The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the official position of AIGA, the professional association for design.
What does real freedom to choose look like, even (or especially) in the states and countries where legislation is decidedly pro-choice? And how can graphic design help communicate a more accurate narrative? As the anti-choice movement gains traction, the positive effects that abortion has on millions of lives can get lost, so we spoke with the people behind five projects and platforms where graphic design and visual communication is contributing to the portrayal of abortion as a normal medical procedure and basic human right.
By creating sharply satirical magazines, or raising funds for Planned Parenthood and reproductive right campaigns, or clarifying the way information is disseminated to women with limited or no access to safe abortion, these designers are helping to establish a narrative around abortion that focuses on personal experience. Many of these designs challenge pervasive cultural mentality and how birth control and abortion is widely represented, offering up new visual systems for a divisive, ever-changing conversation.
Women on Web instructional abortion pill animation, by Renata de Andrade
In 2016, to celebrate the 10–year anniversary of the telemedical abortion service Woman on Web (WoW), artist Renata de Andrade created an instructional how-to animation and donated it to the cause. She went to the same college as WoW founder, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, and had volunteered for the service in its pre-internet days, when it was Women on Waves, a mobile clinic aboard a ship. The group helped women in countries without access to safe abortions get information about their options, and if needed, send them a medical abortion pill in the mail. Gomperts had always wanted an explanatory video to help guide women through the procedure of taking the pill, so De Andrade’s animation became “the perfect celebration present” to crown a decade of important work.
The film is available in 10 languages and can accommodate a range of literacy levels. It explains—in writing, in voice-over, and through the characters’ expressions—what to expect when you take the pill, with the effects of bleeding, cramping, and discomfort depicted with clarity. An orange, violet, and pink color palette echoes the branding of WoW, and the women in the film have orange hair, pink dresses, and different neon color faces to convey that any woman could be in this particular situation.
Every month, WoW receives over 10,000 emails from women asking for help. There are “a huge amount of desperate people in contact constantly,” says De Andrade. Living in countries where abortion is either banned or severely restricted makes their situation stressful enough, so it was vital for both Gomperts and De Andrade to approach the animation in a non-dramatic way. “The goal of the film was to depict the procedure as something normal,” says De Andrade, who received the medically accurate script from Gomperts prior to beginning the sketching process.
“Other instructional videos can feel very heavy, very somber, and dramatic. The women watching have been made to go through a lot of drama already, though. It’s not like women who seek abortions should feel that their situation is dramatic, but because of all the misinformation around abortions that’s circulated and engrained by social stigmas, it is made to be dramatic,” says De Andrade.
“When making the animation, I had to consider how much stress the viewer of the video would be going through. I also had to consider that the process is likely one that they would be doing alone.”
With this in mind, De Andrade decided to depict the women who receive their envelope from WoW with big smiles spread across their faces, while giving the screen thumbs up. This depiction has received criticism online, with one pro-choice critic writing, “There is something unnerving about the completely upbeat and casual tone… as though abortion through telemedicine is of no more consequence than a self-sourced round of antibiotics.”
“What’s the problem with depicting their feeling of relief, though?” asks De Andrade, asserting that the smiles are working against hundreds of years of a dogmatic cultural and religious mentality. “It’s important that the woman watching, who feels relief, isn’t made to feel guilty about her relief. With the smiles, I hoped she would see that that relief is completely normal.” In the first draft of the animation, Andrade was more “radical” with this particular moment—the envelope that the postal worker hands over read “LIFE,” a detail that WoW asked De Andrade to reconsider.
“It was too extreme for the purpose of this animation, but the idea itself is not extreme,” she says. “When the woman gets the pill, she gets her life back. If it were not for the pill, she could not live the life she wants. It’s often considered radical to compare an abortion with life. But if you think about the woman’s perspective, it does mean life.”
#ShoutYourAbortion movement + website designed by Civilization
Through an accessible and very recognizable campaign, the Shout Your Abortion (SYA) movement in the United States is challenging the fact that so many women feel unable to openly discuss their personal abortion stories. As a decentralized network of individuals talking about abortion in their own terms, SYA is committed to changing current cultural norms by communicating that abortion is common, necessary, and supported by the majority of Americans. “We must clear the smoke and end the lies—replace disinformation with truth,” reads a statement on the movement’s website, which recently won the 2017 People’s Voice Webby in the Activist category.
