Designing for Peaceful Social Protest

Addressing social and environmental issues through design.

Designing products for social protest appears to be the direct opposite to what seems appropriate to the “un-designed” notion of protest; however our research reveals protests that successfully get their message relayed are often planned extensively by multiple stakeholders for very specific goals and intentions. Protest that ends up in violence often fail to get their message noted and are remembered as more of the event of violence rather than communicating their intent. In order to help college students get their message communicated, we wanted to ensure that violence could be detected and avoided early on.

In the final project for my Designing for Complex Product Systems course instructed by Professor Eric Anderson, we explored the theme of designing for peaceful social protest. To be clear this is not a political project but rather an exploration of going beyond just adding materiality to the social act of protesting.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”
-Benjamin Franklin

Ensuring Safe Exit Routes

Through our research, Jenny Hu and I identified the problem space of unclear safe exit routes during the occurrence of an unrestrained violent incident. We created a system of products that utilizes volunteer network to ensure the safe exit of student protestors that are both recipients and non-recipients to violence.

Introducing Hero: a Risk Reduction & Emergency Preparedness System of Products

With our Products we wanted to address 3 fundamental issues regarding communication and environmental problems in the event of an unrestrained violent incident.

  1. Lack of Awareness of Nearby Danger. It is said that 85% of Human Error accidents may be attributed to the lack of Situation Awareness. Lack of knowledge of nearby danger can create panic or unwanted victimization to violence. Awareness can reduce future risks of getting involved with violence.
  2. Lack of Awareness of Where to Exit. It’s surprising, but many of the interviews and clips of protestors indicated that they were unsure where to exit or what the appropriate direction to exit without getting in trouble. This created panic and panic created an atmosphere of potential violence.
  3. Lack of Awareness of How to Exit. If “where” (as mentioned in number 2) was the exit sign on the door, the “how” is the exit route leading away from danger. People were not only unsure of the the area of safety, but they were also unsure of the method to get away.

Stakeholder map of those involved in protest

Integrating Volunteer capacity into emergency response plans

“Volunteers are often the ones who notice triggers first and are there to maintain the crowd first hand” — Victor (University Student Protest Organizer)

When do you call for help? Are volunteers able to take care of the situation? After interviews with University Police, Volunteers, Student Protestors, and Student Protest Organizers we began to see an opportunity space to utilize the system of volunteer network to create a “group think” method of ensuring safety.

Breaking down the potential situations into Situations that volunteers can control vs Situations that are out of control revealed that many triggers of violence could be detected and controlled by student volunteers. We imagined that there would be a training sessions before the event to inform and educate on these triggers.

information compiled from interviews

What if we can empower and allow the volunteer to report and assess the situation itself? Calling other police could make the situation worse and cause people to panic. Here, I began to think about Protection as a system of “group think” to “diffuse the tension” “empower individuals to assess and help themselves”.

Our System



In order to understand the context and social implications of Protest my peers and I looked into the history of college protest, interviewed stakeholders (University Law Enforcement, experience as organizers, and student participants at different levels of protest experience), read literature reviews, and looked into many videos of protests.

Historically college student activism has contributed to raising social consciousness and motivating important social change in the US. Until recently student activism on college campuses had seen a decline – thought to reflect general apathy in students. However in the recent years college campuses have seen a resurgence of student activism around issues of race, human rights, cost of tuition and many others.

Today many college campuses have seen, or can expect to see, some level of student protest. According to the latest UCL A study on American college freshman norms, 1 in 10 college freshman report an expectation to be part of a protest within their four year college experience. Student activism is alive and growing, according to Angus Johnston, a history professor at the City University of New York who specializes in student activism

Map from Google Maps

Our given scenario

“It is the first Friday of May and one of the hottest days on record with temperatures expected at 90 degrees.

The City of Pittsburgh once again is prepared for a significant social protest in the heart of its largest academic community. A group considered extremely radical is holding a rally at Schenley Plaza. Social media has been buzzing leading up to the event. Law enforcement,including City Police, University of Pittsburgh Police, and some regional and state officers, are assigned to keep the peace.News media are stationed strategically to cover the event. Because of the expected huge crowd size, portable toilets are scattered through out, and ambulances and fire trucks are on standby.

College students from all over the area are expected to have student representation in the form of counter protests. Multiple CMU student groups have partnered to organize and participate. In total there are 150 students from CMU who will assemble at the CMU Fence and march across campus to Forbes Avenue and then down to Schenley Plaza. Because of the size of the group, they are planning to march in the street to increase their visual presence and voice.

When large crowds form there is always concern about dynamics and maintaining crowd control. The hope is that important lessons have been learned from the G20 fiasco, particularly the interactions between law enforcement and protestors, and everyone is better prepared.”

Part 1: Videos we looked into to gather more information

“Police used teargas pepper spray and rubber bullets against University of Pittsburgh students during the Pittsburgh G20 Summit. Many of the students were not part of any demonstration but bystanders, curious to find a mass of armed riot police on their campus. For more information and videos visit

Part 2: The History of College Protests

The Relevant Challenges and Positive Insights

  • Breaking rules, policies, and laws has always been a challenge for student protesters who then risk arrest, disciplinary action (expulsion), and physical harm.
  • Misrepresentation, misinterpretation, or generalization are also possible risks with the fast spread of news and media.
  • Logistical challenges for gathering a large number of people in specific areas also provides many constraints. How do they get there? How long will they be there? Do they need food/water/shelter? How safe are they there?
  • Time is an important factor in many protests. The sense of urgency is different among hunger strikes, riots, sit ins, and silent protests.
  • Size of protests are key factors in whether it becomes successful. Rallying enough support is critical
  • Success of a protest may depend upon the protesting group’s goals. The goals could range from visibly raising awareness of an issue, to fighting for a specific law to be created or annulled.
Protests are often strategically planned months before.

