This piece is part of a series that looks at the past year of protests—in Hong Kong, Beirut, Delhi, and across the United States—through a design lens. We asked writers living in, or with connections to, these places to consider design’s role within the context of these specific movements. Yesterday, we heard from Ritupriya Basu about the use of digital tools in India’s anti-NRC and CAA protests in February.
Protest movements shift minds long before they lead to action. This is by nature and design. The welling up of anger within a community brings individuals together in collective motion around a unified thought: “We’re fed up, things must change.” What begins as expressions of anger can, through protest, lead to catharsis, as individuals consolidate in collective voice, and step in syncopated rhythm to affirm each other’s demands for attention. Those calls are heard through the chanting of mantras that penetrate our consciousness. “Black Lives Matter!” The resonance of that phrase conjures history, carrying forward the pain of ancestors to demand a new future of our own making. “No Justice, No Peace!” Voices coalesce to will thought into matter. “What Do We Want?!” Call and response models our desire to turn anger into dialogue, and dialogue into active change.
But these moments of protest risk being just that: moments. The mantras seep into our consciousness. The marching exorcises pain from the body. Signs and banners amplify personal or branded messages that provide visual evidence: we are here—we were there. But then what? The power of a protest—witnessed either from the safety of COVID-mandated isolation or on the front lines of a protest march—is in its performance of solidarity, but that same performance risks becoming an empty or one-time gesture unless it is coupled with sustained action.
These moments of protest risk being just that: moments.
Conventionally, design leaders have supported protest through art by producing posters, T-shirts, and pins with affecting messages and striking graphics, but in this moment we’re seeing a different tenor of social activism, particularly on Instagram. “Movement Guides” have taken over my feed, transforming the platform’s carousel images into click-through instructional guides: for non-optical allyship, virtual protesting, reading Black authors, unlearning white saviorism, developing ongoing reparations plans, the list goes on. The point of these guides is not just to add to the visual landscape of a protest moment, but to provide a way forward, to ask “What’s next?” They frame this question not to Black people, but to individuals of privilege and power.
Those making these guides—Manassaline Coleman, Mireille C. Harper, Annika Hansteen-Izora, and Vanessa Newman, among others—have keenly intuited that after the posters are printed, after the signs of solidarity are displayed, white designers and anyone who benefits from inherited privilege will once again return to daily life, unchanged. And they know that true change, in the design industry and in the wider world, will not come if we treat movements as moments and not as ongoing practices. During the protests, “Do the Work” became its own sort of rallying call, echoing across social media. Our colleagues, peers, and allies seem to understand, finally, that it’s the mundane, the daily, and the ongoing work that will serve to dismantle unearned, inequitable power and privilege across all domains—in the workplace, in community investment, in civic responsibility, and in the mediated landscapes of design.
Our colleagues, peers, and allies seem to understand, finally, that it’s the mundane, the daily, and the ongoing work that will serve to dismantle unearned, inequitable power and privilege.
“Liberation work is a lifelong practice,” says Annika Hansteen-Izora, whose guide to “Funds and Creative Ecosystems that support Black people” caught my and many others’ attention in the weeks after the George Floyd protests spread from Minneapolis to throughout the nation, and then around the world. Set against a bright gradient and populated with joyful buttons and symbols, the guide to investing in Black artists and communities garnered 65k likes and inspired several follow-ups. They’re blueprints for building a reparative practice, one in which Hansteen-Izora hopes allies will work toward on their own, without having to “ask a Black person.” She includes organizations to support, but ultimately encourages readers to make their own financial plan, one that will sustain into the future.
The work around reparations is significant in that it is a call for “repair” not “receipt,” and the visual language of many of these Movement Guides signal “repair” in their nods to joy over anger, and to fluidity over dogmatic structure. While much has been made of the violence of these protests, the designers creating this work (as well as most protesters and street-based activists) embrace joy and faith: Joy as acts of radical love for one another, faith in and on behalf of our communities, our bodies, and our futures.
This visual language of communal care is essential during a time that’s fraught with anxiety, especially for Black designers and design educators who are being called on to showcase our relevance and our activism even as we grieve. For Manassaline Coleman, whose bright and undulating Guide to Virtual Protesting was liked half a million times and shared profusely, the only way to real and sustainable change is to make healing and self-care part of the work. “Healing looks like taking time for yourself or slowing down,” she says. “Realistically, [change] is not going to happen this year. This is not going to be the year that ends everything. We can maintain momentum, but still be able to slow down.”
Coleman rightly steels herself and us for the long game. This work is ongoing. From early liberation demands of the 1800s (Stono Rebellion, 1739) and 1900s (Nat Turner and La Amistad), our forebears have risen up in voice and body to assert the universal right to their humanity and against the barbarisms of the enslavers. Their work continued into the 20th century with our brothers and sisters in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s who demanded legal reforms: the legal right to travel and dine and learn and live as equals with our fellow citizens.
The movement continues with us, and the demands are, in a way, more complex. While there are specific measures around defunding and abolishing the police that are certainly concrete in today’s movement, those demands are being addressed by advocates, activists, policy makers, bureaucrats, and the courts. The changes being asked of our professional communities—our design community—require more personal forms of reckoning in the absence of legal statutes. They require an acknowledgement of and reckoning with unearned privilege and power. After humanity and legality, the demand is for equity: the structured means by which we are liberated to pursue meaning, safety, representation, wealth creation, and success; the right to be fully present in the spaces where we work, and with equal voice in how decisions are made.
For designers, activation is enabled by creative placemaking. From street to screen, design is the tool that transforms idealism into action, that translates action and protest across media. “For me that looked like social media graphics, that looked like mobilizing social [media] in a direction where it can move people to making actions for themselves,” says Hansteen-Izora. That generosity of spirit is one possible bridge between the anger of protest and the complacency of daily life. The guide Hansteen-Izora offers up says, “there are no excuses for doing nothing.”
For designers, activation is enabled by creative placemaking.
Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel, associate director for design thinking for social impact and professor of practice at Tulane University, produced The Designer’s Critical Literacy Alphabet toolkit in 2020. Each letter of the alphabet conceptualizes change—I is for Intersectionality, E is for Emancipation research, and significantly, Y is for You. Here’s how Dr. Noel frames that concept: “You play an active role in change and transformation. You have the agency to question what is happening around you and take action as a response.” Her words are an invitation, a demand, and a reminder that design itself is change, and the designer is responsible for interrogating the realities that lead to meaningful change.
This work is fraught. People will make mistakes. They will say things wrong. As I write this, I’ve been watching a dialogue between colleagues on Twitter concerning the catch-all term BIPOC, another thread about the white gaze, and a video posting by an elder statesmen in the community lamenting the absence of HBCU-educated designers from recent public discussions. These colleagues are expressing very real anxieties around erasure. As the moments coalesce into formalized actions, whose voices will be heard, acknowledged, heeded; and whose will be left behind, left out, and ignored?
For colleagues who benefit from white privilege, who have been holding power in the design community without actively building equity for historically marginalized people, they now risk erasure as new voices assert their demands for equal space. What the designers who created Movement Guides are asking is that our colleagues in spaces of privilege and power engage equitably with these complex ideas about who you are, the privileges you have carried, and the spaces you can make now, right now, for someone else.
We’re trying to change each other, change ourselves, and allow ourselves to be changed. We’re trying to say and do the right things. Talk to the right people. Make the right declarations and define new action. They don’t all or always go right. They don’t all succeed. But as these protests call for change, designers are making space for holding hope that every voice that joins in collective action honestly, even if from the couch or behind the screen, is a new future.