Activism Beyond Words

Field NotesStress

A quick note about this section

The creative process is one of constant discovery. You’re always looking for new ways of seeing, thinking and doing. Along the way, some things stand out and we put them in our Field Notes. This is a collection of ideas, places, people and things that we’ve found that we think are worth sharing and that all loosely fit within the theme of the issue.

Designing a social movement

Written by
Paul Kawai

On July 7, 2016, Wieden+Kennedy, one of the largest independently owned advertising agencies in the world, took their entire website down and replaced it with a single black page. The black page had white text, which began as follows:

Why your black co-worker seems especially bitter today… Why your black co-worker seem especially sad today… Why your black co-worker seems especially quiet today…

We are processing.

We are asking ourselves what to do.

The message, signed off with #blacklivesmatter, was posted a day after the death of Alton Sterling at the hands of police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and just hours before the death of Philando Castile and the shootings of police at a protest in Dallas, Texas, later that evening.

Two days later, artist Dread Scott designed and erected a banner outside the Jack Shainman Gallery in Manhattan that read A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, referencing a similar banner that waved over 69th Avenue in 1936, following the lynching of A.L. McCamy. Fox News reported on the banner’s ill-advised timing in the wake of the Dallas shootings. The New York Times offered an op-ed diving into the cultural significance of art’s role in protest.

A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015 © Dread Scott. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

There is no question that temperatures are running high in America and beyond. Debates around police brutality and racial profiling are happening everywhere from boardrooms to coffee shops to public spaces. It’s hard to say for certain how severe the problem is because a comprehensive government database tracking American police officers who have used deadly force is non-existent; local enforcement agencies can submit figures at their discretion, yet reports suggest this is done only about half of the time. Without official numbers, right-wing media select stats that support their messages, and activists are often accused of a leftist bias.

As designers, we often wonder what our role could or should be in these moments. How can our skills most effectively create some form of impact, knowing solutions to these culturally complex issues need to go well beyond a poster campaign or bold statement on a website? What responsibility do we have to the public as visual communicators? Is there any at all?

We spoke with Josh Warren-White, a designer who works through these questions every day at Design Action Collective — the design and communications agency that collaborated with Black Lives Matter to develop their branding as well as the Movement for Black Lives website.

“On a broad level, graphic design is an important tool for social movements because when the work is done well, it has the ability to reach people’s hearts. Imagery has the ability to break through all the noise in our society and touch people in ways that can move them to take action, often in ways that words can’t,” says Warren-White.

“For that work to be done effectively, we feel strongly that design can’t be done in a vacuum. Being able to translate organizers’ stories and demands into tools for effective visual communication requires developing relationships of trust and accountability on the ground. As a movement-based shop, we work together as partners, as accomplices with other social movement organizers.”

Black Lives Matter logo. Image courtesy of Design Action Collective.
Black Lives Matter logo. Image courtesy of Design Action Collective.

There are challenges in working with charities, non-profits, and organizations like Black Lives Matter, which refers to itself as an activist movement. The key to the success of these design projects is a deeply collaborative and participatory relationship, explains Warren-White.

“Many of our clients, including Black Lives Matter, are operating on emergency timelines that they don’t set. They’re operating with little, if any, monetary resources. Both the lack of resources and the super-short timelines mean that we don’t always get to spend as much time in the conceptual phase as we would like, and it means that we often don’t have time for a full discovery process. But one of our strengths is that being social justice organizers ourselves, we have a deeper understanding of what these organizations are looking for than most corporate design studios. [We] often move forward based on the instincts and relationships we’ve developed over many years of doing this work for other movement organizations.”

Black people in the U.S. are being killed in the streets, in staggering numbers, by the people who are supposed to protect them.

Apart from the complexity of the design process, there’s also the weight of the social issues themselves. From a professional standpoint, we’d like to think that a designer’s philosophical approach towards a corporate project could be the same as for something more socially focused. But with the severity of the issues being addressed by Black Lives Matter, the emotional questions being asked within the work are inherently different — more affecting, according to Warren-White.

“Black people in the U.S. are being killed in the streets in staggering numbers by the people who are supposed to protect them. That is the reality that millions of people live with every day — that they, or their mother, or their father, or their sister, or their brother, or their son, or their daughter could get cut down at any moment. That reality can create a level of trauma that I think is impossible for anyone who lives a different reality to comprehend fully. For myself, I know that I will never know what it’s like to be a black person living within deep structural racism in the U.S. Other folks in the Collective know what that’s like and experience racism first-hand, but I don’t. As a white person, I know that I materially benefit from white privilege, and it’s my responsibility to work to understand how racism functions in society and to stand on the right side of history and fight to overcome it,” says Warren-White.

Josh’s words speak to the idea that there aren’t easy answers to this problem. No one thing or person will solve it. But maybe the most promising insights can be found in the shared focus on protests and hope and critical thinking in the work of Design Action Collective, Wieden+Kennedy’s online statement, and the flag of Dread Scott. Each decided that no matter what they did, doing something was better than doing nothing.

At the end of the day, designers should be good communicators. But good designers are even better listeners. Be it with a brand identity, a digital statement, or a flag — at times like this when we so desperately crave that right solution to communicate to the world, perhaps it’s best to start by simply showing that yes, we are listening. We hear you. And we are acting with you, however we can.

Paul Kawai

Paul is the Design Director at Frontier. He studied Environmental Design at OCAD University, as well as directed the OCAD Student Press, publishing three editions of their Shift series.

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