design activism

Design for what's right

July 2022

Design has a spectacular capacity for sparking social and environmental progress. Logos, digital posters and hand-painted signs can instantly become a symbol of a movement; be it social, environmental or political.

Over the years we’ve had the pleasure of watching many designers expand imaginations, encourage exploration and create space for real change in the world.

Iterations for obliterations

Designers are a special breed of human. Their brain is still 75% water, but there’s something special about its composition. They’re proactive, not reactive. Instead of asking “what is?”, they ask “what if?”. They befriend ambiguity and see beauty in chaos, a mindset which can lead to wonderful creations. Their eager eyes observe the world, sharply anticipating problems to then devise innovative solutions. When minds like these use visual communication for activism, it can have powerful effects on people’s beliefs and cultures as a whole. 

When we asked Maria (our Senior Designer) her thoughts, she told us “I can’t think of a better way to make social or political issues more digestible for the public than with good visual communication and design.  It’s a great way to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t get onboard with movements, and that’s the only way change can happen.” And we’ve seen this happen for decades. 

Power from the pencil to the people

Life isn’t always #000 and #fff so sometimes packaging, websites, book covers, posters, magazines, billboards and signs can step in and help people figure out what they stand for or inspire them to be part of a movement. 

An image such as the iconic clenched fist and the peace symbol can cause a rumble for change in your belly at just one look. Today’s symbol for peace was designed by Gerald Holtom in 1958 – using the semaphore signal alphabet, he drew a vertical line down the centre to represent the letter D and the diagonal lines on either side represent letter N. “N” and “D” stand for nuclear disarmament, both then encircled. 

peace symbol

Graphic designer and conceptual artist Barbara Kruger has a large appetite for fostering positive social change through her work. She engages viewers by placing poignant visuals under direct language for powerful communication. She successfully invites engagers to question social constructs with her.

Guerilla girls worked on a project to fight gender imbalance within museums (and society) and aptly christened it “The Male Graze”. These outrageous, bold works of this feminist art and design collective successfully began throwing institutional gender bias into stark relief.

Guerilla Girls

Art and design collective Gran Fury was born out of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). They used bold and clear type for ads that exposed the urgency of the AIDS crisis, which led to a movement which caused a necessary political response to the tragedy. 

Gran Fury

Multi-faceted and self-proclaimed “artist for the people'' Shephard Fairey initially opened the conversation for taking back control over public spaces with his iconic stickers and guerilla street art. His Obama portrait, for one, was adorned in patriotic US colours and successfully encouraged voter turnout. 

Shephard Fairey

“Designers – especially those who have a far-reaching personal platform or design for bigger brands – have a lot of power to communicate and share their values. We have to think about the present and future impact of everything we create and put out into the world, to try and help build a better one.” Maria’s food for thought left us hungry to think more about this.

Getting digital with it

It’s no secret that we spend a heap of time on the internet. As well as (probably) increasing the global need for glasses, it expands the vehicle for change that design can ride on. 

Digitally speaking, design activism is about using innovative design solutions to engage and inspire people to take action. Whether it’s using the internet to increase the reach of design campaigns such as Posterwar’s downloadable archive of over 80 designs to support Ukraine, or Google’s plea for sustainability in the form of Your Plan, Your Planet, it’s all about raising awareness in the most efficient way to date. Online. 

Google cleverly presents facts and tips with simple but smart animated illustrations. It’s a wonderful example of how visual communication can make crucial information digestible for the masses. 

The Posterwar project uses art to empower by allowing worldwide submissions and downloads to spread awareness and support. Changing the narrative of the war with art is their aim, and the perks of the internet help their good intentions multiply. 

Posterwar

In the digital world, a bold and beautiful design alone just won’t cut it. Coming up with new, engaging and innovative ways to promote interaction is where the power is. Using this interaction to tell a compelling story with a unique voice that can’t be ignored. 

Young shapers of the future

We’ve seen that if designers dare to use their powers for good, they’ll be met with a real opportunity to put design thinking at the heart of social transformation. 

With digital generations already showing up and bringing activism to their online home, we expect, and hope, for young designers to follow suit – taking the power of design activism even further into the digital world. 

Title illustration: Carmen Reina