All Power To The People

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.

Reflecting on UNL’s Design + Social Justice Symposium, I feel so honored to have been a 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. 

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. 

The Limits

What are the limits on or challenges to graphic design as a vehicle for social change?

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.

The Relationship

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.

Design + Social Justice: Panel Discussion

Part of UNL’s Design + Social Justice Symposium, a panel discussion will take place with Emory Douglas, Billy X Jennings, Suzun Lucia Lamaina, and myself. It will be 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?”

Panel Discussion
September 16, 2015 @ 5:30 PM
Love Library Auditorium
University of Nebraska–Lincoln