SYA begun when founder Amelia Bonow posted her abortion story on social media in the summer of 2015—a tweet that quickly went viral, and was in part responding to the circulation of fake Planned Parenthood videos at the time. Since then, #ShoutYourAbortion has been used over 250,000 on social media, and Bonow and her network of volunteers have published zines and created a digital space for abortion narratives to encourage authentic dialogue.
“SYA wants to open up as many spaces as possible for people to represent the truth of their own lives—in art, fashion, digital culture, on the sides of buildings, in music, anywhere and everywhere,” says Bonow.
“People’s real abortion stories are starting to seep into every layer of culture. Once that happens, we’ll start to see legislation that actually reflects our needs and values and lives.”
The site design is by Civilization, a Seattle studio that partners with causes and clients that are committed to social change, and its SYA posters are going to be included in Milton Glaser and Mirko Illic’s much-anticipated new edition of The Design of Dissent released later this year (which Civilization is also collaborating on).
“The design direction of SYA took inspiration from the grassroots history of the pro-choice movement,” says Civilization co-founder Michael Ellsworth.
“Like the movement itself, Shout Your Abortion values different visual perspectives, they work with a variety of artists in creating merchandise, protest materials and campaigns. We wanted the platform to complement all of their collaborations.”
Shout Your Abortion has always had a DIY aesthetic, which Civilization wanted to stay true to; a reference to the movement’s zines filled with letters of support and thanks to abortion care providers. “We translated these DIY elements, and the texture and collage found in zines into the design of the site,” says Ellsworth. The bold sans serif typeface references classic protest graphics, and the soft pink refers to the paper of SYA publications.
“SYA’s greatest strength is that the movement is based on real experiences, so we wanted to create an accessible digital platform that would encourage people to share their stories and collectively change the narrative around women’s reproductive rights,” says Ellsworth. “We focused on creating an experience that’s intuitive and puts people and their stories first. No matter who you are, you have a voice in this movement, you can upload a video testimonial, a written story, download protest materials, shop, donate, and above all, learn so you can educate others.”
The site’s power is its flexibility; it’s an organizational system that can contain a range of stories and experiences while still retaining a cohesive structure. Indeed, it functions almost like a hashtag—it’s focused on a single call, but it’s a malleable space where an individual can express a personal perspective.
“Repeal the 8th” issue of Guts magazine, by Roisin Agnew
For Roisin Agnew, a young writer and editor of Dublin’s independent magazine Guts, “Repeal the 8th” was a topic that kept coming up in conversation with her contributors and friends when discussing themes for her January 2017 issue. The Repeal campaign in Ireland has brought long overdue attention to the issue of reproductive rights in a very catholic country—alerting people to the pain and suffering that the 8th amendment has caused (the country’s abortion ban of 1983). As Guts magazine is fueled by the personal and confessional, writers were regularly pitching stories around their personal experiences with abortion—stories similar to the ones shared in Repeal’s social media campaign, and via SYA.
“We decided to dedicate an entire issue to the movement, so Guts became the platform where all of us could use our skills to contribute. All of us were gagging to do something for Repeal,” says Roisin. “It was amazing to feel like we were doing something in some way, even if it was small.”
This special “Repeal the 8th” issue of Guts was released the day before the Women’s March in Dublin. “The idea was to take what I had learned from my peers from doing Guts about design and the power of strong visuals and getting a message across, and combine this with a serious political issue,” Roisin says.
“Until recently, youth culture has been dismissed as not being politically engaged—this idea that they don’t vote, they don’t have political vocab, they don’t protest. We’re thought of as a very design-led generation, but the fact that I make something slick and well-designed does not make it less of a political message.
“There’s an intellectual resistance to beauty and good design sometimes—a notion that if something is flashy, there is a lack of seriousness behind it. I object to that.”
The illustrations that Agnew commissioned from her all-female team were meant to communicate the idea of resistance while staying rooted in an aesthetic that her Irish contemporaries could relate to. Irish illustrator Laura Callaghan’s cover was designed to inspire the feeling of having a real voice and the power to challenge the 8th: a girl with a raised fist refers back to female strength historically, but for Agnew, “Laura’s brilliance is making the motif very contemporary through the details of her clothing and a timely mustard-and-pink color palette.”
