Design Plus Social Justice

Thoughts on graphic design as a tool for meaningful change

“Art with vision, that reflects a people’s desire and aspirations, is an art that is guided by principle. It transcends borders, and thus becomes universal in its many creative expressions in support of the people’s movement for liberation against all forms of oppression and injustice.”

Art Guided by Principle, Emory Douglas Copyright Wellington Media Collective and Emory Douglas 2013

I was recently included on a panel discussion for the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Design + Social Justice Symposium. I sat alongside Billy X Jennings, Suzun Lucia Lamaina, and former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party Emory Douglas, which was an amazing experience and something I’ll never forget. Truly, an honor to be in such esteemed company. Moderated by Patrick Jones, Associate Professor of History and Ethnic Studies at the University, we discussed and explored the relationship between design and social justice in a small auditorium of about a hundred people, mostly students.

Whatever it goes by — design for good, socially conscious design, design activism — it’s a topic I think a lot about. In my design practice, I’ve tried to focus the work predominately on those types of projects with nonprofits, community organizations, political campaigns, and mission-driven startups. The symposium offered a formalized setting to put together my thoughts more concretely. The setup went like this:

What is the relationship between design and social change? How does graphic design — and visual culture, communicate a message; create community; educate the people; uplift and empower; foster a sense of identity and pride; sway opinion; change hearts and minds; affect institutions of power; and, ultimately, play a role in creating meaningful and substantive social change? In short, what role(s) does (or can) design and the visual arts play in creating “a revolutionary culture” and “radical change?”

Alongside the craft of design, as a tool for creativity and communication, as a way to solve problems and find opportunities, with its big picture vision and nitty-gritty details, where does social justice fit?

Graphic design helps sell a consumer economy every single day. Why not one that’s more equitable, sustainable, and just?

What exactly is the relationship between design and social change?

Designers who take on issues of social justice I think work in three ways.

  1. There’s the solo designer using design to express his or her views. This can be done by participating in online poster sites for a cause, in design exhibitions, or by simply posting up designs on the streets of a neighborhood.
  2. On a project by project basis, a designer works with organizations and activists using his or her skills to create design work used by the people working on the issues day in, day out. Either paid or pro bono.
  3. The designer is part of the movement. With a stake in the fight, he or she is an integral part of an organization where different tools are used to move people to action. Design work is done alongside community organizers, strategists, fundraisers, activists on the ground, and so on.

In short, what role(s) does (or can) design and the visual arts play in creating “a revolutionary culture“ and “radical change?”

Graphic design is a tool for moving people to action. When design is utilized to further the cause of social justice, to promote equity and opportunity, amazing things can happen. The type of design I’m most interested in and see the most promise with promotes diversity and inclusion, brings people together to solve problems, and advocates for a progressive culture of creativity and overall well-being for individuals and communities.

If the goal is a revolutionary culture that brings on radical change, graphic design should be one of the many tools used to get there. In the role of graphic designer, taking on issues of the environment, voting rights, and racial justice, I’ve worked with political activists and community organizers. They organize and mobilize while I provide some of the tools needed; websites, infographics, posters, campaign visuals, etc. And sometimes, the design comes together in such a way that visualizes what change looks like, transcends borders, and helps to inspire people along the way.

How does graphic design communicate a message; create community; educate the people; uplift and empower; foster a sense of identity and pride; sway opinion; change hearts and minds; affect institutions of power; and, ultimately, play a role in creating meaningful and substantive social change?

Design intentionally communicates to a particular audience. It starts from a problem, presents solutions, and finds opportunities. It looks at the every day differently and tells a compelling story. When it’s done well, graphic design breaks it down and shouts it out loud. The message it shouts can be anything really.

Often times, what’s celebrated in the world of design is work that depicts a life that revolves around a product. Sometimes it’s work that depicts a life that revolves around people and community. Both are perfectly acceptable. But I do want to see more of the second one. Where the message that needs to be communicated is designed to create community, educate people, or foster a sense of pride. Where the design takes on institutions of power and advocates for meaningful social, political, or environmental change.

How can we discern the effectiveness of graphic design and visual arts in creating real, or meaningful, action/change/impact?

Does it resonate? Does it speak to people? Does it move people to action? Not everything does. Sometimes a design falls flat and it can be tough to work through to get to something fitting for the situation. There is also the question of measurement. Does the design move people to share, to sign-up, to donate? Metrics, analytics, data. Is the website modern and responsive? Does it load fast and fully take usability into consideration in the design? In terms of execution, is the design any good? Or is it boring, trite, hyperbolic, sloppy, or out of touch?

You just have to put in the time and effort to make sure the end results speak to the core of the issue. That it’s guided by principle. That it’s doing justice to the change people are fighting for. That it’s worthy to be held up and organized around. When working toward meaningful change, it’s less about how loud you shout, but how long the shout can be sustained. Effective graphic design can help create a certain amount of staying power, visualizing the cause and providing the backdrop to the hard work being done on the ground.

Conversely, what are the limits on or challenges to graphic design and visual arts as a vehicle for social change, particularly in a context of global mass-media; ubiquitous technology; hyper-commodification; post-industrial neo-liberalism; extreme inequality; and corporate dominance?

First, design on its own can only go so far. Without the organizations and activists working tirelessly to make change happen, a piece of graphic design, however loud it shouts, is over and done with rather quickly. In the fight for social justice, how long you shout, in strategic intervals of intensity, matters most. If the people on the ground aren’t there, change doesn’t happen.

Second, I worry about design for social justice being drown out by the thousands upon thousands of messages created every day for big brands with big budgets. Brands that most often push their consumer-focused answers to invented problems in their hyper-commodified version of the world on the airwaves and Internet streams they seek to dominate.

Additionally, when brands do raise awareness for important issues dealing with community, humanity, love, and the planet, their product-focused solutions remain problematic. If people take a consumer-centric view of these problems, that these very real problems are solved by buying specific products, there’s a false sense created that our challenges can be addressed without actively participating in the creation of meaningful solutions that are more difficult, less instantaneous, and are not as easy to see.

Graphic design can make you smile. Make you mad. Make you change your behavior. It illuminates and can silence all irrelevant noise with magnificent clarity by perfectly capturing the core of an idea. It’s an obvious tool for social change as seen in the history of successful movements for justice. And it will continue to be so.