Pitfalls and Success of Messaging

  • Modern communication has both helped and hurt protests - it can help groups organize quickly,but the speed of organization can mean protesters are less involved in preparation for a mature,developed movement.
  • Public information on protests can also encourage opposition and counter-protests,like when recent white supremacists rallies publicized through Facebook events were canceled due to plans for counter-protests.
  • Extreme protests tend to accrue more media attention, though studies find that violence and extremity deter more people from joining these movements.
  • Extreme actions of a small group can override a peaceful message, causing even a peaceful,well-organized protest to be considered negatively as a violent protest.
  • Continued messaging to supporters after a protest event is what causes change,and even large protests tend to fail when attendees are no longer in communication with protest organizers.
  • Proactive, rather than reactive, messaging leads to action;while reactive protests such as those in response to the recent travel ban can unite groups, these protests often fail to cause legislative change

Part 3: Interviews with Stakeholders

We conducted 9 interviews- 1 involved with University Law Enforcement, 2 with experience as organizers, and 6 student participants at different levels of protest experience. While the first 3 interviews were done as a class, the rest were done in smaller groups or 1-on-1.

We aimed to have a conversational interview, starting with broader questions about their experiences, then getting into more specific topics. For the most part, the interviewee talked and shared their thoughts and we as interviewers would guide with a few questions.

Some Specific Questions we asked during the conversation:

“How did you or the group maintain the unity amongst the protestors? What led to the positive or negative experience of the protest?”

Insights from Interviews

  1. The delegation of volunteers among the protesters maintain the crowd. Multiple interviewees indicated that the success (no on get’s hurt or arrested) were due to the fact that volunteers maintained and detected violence early on.
  2. There is an important balance of leadership & charisma & what the crowd wants to do. If there is no leadership and no clear vision or ambition, the entire ordeal becomes disorganized. A big factor of peaceful protests were because the delegation of volunteers patrolling create transparency amongst the group. This gave people agency and trust in the leadership development.
  3. Preparing for the Unexpected. Weather can turn bad and relocation may be to occur. Concerns of Maximum capacity or even strangers who “excite” the crowd. Sometimes the police utilize pepper spray to stop actions which often leave a negative image of the police.
  4. Use of GroupThink Methods. Some protestors were actually unaware of the leadership of the protest nor the effect of leadership in directing the way the protest went. Often times, these protestors indicated they “followed the crowd”. Moreover, Some participants indicated they did not bring any sort of safety gear or first aid — they expected others (dedicated first aid individuals) to carry for them.
  5. Lack of Awareness of Exit Routes. As stated before, It’s surprising, but many of the interviews and clips of protestors indicated that they were unsure where to exit or what the appropriate direction to exit without getting in trouble. This created panic and panic created an atmosphere of potential violence. Lack of knowledge of nearby danger can create panic or unwanted victimization to violence. Awareness can reduce future risks of getting involved with violence.

Protest can aim to advocate for a particular policy or change, or aim to raise awareness and express people’s discontent with the current state. A downside is that students often don’t know the policies/ideals that the protesting group is fighting for.

Part 4. Brand Association + Modeling

Go Pro: Be a Hero

Jenny and I decided to style our object with Go Pro not only for the visual style guide, but for the GoPro’s slogan of “Be a Hero”. Our system was based on empowering volunteers within the group to make decisions and create an atmosphere of courage and engagement.

This was aligned to Go Go Pro’s slogan of encouraging users to push their personal boundaries. This is also where we were inspired to name our system Hero.

Images taken from GoPro
Images taken from GoPro


When I began modeling I was inspired by medical equipment for its friendly look. I particularly spent a lot of time trying to display a way to show an active vs non-active state for the beacons.

Initial Idea forming
In the initial idea development, I was envisioning a beacon system with Medical stations.

Questions I asked when designing the prototype

  1. Is it portable? Where is it stored when not in use? Which organization is in charge of these?
  2. How many Beacons are needed?
  3. How do volunteers set it up? Is separate training needed?
  4. Does it need to be charged?
  5. Where are the HeroVest stored?
  6. Is it too top heavy? How can these be set up in the right place? Will it fall? Will a bystander take these away?

Prototyping Version 1

Prototyping Version 2

Final Version

3d Modeling

Once I got my final form decided, I 3D printed the model to show more detail.

The Jacket Port and Beacon Screen

Each piece was separately made to show interaction


This project specifically opened my eyes to the new complexities in the design process especially with the a larger scale of interconnected relations. I learned that the introduction of new artifacts requires design attention to make it come to life — to help others realize and imagine the artifact, system, the experience believable and worthy of thinking about.

In many ways it is the act of persuading others that the intervention is a worth while cause. This is done by clearly telling a compelling story, but also through constantly understanding and predicting user’s reaction to the final product.

General References