For All Womankind, by Deva Pardue
At the same time that Agnew was putting together her Repeal issue in Dublin, across the Atlantic graphic designer Deva Pardue was readying her own graphic contributions to the reproductive rights movement in time for the International Women’s March.
Pardue’s design credentials include work on the opening titles for The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the design of New York women’s club The Wing; and at the end of 2016 she launched her public benefit company, For All Womankind, which donates proceeds from prints designed by Pardue (all printed on matte cover stock paper and reading slogans like “The Matriarchy is Coming” and “Femme & Fierce”) to either the Center for Reproductive Rights or Emily’s List, a non-profit working to elect progressive pro-choice women to office.
It was during the week of January 16th, when Pardue made a couple of free downloads available for people to use as signs in the march, that the project really took off. Her “Femme Fists” illustration went viral on Instagram when it was reposted by Rihanna, Naomi Campbell, Elizabeth Moss, Kat Dennings, Reese Witherspoon, and other influential women. The @all_woman Instagram handle soared from 700 followers to 12,000 in just two days; poster sales skyrocketed accordingly.
“I really had no idea that the project would take off the way it did. I quickly found myself inundated with daily administrative tasks. Products were selling out within hours of restocking and I was packing hundreds of orders from my apartment,” says Pardue. Her story of being a freelancer in New York, juggling her independent graphic design business with a public benefit company, is invaluable for others attempting to raise funds in a similar way.
“If someone were to launch a similar small project, it helps to get the word out before you even launch,” says Pardue. “Reach out to your network and ask them to spread the word, to share on social media so you can get as many eyes on it as possible. I’ve never been great at self-promotion, but because I was passionate about the causes I was raising money for, and because there’s an urgency to it, I had few qualms.”
Methods magazine, by Erin Knutson and Ria Roberts
Methods is a magazine by designers Erin Knutson and Ria Roberts about reproductive rights that deals with abortion as well as birth control and contraception. The pair met as students in the graphic design MFA program at Yale, and created Methods out of a shared frustration with the language of birth control ads. Both are now based in New York City, where Roberts works as a graphic designer for exhibitions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Knutson is the art director of Pin-Up; they publish Methods in their spare time.
Each issue asks artists and designers to create the kind of birth control ads they’d like to see, and to respond to the disparity between the high stakes of reproductive rights and the way contraceptives are marketed to women. Contributions vary from ads for abstinence, to freezing eggs, to “pulling out,” to witchcraft, and other submissions comically reveal how the breezy rhetoric used to advertise birth control could just as easily be selling yogurt or yoga pants.
“Reproductive rights in the U.S. are talked about with the use of violent patriarchal rhetoric. Birth control ads, while selling choice, are condescending and rife with euphemism,” say Knutson and Roberts. “We’re all familiar with the tropes: a pretty woman in a field of flowers, two pretty women leaving yoga class. Women are spoken to as if they’re barely sentient and there’s absolutely no acknowledgement of what’s at stake.”
“The disparity between the political and the consumer-facing conversations is deeply alienating and exponentially harmful to women. We are advocating for a future in which the language around birth control is one that is feminist, compassionate, intelligent, and respectful.”
The latest issue features interviews with Abigail DeAtley, director of development at Planned Parenthood NYC, and artist and activist Marilyn Minter. Proceeds from the magazine are donated to Planned Parenthood Federation of America, but Knutson and Roberts are clear that “value is practically non-existent, since self-publishing isn’t a very lucrative business.” While every dollar counts, they feel that the real value in the partnership is the relationship itself, an act of solidarity, and the creation of a space for dialogue within an expanding feminist network.
“The current visual language around abortion is especially medieval,” say the designers. “The fake anti-abortion videos that were distributed a few years ago exemplify the degree of insanity around this issue. Abortion and contraception should be addressed with respect to women and their choices and without any shame.”
Beyond a shared commitment to challenging the pervasive narratives of abortion, what these posters, websites, and magazines all have in common is that they don’t force the conversation—they facilitate it, offering up a space for women to connect if they can. And if they can’t, if a woman lives where it’s still too dangerous to be public about her abortion story, these projects at they very least communicate hope and a real dedication to taking the conversation offline and into legislation that impacts the lives all women.