the motives of profit and brand awareness underscoring brand activism. It doesn’t help when the brand is explicitly using protest to sell a product (remember that tone-deaf Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial?)

Illustration for Ben & Jerry’s Pecan Resist campaign
Ben & Jerry’s Pecan Resist campaign introduced a new ice-cream flavor to protest the Trump administration rollback on “racial and gender equity, climate change, LGBTQ rights, and refugee and immigrant rights.” The proceeds from this flavor were donated to charities supporting the aforementioned causes.

But staying out of the fray is complicated for businesses. Customers these days want to feel that the money they are spending is doing more than enriching shareholders. Research by Accenture Strategy that surveyed 30,000 people across 35 countries found that “62 percent of customers want companies to take a stand on current and broadly relevant issues.” What’s more, 47% will walk away if the brand takes a stand they disagree with or worse, no stand at all.

The good news is that brand activism is treated with much more skepticism when big corporations get involved. But when small businesses advocate for the issues they care about, they can partner with their local community in a more direct and personal way. For an in-depth look at how to make small business activism community-focused, check out San Jose clothing store Cukui’s campaign.

In either case, keep in mind that design, while useful for emotional impact, is not a substitute for meaningful action. Whether you’re a business or an individual, the trap of posturing, of using design activism to make yourself look good, is always there. But there are ways to avoid this.

  • Start with the right intentions. There are so many ways to use design to raise your personal profile and profits—this is not the time. Before you do anything, laser focus on the goal of helping other people.
  • Make the message clear. Even with the best intentions, confusion can breed unnecessary backlash.
  • Get outside opinions from diverse perspectives. Long before anything goes live, consult with members of the target community, at the very least. Many brands will partner with specific community advocacy groups for guidance throughout a campaign.
  • Plan for real impact. What is the actual outcome you want to have? While raising general awareness of an issue can be useful, it’s often better if viewers have an actionable takeaway—a specific protest to attend, the date for a crucial vote, a place to donate, or even a link to more in-depth information.
Infographic of health information on staying safe from COVID-19
Design by Axil Designs

With all that said, let’s get into what design activism actually looks like. How has it functioned in history and how has it evolved since then?

A brief history of design activism

While graphic design has existed in some form for centuries, it did not emerge as a formalized practice until the turn of the 20th century. Long before this, the political cartoon was setting the stage for design activism. Political cartoons use caricature and visual metaphors to satirize political figures and events. In so doing, they combine imagery and words to encapsulate an argument. In the past, they frequently appeared in newspapers, engaging with the common people in the same way graphic design would.

Political cartoons emerged in the 18th century revolutionary era, spurred on by the struggle for democracy and the free press in both America and France. Organized rebellion made it easier to publicly criticize those in power whereas this would have spelled treason in the past. At first, political cartoons were largely imagistic and aimed toward exaggerated comedy, as in this example by James Gillray, often considered the father of the political cartoon.

Political cartoon of 18th century imperialists slicing up the globe like a dinner ham
By James Gillray, via Wikimedia Commons

By the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, political cartoons became less about oversized heads, infantilized congressmen and punchlines. The effect of “The Awakening” by Henry Mayer, printed in a political cartoon magazine in 1915, is much less comedic and much more geared towards inspiration and empowerment. The newborn industry of graphic design has had a clear influence here: the image could easily pass for a poster or banner, and the text “Votes for Women” is artfully incorporated into the composition.

Political cartoon of the statue of liberty walking across America in support of women’s suffrage
By Henry Mayer, via Wikimedia Commons

Design activism jumped from the realm of cartoon to graphic design most notably during the labor movement. Given the goal of rousing workers to join unions and/or strikes against unjust working conditions, the imagery had to do more than ridicule those in power: it had to rally people to action. This Industrial Workers of the World poster combined the now iconic pose of a worker with a raised arm with headline calls to action. Years later, the same tactic would be used by a company to inspire the workforce in World War II: the famous “Rosie the Riveter” poster.

Emory Douglas protest art showing armed Black Panther Party members
By Emory Douglas, via The New York Times

By the latter half of the century, design activism had become a common practice. During the Civil Rights Movement, artist Emory Douglas established the visual identity of the Black Panther Party through powerful protest art.

Keith Haring protest art advocating for AIDS awareness
By Keith Haring, via The Guardian

During the Vietnam War, the Committee to Unsell the War published a poster that subverted the traditional US military recruiting image, showing a battered Uncle Sam over the words “I Want Out.” In the 80s, in a time when the US government barely wanted to acknowledge the AIDS pandemic, Kieth Haring used pop art posters to give queer communities a voice.

One of the most famous examples of protest art is a 1990 mural on the Berlin Wall by Dmitri Vrubel, which shows Soviet politician Leonid Brezhnev kissing East German communist Erich Honecker above the phrase “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love” in both German and Russian.

Wang Guangyi ‘Political Pop’ artwork showing people rallying under a Coca Cola logo
By Wang Guangyi via Phillips

In the late 90s in China, Wang Guangyi merged the style of Cultural Revolution propaganda with Pop Art techniques, corporate logos and Chinese numerical barcodes, showing how the ideals of revolution had succumbed to commericalist greed. Over time, pop culture became an increasingly accessible way to express political ideas in art, as seen in this recent graffiti by Cacerolo Art showing King Felipe VI of Spain welcoming refugees with a Joker smile.

One thing is clear: over the last century, nearly every social cause has been accompanied by iconic imagery focused on inspiring change. That is because images have power—they cut through arguments and entrenched beliefs better than words ever can. And when powerful imagery is combined with powerful words, you get the best of both worlds: design activism.

