Design + Social Justice
How does graphic design play a role in creating meaningful and substantive social change?
The graphic design program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Department of Art and Art History hosted a Design + Social Justice Symposium held September 15–16, 2015. It examined the role of graphic design as a tool for organizing and communicating for social change. The featured guest speaker and visiting artist was Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture and graphic artist of the Black Panther Party. His powerful work was exhibited at the Sheldon Museum of Art from September through early January.
The events and exhibitions of the symposium will highlight the visual communications, stories and portraits of revolutionary social movements and will examine how graphic design is a tool for organizing. The graphic artifacts that will be exhibited represent the role of art as a revolutionary force and how art and design can communicate about a need for social change. The symposium will examine the role of graphic design in creating messages that promote civil and human rights, preservation of the environment, and advocacy of equal opportunity.
Exhibitions took place in Love Library from August 16th through October 30th. Black Panther Party historian and archivist Billy X Jennings presented an exhibition of radical underground newspapers from the 1960s and 70s. Suzun Lucia Lamaina exhibited a collection of contemporary portraits and stories of former members of the Black Panther Party.
My work was also on display. Entitled Cause Poster, it was a collection of graphic design activism for a variety of exhibitions, organizations, and causes. It’s the first time all of this work from 2005 to now has been together in one place. Read the interview I did for the Daily Nebraskan on graphic activism, who inspires me, challenging projects, and how I found my passion in graphic design.
The poster. Possibly the purest form of visual communication. In a flash you must arrest the attention of a passerby and alter his or her perception. Change it. Reinforce it. Make it see something differently. Surprise, delight, inspire, motivate. Part of my involvement in UNL’s Design + Social Justice Symposium was to lead a poster making workshop for Advanced Graphic Design students. Working with Stacy Asher, Assistant Professor of Art, we invited students to use graphic design as a tool for social change.
The brief: Make someone else care about an issue that’s important to you.
The final event of the Symposium was a panel discussion with Emory Douglas, Billy X Jennings, Suzun Lucia Lamaina, and myself. It was moderated by Patrick Jones, Associate Professor of History and Ethnic Studies (African and African American Studies Program). His initial setup for the discussion follows:
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?”
Reflecting on UNL’s Design + Social Justice Symposium, I feel very honored to have been part of an educational institution celebrating the graphic design of a justice movement and having a discussion about how design can have an impact today, whether social, political, or environmental. Meeting Emory Douglas is certainly something I’ll never forget. I asked for his signature right next to the masthead of a Black Panther paper. He also wrote, “All Power To The People.” Something to always be mindful of. In the face of inequality, injustice, and hate, All Power To The People brings us together, breaks through the madness, and allows us to find ways to address our most urgent issues.