Black Lives Matter is Not a Design Challenge.

Schessa Garbutt
Jun 2, 2020 · 5 min read
Tweet by Amelie Lamont. May 31, 2020. @amelielamont
Thank you, Amélie, for a thread that so concisely and incisively conveys the issue.

If you’ve come here to be fragile, please check that at the door, or leave.

If you’ve come here to listen and learn like you vowed you would, welcome. Thank you for following through and making time and mental space for this.

As an Afro-Latinx designer, I follow a lot of other designers, artists, illustrators, calligraphers, and agencies on Instagram. It helps me keep up with visual trends and allows me to support my peers and their accomplishments. Some days, it serves as a visual version of a news feed when pop culture events are happening.

But this month, and this week especially, there’s been a tingling ache in my fingers as I scroll. There’s been a rock in my stomach. Social media makes it too easy to experience FOMO, especially when there’s a new challenge (e.g. Inktober, Mermay, 36 Days of Type — just a few I’ve put off each year) meant to get your creative juices flowing and show off your style. There’s a lovely sense of creative community and fun there. However,

Black Lives Matter is not a design challenge.

George Floyd is not a portrait exercise.

You are not the next Shepard Fairey. This moment is not about you.

Yes, you could read this and fume and justify why your art and intention are different, but intention isn’t impact. When I scroll past your post, this is how it reads (beyond the literal caption):

#blacklivesmatter is trending and I need everyone to know that I’m progressive, so I’m going to spend a couple of hours creating something that’s in non-offensive support of the protests (but not the looting!), and hope that it gets liked and shared and picked up by a more popular page that needs content. Maybe BLM will even reshare it! That will validate me and my allyship and also be a promotion of my skills! It’s a win-win-win!

Also known as virtue signaling. Creative labor doesn’t mean that you’ve put in the work that’s needed right now.

When I see your overworked hand-lettering and your redraw of George’s selfie and your retro typography protest poster, I feel like I, as a black creative, should be joining in. If anyone, I should be making a statement, giving a hot take, offering art to the world.

I do not want to feel that way. I do not want to feel like my identity, my pain, my activism is a PR opportunity that I’m missing out on because non-Black artists have jumped so quickly at the chance to garner some likes, shares, and follows, cluttering the airways, even as we’re still processing our rage and sadness and figuring out what we can materially do to enact change. I don’t want to feel like I’m a trend and “my moment” has passed.

I’m in mourning. I’m exhausted. Everyday, someone is killed just for looking like me. I’m re-traumatized every time you share videos of a Black/brown/queer human’s slaughter. I can’t even imagine laboring over a piece of art right now. But you are choosing to yell to the world that you care about me with work that materially benefits no one, and a caption of platitudes that stall the conversation at “we need to do better.” So do better.

As with protests and donations, follow the lead of Black activists and artists who have been doing the work. Don’t just jump on the bandwagon of rehashing the same imagery in your unique style.

Your intention is good. You want to show the people in your life where you stand on what should be a non-partisan issue (but unfortunately isn’t). You want to show your support, to show that you’re ready to put effort into this movement as an ally. Here’s how you can redirect that energy (in addition to ongoing donations):

  1. Question why you’re posting what you’re posting. That will guide what you should be making, if anything at all. Maybe it’s not your time to speak. (If you’re still confused about whether you should make/post anything, take that as a sign to focus your energy elsewhere. See below.)
  2. Use that energy to get educated. Engage with Black thought. Read and share our articles, philosophy, novels, and history. Books sold out everywhere? Set a reminder to buy them in a couple months, or start a book trade with your friends.
  3. Use that energy to meditate on your own privilege. Exercise de-centering yourself and your feelings in this conversation. Spend the time you would have used to create something to just sit in silence or to journal privately.
  4. Use that energy to continue to have hard conversations with your relatives and co-workers. Change is a seed that’s planted and watered continuously. Some of your folks still only get their news from cable and they will not have their views challenged by anyone other than you. Call out your Creative Director. It’s uncomfortable. Do it. Don’t hide behind your artistic introversion.
  5. If you must make art, here’s a challenge: figure out how it can benefit the movement without benefiting you. A beloved friend of mine traded drawings for money that he donated. He did not post the drawings to be admired. Here’s a thread of other ideas.
  6. Center Black artists. Feature our art and thoughts, when we’re ready to share. Don’t approach me in the middle of an uprising and ask me to contribute, for free, to your page or magazine that was always lacking diversity. I will not make free content to help you virtue signal. Hit me up again in a month, a year, when this is “over” and the hashtag is no longer trending. Share Black work and accomplishments regularly, without expecting reciprocation.
  7. Keep sharing resources like bail funds, safe protest practices, safe houses, educational content about BLM, statistics, and information relevant to keeping our momentum.
  8. Protest.
Grid of black squares resembling an Instagram feed.
Grid of black squares resembling an Instagram feed.
The #blackouttuesday challenge was a first step... Take the next step.

I am writing this in June 2020 knowing that “the moment” will soon have passed. Unfortunately, there will be a next time. You may have made some mistakes and missteps in the past, but words like these aren’t meant to make you afraid to act. You are not cancelled. This is a part of the work, the learning and unlearning that we’re doing together, without ego. Thank you for taking some time to unlearn today.

Now act.

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Read Next: Your D&I-Themed Hackathon is Large-Scale Tokenism.
Watch Schessa’s follow-up talk at
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Design Toast

Design Toast observes timely and intricate issues, examines…

Schessa Garbutt

Written by

Founder of www.firebrand.house ⬩ instagram.com/the_schessa

Design Toast

Design Toast observes timely and intricate issues, examines design history, and uplifts the new generation of designers–with a focus on the local community of Los Angeles.

Schessa Garbutt

Written by

Founder of www.firebrand.house ⬩ instagram.com/the_schessa

Design Toast

Design Toast observes timely and intricate issues, examines design history, and uplifts the new generation of designers–with a focus on the local community of Los Angeles.

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