Projecting the Future of Graphic Design in Activism

Visual communication is important to activism. Art has a well-documented history in activist spaces, but the role of graphic design is more complicated. This essay explores the role of graphic design in activism; considers the social, political, and professional responsibilities of designers; and suggests how design and activism should engage with technology in the future to be affective.


When examining the relationship between graphic design and activism, it is important to first establish operating definitions of “political” and “activist.” Tommaso Speretta’s framework in Rebels Rebel distinguishes political in that it represents a viewpoint without offering solutions, opposed to activist, which takes a critical stance, questioning representation and power structures in order to incite change.1 “Activist art,” he claims, “is generally the result of a collectively produced shared awareness and political analysis of specific issues.”2 For instance, during the Aids Crisis in the 1980s, artists became activists “by approaching art and communication as critical tools capable of instigating changes in cultural norms and opening up public discussion, they explicitly invoked the responsibilities and duties of citizens in a democratic society.”3

The concept of design taking a critical position is not a new one, but is a contemporary topic within the discipline and a goal in practice. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby further distinguish affirmative design from critical design; the former encompasses most graphic design and reinforces the status quo, conforming to expectations across multiple dimensions: cultural, social, technical, and economic.4 Critical design, however, rejects the idea of the current condition as the only viable possibility, ultimately critiquing the status quo through graphic expressions of alternative values; its “purpose is to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry, and the public about the aesthetic quality of our electronically mediated existence.”5

Locating Design in Activism

Where and how does design factor into activist movements? Posters, banners, and other visual elements have played an important role in activism throughout history, and sociopolitical context often informs tactics. “[The poster] is very much alive, in many sizes, scribbled or printed, electronic and aided by mobile technology, and still performing its most important role as impactful and immediate carrier of politics expression.”6 During the 1980s, collectives like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Silence = Death borrowed strategies from advertising to bring attention to the U.S. Government’s poor response in crisis. Occupy Wall Street’s “reinvention of art as direct action, collective affect, and political subjectivization embedded in radical movements working to reconstruct the commons in the face of both localized injustices and systemic crises that characterize the contemporary capitalist order.”7

One Toronto-based designer says that while art is important in leftist spaces, design is appreciated because of its clarifying function:
︎ Designers are taught to think strategically, especially about how a brand can roll out across different platforms, and to be aware of the necessity of cohesion. Protest is broken, and we need to find new forms of dissent and new ways of leveraging the power that we have as citizens…As designers, we have this power to clarify information. To spread information as equitably as possible, to galvanize people emotionally around and issue. To frame things from a different perspective, to really make people think. ︎

Another Canadian designer expressed a similar opinion on design’s role in strategic branding for activist groups:
︎ You can see that in some of the movements, there’s a strong sort of brand, which is good in its own way if you’re trying to give people tools to quickly throw stuff on social media without having to make their own thing from scratch. Or if you want to present the idea of tens of thousands of people united with a common message. There’s strength in having that clear design. On the other hand, there might be movements where it’s appropriate to have more chaos and disorganization represented, to show that ‘Hey, we don’t all agree, we’re not all asking for the same thing, we come from many different walks of life.’ That might have its own value, depending on the strategy. ︎

Occupy employed branding principles in areas of their activism, including their occupation of Duarte Square in 2011. Screen printed banners designed by Not An Alternative read “OCCUPY WALL ST” in an all caps, uniform, sans serif font in black against a yellow background. The black and yellow combination, along with a “series of equally spaced diagonal dashes” along the border of the banner, “evoked the visual language of official forms of signage—such as the injunction ‘Do Not Cross’—used to partition and police the use of space in situations ranging from crime scenes to construction zones.”8 Such construction aesthetics were adopted by others in the wider movement and such visual cues were understood by the public: “yellow-and-black occupation equipment—banners, pavilions, tape, and later, tents—provided a kind of visual and tactical thread traversing the national network, linking far-flung locations in a map of both dispossession and resistance.”9

Three-Dimensional Responsibility

Artists and collectives have shed light on “artists’ responsibilities to engage with society’s contradictions by way of an open debate on the role of art and its capacity to be intelligent, rebellious, subversive, and socially dynamic.”10 Designers can explore the relationship between the individual, society, and the state through their work in various ways, but do designers have activist responsibilities?

