“We’re interested in the ability to be nimble, political, and sharpen our critique about how that works,” says founder of New York’s Partner & Partners Greg Mihalko. “Individual designers can be free from institutional barriers and talk about the issues they care about.”
Mihalko and the two other partners that make up his studio, Kathleen Scudder, and Zach Mihalko, have put their modus operandi where his mouth is, working only with clients deemed to be socially conscious. As such, alongside the usual stream of services the studio bills itself as offering—print, exhibition, interactive, and identity work and so on; and clients in art, architecture, and public spaces—Partner & Partners has neatly tacked on “activism” collaborators to the list.
A project that might fit under this umbrella is Partner & Partners’ identity for a neighborhood-wide anti-pollution campaign in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, called Curb Your Litter. Another perhaps edgier one is the studio’s website design for art activist collective The Illuminator, which emerged during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, and later orchestrated a vast projection of the 99% logo onto Manhattan’s Verizon building. The site uses a freely available typeface based on an open-source font design created by Jonathan Barnbrook as the base.
These subtle design nuances underscore Greg Mihalko’s fundamental distaste for a culture where political and social events become seen as marketing opportunities: “Organizations and institutions declaw political messages—they use moments in time and movements to prop up their marketing,” he says.
I wanted to highlight Partner & Partners as an adjunct to an article we recently published asking whether designers should take responsibility for the ethics of their clients. One answer that consistently emerged was that the importance of “paying the bills” can outweigh prioritizing ethical issues. Many argued that you do one for the dollars and then you do one for the greater good. Ultimately though, that seems to be a contradiction: working to promote a company that produces its goods in a factory with non-existent rights, for instance, and then doing a pro bono logo for a human rights charity cancels one deed out with the other.
I find it hard to believe that the cautious “one for them, one for us” model is the only way to work. Partner & Partners is an example of a studio that manages to put ideology before bucks, and sets a great example for designers looking to use their skills for activist causes.
One of Partner & Partners’ most memorable designs emerged from its identity for an exhibition at volunteer-run gallery of activist material Interference Archive. Entitled We Won’t Move, it showcased the collective action of tenants for affordable housing from the 1940’s to the present. The project involved the production of a 74-page catalog with resources for tenant organizers today, and of course the creation of a poster, which has since been used in tenant movements across the world (Scudder has spotted them in both San Francisco and London).
Seeing that poster appear in the windows of housing blocks around the globe ticked all the boxes for Partner & Partners’ staunchly open-source approach.“People in design can put up walls. They say ‘this is mine’,” says Greg Mihalko. “We don’t think of our designs like that. It’s really important that we filter this thinking into as much of our client work as possible. So if we develop a typeface, we then make it available for free. If someone wants to reuse a theme, we’re not asking for payment. We’re in a moment where this is all possible and far more possible than it ever was in the past. We want to take advantage of that, and serve a larger purpose.” Partner & Partner creates design that’s not passive, but which invites the viewer to be active, participate, and engage.
Of course, the reality is that getting to the stage where you can comfortably reject larger budgets in favor of projects that you believe in takes time and commitment. The studio has had to focus on the long-term to make it work—often, it’s been about going for the smaller budget instead of the more “prestigious” client, and always keeping its eyes on the goal.
In creating a portfolio with a clear purpose, Partner & Partners has amassed a “network of collaborators” that means that it’s increasingly being approached by non-profits with bigger budgets. “The small decisions are now filtering what we’re associated with, and it’s starting to come to a head for us,” says Zach Mihalko.
“Now we’re also beginning to try to wean ourselves off client services, working on other ways to produce revenue like our Risograph printer for example,” adds Scudder. “We use Fridays as our ‘free political day’ where we can vent, whether that’s through writing or making posters.”
She offers one central piece of advice for designers who want to use their skills for activist activity. “It’s helpful to have experience in the design world first and before you get into this stuff so that you can do it. We all had jobs before that have made us empowered to make the decisions that we do,” she says. “You need to recognize what you don’t want to do before you can articulate what you do want,” adds Greg Mihalko.
All three partners agree that it’s not just about getting in contact with non-profits that you think are interesting and want to collaborate with. It’s also about actively being a part of the movements and issues that you’re working with. “Don’t just root non-profits out and do design from a distance,” says Zach Mihalko.
Greg Mihalko chimes in: “It’s important to be there, to take action in general. In the design community, we tend to root ourselves in the roles that our system has prescribed us, but actually it might be just as important to put your body out there as a visual human in a protest. You as a designer don’t have to print something to be part of a movement.”