Design & politics

Should graphic designers use their skills to participate in political activism?

Image by Sagmeister & Walsh via It’s Nice That

Less than a year ago I really didn’t care about politics. Everything changed within 6 months. But it is not only me.

More and more designers are now being politically active and use their skills to fight for causes they believe in. From commercial graphic design studios like Sagmeister & Walsh (US) and Jonathan Barnbrook (UK), to the all time politically active designers Metahaven (NL), political activism is seen to re-emerge once again on the graphic design agenda.


We all thought that the days when design was a heavy tool in political manipulation were gone. Sure, we had the brilliant political posters for Obama in 2008 and occasional campaigns created before elections, but fewer designers were engaging themselves on a daily basis with political rhetorics in the same way like the designers from the periods around WWI and WWII.

Propaganda posters from USA, UK and Russia — various sources

Until 2016 came and rocked the world to its core.


Sagmeister & Walsh studio and the 2016 elections

Image by Sagmeister & Walsh via Inspiration Grid
Image by Sagmeister & Walsh via It’s Nice That

New York based creative studio Sagmeister have been extremely vocal about their dislike for the new President Trump during the time leading to the 2016 president elections in America. Long before Election day they published the campaign Pins Won’t Save the World

Together with other artists, they created pins and other accessories with visual and a satirical twist to support Hilary Clinton and state they disapproval of Trump. All profits were to be donated to charities that were going to be potentially hurt by the soon-to-be-president Trump, Trevor Project, Planned Parenthood, Southern Poverty Law and others.

A few days after the elections, the partner of the firm, Jessica Walsh, through her so popular Instagram account, was extremely vocal about her disappointment with the election by stating that

“Now more than ever we have to stand up, fight for our values, donate, protest when we need to protect human rights, and remind ourselves every day that this is not okay.” — Jessica Walsh

Even though Sagmeister & Walsh’s campaign didn’t change the outcome of the American president elections, nor did it became popular in the mainstream media, it taught us that it is possible to start a design project to support your political and social beliefs. No matter if you work with a big team, a small studio or you are going for it on your own, you can always use your design skills for supporting a cause you care about. You can always just do something about it.

The campaign is still live so you can support their cause by purchasing some of their wonderful pins and other unique items.


Contemporary design & politics in the UK

Meanwhile in the UK, designers are perhaps still too shy to express openly political opinions. The UK was shaken with its own political drama in 2016, yet we somehow didn’t hear many political stances from design studios.

This is not to say that Britain hasn’t got designers that take political stance, however. A good example is the vocal British designer Jonathan Barnbrook. In his website for personal works he presents some strong political opinions through his very expressive designs. He wants to spread the word and allows people to freely download and distribute his works. With his very distinctive, almost ‘grunge’ aesthetic, and often written commentary, he questions issues such as environment, social justice and corporation power.

His ambition to use “design as a weapon for social change” is admirable, and even more so is the facts that he encourages other designers to follow in his footsteps.

Barnbrook is the signatories of the renewed First things first manifesto in 2000 — a call for designers to “put their skills to worthwhile use’”and address the “unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises”. The authors of the manifesto dislike the fact that

“…designers then apply their skill and imagination to sell dog biscuits, designer coffee, diamonds, detergents, hair gel, cigarettes, credit cards, sneakers, butt toners, light beer and heavy-duty recreational vehicles. Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do.” — First Things First Manifesto, 2000

Twenty years later, this stale, uninspired and unopinionated state of the design industry hasn’t changed. If anything, it has gotten worse.

Simply add the menus for the Trump Tower to the list of design items described above, and you will know what I am talking about.


Inspired from previous generations

The original first thing first manifesto was written in 1964, but couldn’t be more relevant to today’s world.

First Things First Manifesto, 1964 via Design History

The discussion is not about whether designers should or should not work on commercial products.

It is about we should prioritise using visual communication as a language to voice our opinions. Whether we should try to harder to help society with our craft, positive message and stance.


But what do the designs stars from the past think?

In his brand new course published on Skillshare, Seymour Chwast, the American designer and founder of Push Pin Studios (a reknown graphic design studio founded in 1954) together with Milton Glaser says:

“I don’t expect that any anti-war piece that I have done will stop the war, but I have to do it anyway” — Seymour Chwast

He goes on to say that he dislikes war, as he has seen a few through his life time — from the WWII to the Vietnam war (poster below).

Img by Push Pin Studios

Is this a statement more common for a generation of designers that have been seen the negative effects of bad political decisions with their own eyes?

Is the reason that the creatives from generations X, Y and Z are (still) so apathetic when it come to political and social campaigns?


New era of design

Times are changing rapidly and I believe that we will see new generations of visual communicators being even more vocal about the issues that impact societies, countries and the world.

The question is, what can we do, as individuals and professionals, to help the healthy rhetorics that keep us progressing in a positive manner?

Perhaps we need to be inspired by legends like Seymour Chwast who lived through wars, and saw himself the damage caused by hatred. Perhaps as designers, we should prioritise creating own political and social outlets to help the causes we believe in, similar to how Sagmeister & Walsh or Jonathan Barnbrook do it?


Whatever steps we choose to take, we need to remember that our creative work counts. That we work in the industry because we care about something, not just because it pays the bills.

Why? Because if every single designer worldwide started anything socially positive, whatever this might be, may be there won’t be any wars. May be we can create a better future. Without hatred. Without boundaries. Without walls. With the help of design.

Isn’t it time for us, designers, to get involved?


Where do you stand on this issue? Do you think that designers should increase their social and political engagement using their craft?