1    As Citizens
“We cannot afford to be passive anymore. Designers must be good citizens and participate in the shaping of our government and society. As designers, we could use our particular talents and skills to encourage others to wake up and participate as well.”11 “Citizens have activist responsibilities, and designers are citizens,” says Designer A, “a citizen is as important as being a designer.”12

In Citizen Designer, Anne Bush defines responsibility:
︎ Responsibility is the ability to respond. It is not just the willingness to act, but also the ability to understand one’s actions, the context in which they are applied and the widest range of implications for their reception and potential reinterpretation. ︎ 

2    Within the Discipline
To teach responsibility, according to Anne Bush, is “to teach critical awareness of the entire communicative act, not just an awareness of one’s own contribution. When we teach critical understanding, when we investigate our own positions as well as the contexts of specific social situations, we encourage accountability.”14

During school, designers are often taught modernist principles of abstraction and to think of design as a value neutral process, but “all design is ideological, the design process is informed by values based on a specific world view, or way of seeing and understanding reality.”15 Katherine McCoy spoke on this topic in a 2001 interview:
︎ Design education most often trains students to think of themselves as passive arbitrators of the message between the client/sender and audience/ receiver rather than as advocates of the message content or the audience. Here is the challenge: how to achieve the objectivity and consistency of professionalism without stripping oneself of personal convictions.16 ︎ 

Bush criticizes the discipline further:
︎ As long as the design profession continues to celebrate the designer-as- author, it continues to hold onto the means of production. It maintains a sense of control, and in a discipline whose professional identity is increasingly threatened by the democratizing effects of new technology, control is security. Yet such security is an illusion. Instances of miscommunication continually remind its that visual communication is a collaborative process. More important, it is this dialogic process that that defines visual communication as a social activity. To teach social responsibility then, is in part to foster an understanding of usual communication as an exchange and to understand that such exchanges are never entirely predictable or neat.17 ︎

Design has a social role and consequences, one of the most crucial being design’s ability to facilitate communication. Bush emphasizes that designers must “understand how messages function—that they are completed by readers who bring their own expectations and interpretive practices into the exchange.”18 Limited exposure to perspectives outside of their own and privilege can cause people to be willfully ignorant, “Those in power insist that media, computer communications, and the global economy have already created a single borderless world community…[creating] the illusion of immediacy, simultaneity, and sameness, this numbing our political will and homogenizing our identities.”19

Ruben Pater’s The Politics of Design aims to share these experiences, teaching critical awareness and understanding, and forcing designers to confront biases and “examine them, trying to prevent others from making the same mistakes.”20 Furthermore, Pater acknowledges that the information in the book at the time of publishing is not comprehensive, nor is the printed version entirely accessible, so some of the content is available online in blog form at

Montreal-based Designer C argues that while design has operated in many ways historically, the current social organization grounds “graphic design” in commercial activity: It’s problematic that designers are limited in the scope of what they think they could do. The most visible aspects of graphic design are in a commercial context, at least within the broader idea of a capitalist model of society. Whether design is successful is whether it sells, or wins awards. Also when entering the disciple, you work in terms of advertising, it’s seen as a commercial activity or commercial art, and that’s limiting.

It’s a hyperbolic comparison, but if designers were doctors and the only career opportunity you would have is as a plastic surgeon. There’s a narrow definition of what design could be, when it could be so much broader. Once you broaden it, there’s a social role that design could play. And this is based in my own understanding of the world, but activist work is part of that.21

Thomas Gokey argues that a critical attitude is not enough, “The real task, and our real creative work, is to find new ways of cooperating with each other based on different values. It’s not enough to analyze and critique systems of oppression, or just to say ‘No!’ We need an affirmation to be paired with this negation. We need to start articulating and building the alternative way of living and being what we want.”22

3    In Practice
When designers engage with politics to the extent that their work becomes critical, they can become activists in practice. However, one can engage in many ways. This section collects responses from interviews with a variety of Canadian designers about their work in relation to political awareness and activism.

1     Tomasso Speretta, Rebels Rebel: Aids, Art and Activism in New York, 1979-1989, 2014, 9.
2     Speretta, 8
3     Speretta, 13
4     Magnus Ericson and Ramia Mazé, eds, Design Act: Socially and politically engaged design today—critical roles and emerging tactics, 2011, 26
5     Ericson and Mazé, 29
6     Liz McQuiston, Visual Impact: Creative Dissent in the 21st Century, 2015, 10
7     Yates McKee, Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition, 2016, Ebook, 19
8     McKee, 177
9     McKee, 200
10   Speretta, 13
11    Heller and Vienne, 2
12   Designer A in discussion with the author, March 2018
13   Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne, eds, Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, 2003, 30
14   Heller and Vienne, 31
15   Ericsson and Mazé, 28
16   Heller and Vienne, 4
17   Heller and Vienne, 26
18   Heller and Vienne, 26
19   Guillermo Gómez-Peña, “The Free Art Agreement/El Tratado de Libre Cultura” in Carol Becker, ed. The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility, 1994, 215
20  Ruben Pater, The Politics of Design: A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication, 2016, 2
21   Designer C in discussion with the author, March 2018