Design Activism

by Amanda Nguyen

Like any citizen, all actions of a designer impact others and they must be professionally, culturally, and socially responsible for their impact. Victor Margolin, co-editor of Design Issues, suggests that in a world of emerging manufacturing technologies, communication networks, and global marketing structures, designers can affect social change by embracing activism and entrepreneurship (Sisson).

Designers are promoting conversation and social change through their work at a local level. such as Skillet Gilmore’s “Shame Pat McCrory” banners to fight against HB2 and Kevin Lyons’ Raleigh mural in collaboration with the anti-smoking campaign, Truth. “Design activism” has disrupted the world of design by empowering designers to be a part of a movement for social change, explore answers to problems in the community, and change their role as designers.

Design as a vehicle for social change

In 2012, a graphic design conference in Belgrade, Serbia, called “Graphic Designer: Author or Universal Soldier.” underscored the idea that designers need to produce content beyond their clients’ wants and fight for human values. It was iterated that designers have the power to address social, cultural, and political issues with their designs (Ma?ašev).

Thus, “design activism” came to be—using design to explore possible answers to questions or problems in the community. Stemming from design thinking, design activism is experimental and inventive, generating positive alternatives to the status quo, inspiring people to support a cause or spark change. Designers are taking relevant issues, addressing them and voicing their opinions in their work through a variety of channels.

Using design for activism requires a wide range of socially and environmentally responsible actions in design and planning. From community advocacy in American inner cities to recovery efforts from natural disasters, the involvement of design and planning professionals supports the significance of design activism in making positive social change. A local Raleigh example of design activism is with graphic designer Skillet Gilmore. He has voiced his opinion on repealing HB2 by collaborating with Grayson and Tina Haver Currin’s giant “Shame on Pat McCrory” banner to create “Shame” t-shirts for the community to also voice their opinion on the topic (“5 Best Things That Happened at Hopscotch”). Gilmore also created Stand Against HB2 concert posters for North Carolina Musicians United for EqualityNC (Allen).

A “Shame Pat McCrory” banner was hung over the Raleigh Mexican restaurant, Centro, along with several other businesses. The banner was then turned into t-shirts and sold on Gilmore’s site, Crawlspace Press. A portion of the proceeds went to Equality NC’s Action Fund. Photos by Tina Haver Currin and New Raleigh.

The changing climate for designers

The promotion and support of the creative industries has given designers the opportunity to find new modes of working and to create new relationships with both their clients and the overall community. In 2009, Raleigh City Council passed an ordinance that reserves half of a percent of municipal funding for public art construction. Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane emphasized the need for more art, saying that they “are an integral part of how we define ourselves” (Porter #). These developments have also given designers the chance to respond to specific local needs at the same time as being in tune with global expectations and opportunities.

The role of designers is evolving, as more are harnessing this power to spark change. It has become a collaborative effort, engaging people in different disciplines to come to a consensus around innovative solutions. Creative tools promote community engagement by strengthening the process of understanding and exploring community values. The main creative tools for exploring community values and needs are visual-art techniques and storytelling. Design activists serve as storytellers in their message they want to deliver.

Storytelling supports causes  

Storytelling is a tool for collective listening and communication and designers are natural storytellers. Today, there is a large following behind those that can tell a story, since every person and place has a unique story. Mural projects in downtown areas, for example, are not only works of art, but serve as a collection of messages from artists and citizens who have a common desire to preserve, celebrate, and promote activist design.

The Raleigh Murals Project, led by JT Moore and Jedidiah Gant, works with the City of Raleigh, business owners and artists to bring art and local social issues together in a public space. These mural spaces serve as a snapshot of Raleigh history and what’s important to the designer at that time. One particular mural designed by Kevin Lyons, entitled “We That Generation,” collaborated with Truth, a national anti-smoking campaign. On the wall, Lyons incorporated messages of empowerment to encourage others to join the fight against smoking. This was taken even further when Vans created custom shoes that incorporated Lyons’ design (Lyons).

