Black Lives Matter: the designers using social media to protest

Social media can be a boon to designers spreading messages during protest movements – but it also has its own set of limitations and complications.

“We deserve more than black squares today,” Vanessa Newman wrote in the caption for an Instagram post announcing the launch of Design to Divest. The initiative is a “task force of designers” who create material for black organisers who are “building towards the divestment of capitalism and white supremacist structures”.

It was started as a lockdown initiative by the designer for other designers to come together, create, and share work. After the killing of George Floyd and the outbreak of protests across the US, Newman wrote: “I believe it is now time for us to shift our purpose to inspire greater systematic change and service organizers, resource distributors, information disseminators, and movement builds in need of design work.”

The black squares that Newman speaks of are a reference to last week’s #BlackoutTuesday, where Instagram users were encouraged to post a black square in honour of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It was intended to create a space for reflection and quickly went viral. However it also caused problems. When users wrote #BlackLivesMatter in the caption, it meant that the feed for that hashtag was occupied with black squares, rather than information about the movement that could help organisers or those wishing to be educated.

The controversy over the hashtag shows the use of social media to designers, as a way to spread and show support as well as distribute educational information. A cursory glance over social media feeds over the last few weeks highlights this, particularly on Instagram where still images are the dominant medium (rather than TikTok’s short-form videos or Twitter’s 280 characters).

“Personal expression and emotional release”

Take, for example, Manassaline Coleman, a graphic designer based in the US. Coleman created a guide to ‘virtual protesting’ which has been liked over 460,000 times. The six-part guide aimed to show the ways in which social media can be manipulated to spread the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. She encourages using hashtags which reach and educate target audiences who might not otherwise see visual information about BLM. These included hashtags such as #armedforces and #nra (the National Rifle Association is an American gun rights advocacy group).

Nick Anglin’s graphics have also experienced success on social media in the past, particular a mural commissioned by Pepsi’s JAM-I-CAN, which aimed to “uplift Jamaicans, encouraging them to pursue their dreams and reach their full potential”. Anglin’s work is colourful – fusing “pop culture and graffiti aesthetic to create my personal narratives of the world,” he tells Design Week. In the wake of the protest movements, the New York designer who works under the name NuWarhol, has focused on BLM. This work has, in part, been “emotional” for him.

“My BLM pieces were a means of personal expression and emotional release for me,” he says. His design approach remains the same for these heavier topics as his other work. “I still see it as a means of creating something impactful, that carries a message and creates conversation.” Posting to social media offers creatives up to immediate criticism, but Anglin says that the responses – both positive and negative – are “irrelevant”. “The point is to spread awareness, even if that means making some people uncomfortable.”

“Support black artists”

Social media can support designers from backgrounds that have not traditionally been well represented in the design industry. New York-based designer and illustrator Sophia Yeshi’s page recently “exploded” – gaining thousands of followers over a week – because Laci Jordan, a Los Angeles-based artist, created a graphic in support of black artists, which featured her. The red and pink graphic read: ‘Support black artists and not just the ones with large audiences.’ Among those featured were South African designer Kgabo Mametja and socially-conscious ‘design space’ Wildlogic.

Yeshi – who is both south Asian and black – says her work is driven by a desire “to tell stories”. “I want to tell my own story but also the stories of other black and brown women, who like me, didn’t grow up seeing themselves represented in media and art”. Her recent graphics for BLM were prompted by a desire to “speak up” about the things she believes in. This did create some hesitation for Yeshi. “I was wary about creating anything because in no way am I an activist and I didn’t want to make something just for the sake of it,” she explains.

It can also be a mixed blessing, of course. Yeshi notes how “people don’t realize that these images belong to you” and that it’s “very difficult to control what happens to your work once it’s on social media”. “Next thing you know,’ she says, “someone is selling a T-shirt with your design on it.” Yeshi, like many other designers will be keeping an eye on how intellectual property laws evolve in the future.

There are other, more formal resources available to highlight the work of designers from underrepresented backgrounds. Blacks Who Design is a directory for black creatives (divided by sectors of design, from graphics to UX). Drawing While Black is focused on illustration, though branches out to other fields. While these directories are useful and wide-ranging – many of the designers in this article are featured – there is also a concern that black designers may only be commissioned for work relating to race.

“People are absolutely sharing without thinking”

Bunbury’s poster

Of course, a graphic design or visual becoming popular online does not necessarily lead to change, and social media-led activism (or ‘clicktivism’) is often criticised for its superficiality. It was recently echoed by Greg Bunbury, the designer who created London’s ‘I can’t breathe’ poster in honour of Eric Garner in 2014. He recently updated the design for George Floyd, and spoke to Design Week about how the BLM movement must not “stop with an image” – it requires active engagement.

“People are absolutely sharing without thinking,” Yeshi agrees. It is a limitation of graphic design: “It’s easy to feel like you’re helping in some way by engaging with a graphic but most of the time all you’re really doing is making yourself feel better and trying to show the people around you care”. The work for white people and people of colour, she says, is to “keep protesting, keep donating and keep confronting the biases that we all inherently have within us”. It is not a surprise then, that these graphics now go beyond the Black Lives Matter slogan, and provide more in-depth information or precise call-to-actions.

The design industry (and many others) will likely be looking at this moment and wondering whether it will lead to lasting and meaningful change. Brands have been criticised for jumping on the bandwagon or worse, tone-deaf lip service to BLM. And diversity at an industry level will require inclusion at senior level, not just hiring more “black designers for campaigns”, Yeshi says. She adds: “Hire us even when it’s not popular and when you aren’t trying to make your company look good.”

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