The African Hair Braiding Salon Reader. Courtesy Nontsikelelo Mutiti.

For many designers, the past year’s near-constant social unrest has made the idea of addressing power inequity through design feel daunting. Where do you start? Is it even possible to address looming problems like white supremacy, racial justice, misogyny, or colonialism through visual form alone?

As queer theorist Jack Halberstam suggests in The Queer Art of Failure, the best approach could be to start small. “I believe in low theory in popular places, in the small, the inconsequential, the anti monumental, the micro, the irrelevant,” he writes. “I believe in making a difference by thinking little thoughts and sharing them widely.” For a designer, embracing low theory and “little thoughts” might mean starting somewhere relevant to you as a person. Designers and collectives such as Bastion Agency, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Nat Pyper, and Suzy Chan are already doing this; their work addresses power inequity by honing in on the things that affect them or their communities, as well as closely examining the histories that affect the forms they use and reference.

For Bastion, a design studio in Stockholm comprised of Alexandra Falagara, Brita Lindvall Leitmann, and Minda Jalling, their intersectional feminist practice stems out of a desire to have a clear set of conditions to work from, allowing them to make work that is both rational and creates space for empathy, intuition, and emotion. As Leitmann explains, “the intuitive part can take place because we create conditions for it, instead of being intuitive and then beholden to squeeze [the rational] in somewhere.” Their methodology stems from an intersectional Venn diagram of social identifiers such as gender, class, physical, and cognitive abilities, which overlap with modes of visual communication such as typography, craft, and texture. The team continuously tests each of their design choices against these intersections to challenge themselves to go beyond established untold rules and constrictive norms. 

They describe it as a sort of Bechdel-test for form. For example, Bastion’s paperback design of the Swedish translation of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist uses an inherently inexpensive production method but maximizes its ornamentation through decorative fore-edge printing and a drastic gradient for the title. Ornamentation has often been dismissed as tasteless or superfluous in design history. As Jan Tschichold once claimed in The New Typography, ornament’s “use comes from childish naiveté…it shows a reluctance to use pure design…a giving-in to a primitive instinct to decorate.” Though written in 1923, this has remained a popular belief within minimalist design. Bastion’s design of Bad Feminist also makes use of a digital rendition of Elizabeth Handletter, one of the first typefaces drawn by American female type designer, Elizabeth Colwell. As they put it, “a font made ​​by women is not per se feminist, but the gesture of highlighting female typographers in a male-dominated area is a feminist act.”

Though history has seen design used as a means to enact imperialism and disenfranchise communities, it’s also been used as a restorative practice, a means of reclaiming power. This can be seen in the work of Nontsikelelo Mutiti, which is invested in highlighting Black people’s past, present, and future through experimental publishing, peer collaborations, and teaching. One of her earlier publication projects, African Hair Braiding Salon Reader, produced during her 2014 residency at Recess, addresses power in a multitude of ways. For the initial iteration of the project, visitors to the residency space were invited to assemble loose leaflets with the contents of her research into a booklet in the manner that they chose, then bind them together using “plastic coils that looked like the kink of [her own] hair.” The binding nodded to the intensive yet intimate labor of hair braiding and how braiding is a means of creating new meaning through the entwining of different subjects. In the final reader, which has a chronological sequence, the text within the booklet Hair Braiding is Technology, written by Nettrice Gaskins, establishes how media production (visual art, textile, design, or music) requires samples, and how the act of reusing and reweaving samples is not unlike braiding. As Gaskins states, “The sample is a discrete unit of information (i.e. a sound, shape, or motif) that can be repeated to create a pattern. Samples in Nontsikelelo’s session at Recess include black hair combs, afro hair picks with black fist handles, Roman letterforms, and hair braider business cards.” 

The experience of creating the reader was formative for Mutiti and impacted her view on publishing. “That reader allowed me to understand that I could determine that the content from my culturally specific research and reflections of my life experience were important, that they had gravity and they matter enough to be encapsulated in a book form, a highly regarded authoritative form,” she says. “This is what allowed me to feel that I could design books or become a book designer.” Her commitment to her ongoing publishing practice, which has included collaborations with Simone Leigh, founding the creative agency Black Chalk & Co with writer Tinashe Mushakavanhu, and the start of a digital platform collecting and celebrating Zimbabwean literature, is an active means of building a future that she wants to see.

Deriving new meaning through histories is something that also shows up in Chicago-based designer Nat Pyper’s research into queer histories and lineages (with a special focus on queer anarcho zines from the ’80s and ’90s). Pyper argues that for queer folx, it can be necessary to look outside of the family tree for your lineage, which makes the case for the value of a chosen history as much as a chosen family. In their work with the typographic series the Queer Year of Love Letters, they’ve looked at their own queer lineage and made fonts that celebrate the countercultural queers of the past several decades

Pyper’s typeface “Ernestine Eckstein,” for example, is based on the protest sign of its namesake, one of the first open Black lesbian activists, held high at a gay rights protest in front of the White House in 1965. Through type, Pyper aims to share the work and memory of these queer pioneers without editorializing it or changing the spirit of the work. Rather, their revitalized typefaces are a means of re-working the past to define desires for the future. “I’m trying to transform the act of typing into the act of remembering,” they say. “For me, the form is totally important and vital to what it’s also expressing.”

 

As much as form is vital, it’s also not changing the world on its own. Design is praised for its influence and ability to convey powerful messages to sway public opinion, but it’s ultimately just a tool. Macau-based designer Suzy Chan has no illusions about this concept. Her thesis work from the London College of Communication in 2019 was based on Bertolt Brecht’s quote “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Her thesis project, Casino City, is commentary on the impact of Chinese dominion in Macau, a city with a long legacy of being subject to outside influence. Once a Portuguese colony, Macau came back under Chinese control in 1987, after which it became the only place a Chinese national could gamble (casinos are illegal on the mainland). As government sponsored casinos multiplied, local culture dwindled. Chan wanted to publicly memorialize the death of her city, so she designed her own form of currency based on the kitschy visual language of casino vouchers. In a series of speculative advertisements, she burned the bills, referencing the Chinese tradition of burning money for the deceased. For Chan, this was a way to communicate with other people in Macau through the familiarity of tradition; she used Brecht’s hammer to not just reshape reality, but to make her reality legible to other people.

As bell hooks writes in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, “the ability to see and describe one’s own reality is a significant step in the long process of self-recovery; but it is only a beginning.” In other words, it’s also important to understand how these smaller experiences fit into the larger fabric of the world. Bastion, Mutiti, Pyper, and Chan all use their stories to situate themselves within larger narratives that are too big to tackle at once or on their own. They give critical form to their subjectivities, and by doing so, they work against singular narratives, ultimately influencing the broader picture. The more designers do this, the more effective it will be. The single story might be the place where we’re able to begin inserting ourselves into the large looming issues of the world, but that’s not where we end.