Lyons’ mural included phrases from teens who wanted to share what it means to live in a tobacco-free world like “Let’s Make History!” and “We that generation.” Photo by Oak City Hustle

Activism and cause-related marketing

Global businesses are placing more emphasis on human experience; they recognize that the consumers are smart, informed and concerned about sustainability, and they modify their advertising practices based on the times. The entire movement of professionals, not only designers, voicing their opinions and straying from their duties expected from clients is apparent as brands are increasingly telling stories as part of their marketing activities. Dove, for example, had a brand campaign called “Real Beauty” in which Gil Zamora drew women based on how they would describe themselves, showing how women actually have a distorted, negative self-perception. This was then compared to drawings of how strangers would describe the women. This campaign was successful since it marketed Dove’s strive for authenticity and being a brand for “real” women (Bahadur).

Dove’s 2013 campaign for “Real Beauty” became the most-watched video ad of all time.
Photo by Katherine Schwarzenegger

Steven Heller expands on this idea of how businesses are increasingly practicing cause-related marketing in his book Citizen Designer (10). The Body Shop, for example, ran a campaign with Women’s Aid which inspired similar partnerships in 16 countries around the world to raise awareness of domestic violence (Heller 13). Heller emphasizes that brands and professionals are successful when they have “achieved cultural influence” (Heller Part II). Their goals shouldn’t be focused on attaining revenue, growth, or a happy client, which empties brands of their emotional value, which is what consumers look for. Consumers associate with brands they feel reflect their identity and when a close emotional link to a brand is formed emotions can run high and brand loyalty is formed.

Criticism against activism

“Slacktivism”, a combination of the words slacker and activism is used to describe activism that has little effect other than to make the activist feel good that they have contributed something, only benefitting their egos (Seay). In our information-rich world, activists use social media as a means to build support for their causes. This calls for minimal involvement from users, as they’re urged to “like posts on Facebook, “retweet” on Twitter, and share photos on Instagram to raise attention; with one click, advocacy has been raised.

However, many large U.S. advocacy organizations claim that simply raising awareness and asking for simple forms of support will lead to deeper engagement, including a survey done by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication and Ogilvy Worldwide (Dixon). A study by University of British Columbia tested this notion with a series of field and lab experiments that slacktivism lead to deeper engagement and more meaningful contributions to a cause (Essig).

Design activism has lead to deeper engagement as well, with participatory efforts and collaboration with other areas. As we have seen, government has initiated and encouraged designers to contribute to public spaces and let their opinions be heard.

Works Cited

“5 Best Things That Happened at Hopscotch.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 12 Sept. 2016. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Allen, Mike. “Stand Against HB2 Concert Poster,” NC HB2: A Citizen’s History. 14, Nov. 2016.

Bahadur, Nina. “Dove ‘Real Beauty’ Campaign Turns 10: How A Brand Tried To Change The Conversation About Female Beauty.” The Huffington Post., 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Dixon, Julie. “Slacktivists Doing More than Clicking in Support of Causes.” Center for Social Impact Communication. Center for Social Impact Communication, 28 Nov. 2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Essig, Kate. “Activism Or Slacktivism? How Social Media Hurts And Helps Student Activism.” St. Louis Public Radio. St. Louis Public Radio, 02 Jan. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Heller, Steven. “Citizen Designer.” Google Books. Google, 2003. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Lyons, Alexa. “Kevin Lyons Tobacco-Free Mural & Shoes: Must-See Photos.” COED. COED Media Group LLC, 21 Jan. 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Ma?ašev, Aleksander. “Dissent Makeover – Print Magazine.” Print Magazine. F+W, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Porter, Jane. “Is Raleigh Finally Getting Serious about Public Art?” Indy Week. Indy Week, 09 Dec. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Seay, Laura. “Does Slacktivism Work?” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 12 Mar. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Sisson, Patrick. “Design Expert Sees Society, Not Just Style, at Core of Innovation.” Chicago Tribune, 23 Mar. 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.