Protest by design: the creatives performing acts of political sedition

Designers are taking over communication systems and promoting what they see as urgent political messages, walking a legal tightrope in the process. But who are they and why do they do it?

First Things First by Jonathan Barnbrook

The joint history of graphic design and protest is an extensive and varied one. From the Suffragettes’ “Votes for Women” signs of the early 1900s, to the striking Memphis sanitation workers’ “I AM A MAN” posters of 1968, all the way up to today’s open-source climate change graphics databases, graphic design has long been part of political spaces.

Gulf War by Jonathan Barnbrook
Gulf War by Jonathan Barnbrook. Cover image also by Barnbrook

“The servant of the protest”

But protest posters are just one outlet – some graphic designers go beyond the humble placard. Instead, they use their craft to perform pointed acts of political sedition, fighting against issues as far-ranging as consumerism and global warming, sexism, inadequate politicians, and sometimes all at once.

“Graphic design has always been there as a servant of the protest,” says Jonathan Barnbrook, graphic designer and activist. “It has a very strong role to play in putting out messages and changing things.”

Barnbrook’s own practice has been shaped by his activism. Feelings of powerlessness over the growing tensions of the Gulf War pushed him into making his first political posters in the 1990s. “I started making posters about it and posting them up in central London,” says Barnbrook. “Of course, I had no idea if I was going to change anything or have any effect.

“But the question isn’t: ‘Has anything changed because of a piece of work I’ve done?’ It doesn’t work like that, you have to say your message and hope it gets through and change some points of view.”

As his career unfolded, Barnbrook became involved with a number of rebellious design groups, including the anti-corporate design collective, Adbusters. He art directed for the organisation and got involved in various methods of graphic protest, of which the most well-known was subvertising.

Pretty Little Thing by Bill Posters
Pretty Little Thing by Bill Posters

“Using the same tools as advertisers”

The process of subvertising, also known as – and associated with – ad-hacking or culture-jamming, concerns the deliberate subversion of advertisement messaging in public spaces. Typically, “hacked” ads are found on tube and bus stop poster spaces. The practice itself is diverse and can include anything from irreverent messages scrawled in black paint, all the way up to sophisticated, convincing and damning dupes of real company or political party ads.

“The reason I worked with AdBusters is that they were one of the first in the mainstream to subvertise,” says Barnbrook. “The tools and methods we used were the same that advertising people use to encourage people to endlessly consume.”

Using the public stage to graphically critique politics and order is particularly important to the practice. Firstly, it allows for a wider audience than any given exhibition or gallery; secondly, it mimics the messages the audience are used to seeing already in that space; and lastly, it has the potential to simplify complicated issues.

“In public space, the billboards and corporate advertisement spaces don’t appear in their hundreds and thousands by accident,” says Bill Posters, graphic artist, activist and researcher. “You’re just tapping into that legacy – essentially by being a parasite onto that commercial work that’s already been done.”

“Making difficult issues accessible”

As the co-founder of Brandalism, another protest design collective, Posters has used his craft to critique the likes of fast fashion, the impending climate catastrophe and advertising culture itself. “It’s really about trying, in a systemic way, to look at and explore how art and design can be used to make these quite difficult-to-grasp issues accessible,” he says.

Using easily understandable visual cues and pictures, Posters says designers are able to cut through any potentially confusing rhetoric used by politicians or brands. “The form of storytelling that is created in these public spaces is so full of myths and narratives,” says Posters. “So Brandalism was really trying to undercut that.”

A similar mission has been adopted by Led By Donkeys, the anti-Brexit campaign just recently shortlisted as one of the Design Museum’s Beazley Designs of the Year. The team has made headlines using billboard space to expose the lies of prominent Brexit politicians, and are currently fundraising for an “Honest No Deal Brexit ad campaign” to fight against the one being rolled out by the UK government.

“We just wanted to get conversations started about Brexit, where the terms of the debate weren’t clouded by lies,” says Ben Stewart, one of the four behind the campaign. By exposing deliberate untruths, Stewart says people can engage more informed and honest dialogues about it, and not get caught up in spin.

Stewart adds that the design work Led By Donkeys does means things aren’t forgotten by the public. “This stuff circulates on twitter but never really lands,” he says. “So we’re trying to manifest that stuff in the real world. And then we photograph and film it in an arresting way and reinsert it into the digital world.”

Billboard by Led by Donkeys
Billboard by Led by Donkeys

“Tension between creatives”

One of the tensions involved in protest graphic design, however, is the reality of the work you’re subverting. With countless creative studios, designers and artists taking up work from controversial companies, politically motivated design often involves creatives attacking work from one of their own.

Back in 2016, Posters’ Brandalism ran a campaign suggesting creatives “switch sides”, encouraging them to take their talent elsewhere. “We were inundated by responses,” says Posters.

“We had about 300 of these incredibly deep and quite emotional letters from people who had found themselves trapped in the sector and they were really uncomfortable about the way in which their creativity was being appropriated from these consumer products.”

Posters suggests there’s a very real tension between creatives and protesting. He says: “Unfortunately we all need to make some huge changes toour relationships with this.”

This is echoed by Barnbrook, who says ultimately: “You can’t compartmentalise your job”.

“You are responsible in whatever you do, the idea that graphic design isn’t political is so wrong. Everything about it is political, consenting to work within the framework of a consumerist society is political, consenting not to necessarily follow your absolute beliefs is political. It’s all political.”

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