Black Lives Matter: graphic design’s role in the protest movement

As race protests spark throughout the world, we look at the role of graphic design and why the movement must ultimately “not stop with an image”.

On 25 May, George Floyd, an African-American man was killed in Minnesota, US. A police officer kept his knee on the side of Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while three other police officers restrained him. Floyd had been accused of using a counterfeit note at a nearby market.

The killing, the latest in a long line of African-American deaths involving police officers, sparked widespread protests the next day, which soon turned from peaceful to violent. It has also prompted similar protests in the UK, where there have also been deaths at the result of police actions. The international protests feature signs that have now become familiar, with slogans like ‘I can’t breathe’, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Justice for George’.

Graphics and communication design is crucial to spreading the message of any movement, and Black Lives Matter – which was founded in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot 17-year-old student Trayvon Martin – has a prominent page on its website for social media graphics. Social media is a key target area, and the relatively young movement has played into this aspect. The Twitter page itself has over 600,000 followers, while Twitter users have replaced their profile names in honour of the movement. Its Instagram has over 2m followers.

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A post shared by Black Lives Matter (@blklivesmatter) on

The popularity on Instagram is suggestive of the visual power of the campaign. The latest Instagram post, which calls for followers to sign a petition on the “sustainable transformation” of communities has over 300,000 likes. A video which highlights Tweets from the past week, with the hashtag #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd has been watched almost 6m times. All the posts are designed in a coherent style, in a format that appears easy to reproduce for a variety of purposes like tributes and calls to action.


How do you brand a social movement?

The original branding for the movement was done by Design Action Collective, a California-based design studio which specialises in clients with social purposes. The BLM wordmark – a simple white typeface, underlined three times – is easy to reproduce. And the black and yellow colourway is used throughout graphic communications – across social media assets, posters and on physical material like T-shirts. The branding has since been refined and updated, but those essential details remain the same.

People are encouraged to download the graphics and use them to spread awareness, as profile pictures for example. There are ‘toolkits’ available which are teaching resources about issues around race, all free to download with clear communications.


“Graphic design can be a tool for social change”

Greg Bunbury, a graphic designer from Hackney, London, has designed graphics in honour of the movement and black people who have died. He has long been interested in this kind of socially-minded work. In 2016, he told Design Week that his work for a literary programme in Hackney, The Learning Trust, showed “how graphic design could be a tool for social change”.

In 2014, following the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York City, Bunbury created a graphic to honour his death. In the video of Garner’s killing, he can be seen saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times (he was put into a choke hold by a police officer) before he loses consciousness. Garner’s words became a slogan for the BLM movement, and Bunbury’s poster takes inspiration from that. The words are repeated eleven times, until a final incomplete line one fades, suggestive of losing breath.

The 2014 graphic from Bunbury

This week, prompted by recent events in America, he’s created a new poster in tribute to George Floyd. The design is going up on billboards this week. One has gone up in Camden already, the same day of BLM protests in London’s Hyde Park. The spaces have been provided by outdoor advertising agency Brotherhood Media, who are using the spaces that are currently empty because of coronavirus-delayed campaigns.

Bunbury tells Design Week that it’s part of an initiative where he’s encouraging submissions from the black British community to “comment on this moment”. That process is beginning next week. He hopes that the platform can help “shape a narrative around a community”. The initiative has a strong focus on feedback; it is, after all, for the community. Bunbury says he will be “observing how people respond to it – a lot of it will be about connecting to the community, what’s most appropriate or what’s most useful.” With design that is placed within the field of activism, he says that creative process is “less effective” when it’s “too focused on the execution and the end result”.


“I’m hoping for fertile ground”

What does Bunbury want to achieve from the project? “I’m hoping for fertile ground,” he says. “The first thing to understand is that a billboard or poster cannot solve a structural problem.” Racism, he says, is structural: “the issue is education, housing, employment, political.” While communication cannot solve the problem, it can “make for an environment where there is a desire to solve these problems.”

From a design point of view, that means he is “interested in the simplest way to a concept”. The designer is constantly looking for a “visual shorthand that gets across an idea”. It’s why, he says, his work of late has been typographical, as opposed to the more “complicated” illustration work from earlier in his career. It’s as “basic” as he can make it, and seeks to cut through the noise and speak to the heart of an issue”.

“If I can put three words and make people visibly uncomfortable then I’m doing my job,” Bunbury says. “I want ideas like this to be disruptive.” It’s also why he’s used red for both posters, because of the colour’s “psychological associations” with blood and danger.

Bunbury seems energised and somewhat hopeful about some developments within the design industry – the rise of service design and social projects, in particular – and says that some ideas that are gaining “traction” today did not even exist ten years ago. But there’s clearly a lot of work to do.

That Bunbury has had to update a poster design about the killing of an African-American four years later is proof of that. Now, he hopes that his latest graphic design can initiate an “ecosystem, partnerships and coalitions”. In an image-dense culture, “we tune out after a while”, he says. “And I don’t want this to stop with an image.”

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