Design activism in the modern day

Design activism is just as prevalent today. Not only are there still problems to solve, but designers also want to be a part of the solution. Our 2022 Design without Borders survey found that “Designers are looking for purpose, not just a paycheck. From healthcare and climate change to racial injustice, 97% of freelancers believe creatives have the power to make a real social impact. And with brand activism on the rise, 85% feel it’s important to work for clients who share their values.”

So how can designers tap into the legacy of design activism for the problems facing their communities today? Although the goals of design activism remain the same, a lot has changed since the Progressive Era. Between digital technology, evolving design conventions and new audience tastes, there are new challenges to consider in order to create pieces that resonate as strongly as they did a century ago. Let’s go over how all of this manifests into design activism today.

Social media and design activism

One of the most obvious ways that the design landscape has changed is the rise of social media. Just like how the newspaper created a mainstream vehicle for political cartoons, social media makes sharing viral images with exponential numbers of people easier than ever.

Red version of HRC logo that went viral
Red version of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) logo via HRC

LGBTQ+ nonprofit the Human Rights Campaign demonstrated the impact social media can have on design with their logo. In 2013, while the US Supreme Court was hearing two gay marriage cases, the HRC invited followers to update their profile pictures to a red version of the logo (red being the color of love). The internet responded, with Facebook recording a 120 percent increase in profile picture updates. At the time, this created crucial visibility, with many people suddenly realizing how many of their friends and family were in support of gay marriage. And due to viral campaigns like these, the HRC logo has become more than a logo, it has become a commonplace symbol for LGBTQ+ equality.

On the visual front, one of the side effects of social media is the downsizing of design. Unlike in the past, protest art does not have to be an elaborate illustration or poster—it can be quick, shareable imagery made to be viewed on a small screen. This falls in line with more recent minimalist logo trends and the benefit is the overall simplicity of the message. Because there are fewer elements to work with, symbolism and visual metaphor in making a singular image easily understood.

Logo design for a political podcast
Design by J.K. Brands

How the tone has shifted

Despite its comedic roots, design activism often took on a serious tone in the past. That’s because the subject matter was serious. But the tone is actually less about the subject matter itself and more about the feelings the design is meant to inspire. If what you are going for is outrage at injustice, a serious tone makes sense. Any other will come across as trivializing the issue. Likewise, if you want to inspire solidarity, an uplifting tone can feel empowering.

One tone that often crops up in design activism today is that of affirmation. This is like empowerment, but it is more focused on normalizing the representation of a minority identity. People don’t always want their identity tied to a “struggle” when it can also be a source of happiness. This is why affirmational designs can get away with being cute and wholesome—their only goal is to inspire joy rather than sobering dread at injustice. Some might debate whether designs like these count as activism, but when society tries to make you miserable, happiness can be a radical act.

Illustration of a diverse group of women celebrating
Design by Fe Melo

And just like in the past, comedy remains an important way to get messages across. Outrage, tempting as it is in the face of injustice, can come across as imperious or scolding, which isn’t always helpful in winning friends. Comedy on the other hand is inviting: you like people who make you laugh, even if you disagree with them. This approach can backfire if applied without care—you don’t want to imply that a humanitarian issue is a joke, which is why it is worth getting feedback on a humorous message before delivering it to a wide audience. You can also learn from the strategies of political cartoons: their targets were the enablers of a situation, not the situation itself.

Likewise, the designs pictured here used humor to illustrate social distancing practices during the onset of COVID, and this subtly poked fun at those who refused to follow such obviously simple guidelines.

The rise of hand-lettering

While signage and typographic style are nothing new, hand-lettering has exploded as a graphic design niche within the last decade or so. Hand-lettering involves the creative use of decorative custom letters that stand alone in an artful composition. Likely, it is social media that has spurred popularity, the artful messages instantly shareable.

Whatever the reason for its resurgence, hand-lettering fits right in with design activism, where protest slogans and calls to action can make a powerful statement all on their own. Because hand-lettering is made to be decorative, it can be a challenge to hold back ornamentation in support of a serious tone. A stark message can make a big impact through a stark, almost plain lettering, prioritizing the message over the artist’s talents. At the same time, beauty can support visual irony, contrasting the ugly reality of the message with supremely decorative letters.

References to the past

Design activism is at its best when it creates a symbol, a visual reference repeated so often that its meaning becomes common knowledge. As a result of design activism’s long history, there are already a number of symbols designers can reference in their work. Some familiar examples are the raised fists of labor strikers, the pointing finger of Uncle Sam, or an altogether different pointing finger from Ai Weiwei.

Negative symbols can sometimes have their meaning subverted when applied to a different context, turning propaganda on its head. A famous example is a way queer people reclaimed the pink triangle as a symbol of solidarity after it was used by the Nazis to mark them for concentration camps. Alternatively, reaffirming more positive, well-known symbols connects the activism of today with that of days past, a recognition that our progress and ability to carry on the fight is built on the struggles of those who came before.

Design activism is for the people

Activism and imagery go hand in hand. Imagery can succinctly encapsulate a humanitarian cause, showing the need for change rather than telling. Not only do images have a positive impact at the moment, but they also immortalize the movement, preserving it for future generations. For those of us who did not live through certain eras, we remember the photos of protestors being hosed and arrested, the signs reading “I am a man,” and the image of a lone figure standing in the way of tanks.

Design activism organizes these images with intention, pairing them with impactful words, beautiful art and a call to action. While design alone cannot fight our battles for us, it can create a visual statement that is hard to ignore and impossible to forget.

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