I wrote the essay below for the Design Issues column in the May/June 2004 issue of Communication Arts. I profile a couple of folks using graphic design for advocacy. I didn’t call it out explicitly in the text, but it’s of some relevance that the projects here are generally not pro-bono projects “for charity,” but are organizations started by designers generally working with broader communities. Check it out.
Walking the streets of New York City in February 2003, one couldn’t help but notice all these little blue stickers. Stuck to walls, phone booths, bus stops, scaffolding, mail boxes — they popped up everywhere to announce the February 15 march against President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
The blue stickers were just one of the many anti-war graphics circulating at the time. Around the Web, activists were posting free, easy-to-print designs using a variety of techniques: clever slogans, typographic play, dramatic photos and the ironic use of vintage propaganda imagery.
But the February 15 stickers on the streets of New York were different — simple and bold, a little blue banner announcing the time and place of the march. They did not make an emotional appeal with pictures of scarred and armless Iraqi children or U.S. soldiers, nor was there any argument about why the war was wrong.
The February 15 posters were not intended to change people’s minds in a direct way, but to notify the public about the upcoming protest — and to make dissent visible. The mainstream media had entirely avoided covering the anti-war movement prior to February 15. In the face of this de facto censorship and police obstruction over the route of the march, the stickers acted as thousands of little acts of civil disobedience. And with the urban landscape as a medium, the stickers set the stage for even larger acts of defiance.
In recent months, there have been several open calls to designers to help stir up the electorate.
Designs On The White House
“Designs On The White House is a grassroots fund-raising organization in support of the John Kerry 2004 Presidential campaign. We aim to mobilize the creative community through an online design contest, judged by designers, celebrities, and activists. Winning designs will be available for resale on T-shirts and other products, and all proceeds after expenses will benefit the John Kerry Presidential campaign. Designs on the White House Organization (DOTWHO) is an independent political committee and is not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.
Each design will be entered in only one category.”
Anyone with a valid email address can register with the site and cast their votes on the contributed designs.
The site also features blogs about the DOTWH campaign and the Kerry campaign. A recent entry encourages non-designers with design or slogan ideas to post them.
The deadline for entries is May 22, 2004.
Let Down By Labour
‘Labour isn’t Working’ fast became one of the most famous posters in advertising history. Imagine if you had been able to have a crack at that brief? Just as in 1979 when Labour wasn’t working, today swathes of the population feel let down by Labour.”
The final date for submissions was April 23, 2004.
“We have received a massive response from the people of Great Britain and we would like to thank all of you for your contributions. We will be displaying the best ideas in a gallery so that everyone can see how let down by Labour the British people feel. The large number of submissions we have received means that it will take some time for us to sort through the ideas. But as soon as they are ready to be unveiled to the public we will be presenting a selection of them here. Once again thank you for your support.”
And from the comments of VoxPop:
One thing CCO isn’t shouting from the rooftops is that they opened this competition to the "creative industries" (i.e. trendy spec-wearing ripped jeans fans) the week before they opened it to the public.
Also, there’s absolutely no guarantee that they’ll use any of the entries.
Honestly, this scheme could not have been met by more incredulous stares had it been announced on April 1st - Saatchi coming up with a scheme whereby members of the public do his job for him? Shurely shome mishtake.”
Blogged here previously, that famous poster also turns out to be a fake.
AIGA Get Out the Vote
From the AIGA Atlanta Web site:
“AIGA will again mount a campaign to demonstrate the power of design in the public arena by encouraging designers to contribute to a coordinated get-out-the-vote campaign for national elections in the fall of 2004. The objective is to demonstrate the value of design to the public, public officials and business by providing a clear call to action for an activity that is important to everyone.
The campaign will have two elements to it. The first will be a selection of designers who will be asked to create nonpartisan calls to action that will bear a national AIGA campaign identity. AIGA’s national coordinator will select six designers and each AIGA chapter will be encouraged to select a designer to develop a design, for a potential total of 53 different designs.
The second element will be an open gallery of member designs that will be posted on the website and available for local printing, specifically by our members and also available to any visitor to the website. Any member will be entitled to post a design in the open gallery. This will become the largest gallery of available designs in support of this critical civic function. Some of the unsolicited submissions may be selected to be included among the collection of posters that AIGA will print and will distribute to all chapters for posting locally.
After careful consideration of the success of the previous campaign, this year we are proposing a slightly smaller-scaled window card format rather than posters, since the potential for actual posting in public places increases substantially if the designs are of a scale that can be placed in small shop windows and on public bulletin boards (places where a larger poster would not be posted). The scale also allows for printing out on local color printers as well as commercial printing. Our intention is to demonstrate the strength of our communication design, regardless of the production values of the print. This is in the spirit of civic postings since Revolutionary times....
The purpose of this campaign is to encourage voter turnout. There is no single message, although the intent is a call to action, motivating people to register and to turn out to vote. The visuals and the text of the message must be nonpartisan—we are supporting the basic democratic premise of citizen participation, not a partisan position on candidates or issues. Messages or images that are likely to offend substantial numbers of citizens will not be selected nor included on the site, since they would be counter to our intention of developing messages that encourage voter participation through effective use of images, text and ideas.”
The deadline for submissions was April 1, 2004. You can view or download the posters here.
I also note that the designs must include the AIGA logo:
“All posters must incorporate the required branded band (this will be embedded in the supplied template). The band will include the AIGA logo and the tagline ‘Good design makes choices clear’ along with sponsor information.”
No RNC Poster Collective
“No RNC Poster Collective is a small collective of friends with experience in graphic design and independent media. We came together with the goal of facilitating visual resistance for the anti-RNC activities in NYC this summer. We want to make protest beautiful and connect artists with organizations working against the RNC.
Our goal for the project is to create a visual blitz in New York City against Bush and the Convention, and to blend art with politics in the finest New York style.
We are putting together in a free book of posters relating to the Republican National Convention in New York City, August 29th -September 4th. We are mass producing these posters on newsprint for distribution across New York City and the country in bookstores, apartment windows, picket signs and pasted up on the street.
We are looking for artists who can make posters with themes anywhere in the range from anti-Republican to anti-RNC-being-held-in-NYC to anti-Bush to antiwar to anything else you think is relevant. The plan is to have some posters about specific marches and actions and others that communicate a general anti-RNC message.
We are printing the posters in early June so that we can circulate them all summer. Submissions should be in black and white. Dimensions are 14" x 21" (that’s 15" x 22" with a half inch border). Deadline for submissions is May 30th. If you are at all interested, please e-mail us at: email@example.com.
In mid-June, we’ll head to the printers with the best designs we get, and then set up a distribution network to get thousands of them up on the streets, in storefronts, in apartment windows, on picket signs.... everywhere there’s room.
We’re also setting up an online gallery to display all the great work that people are sending in. In addition to that, we’re working on a gallery show-style event where we can show everything together, which will hopefully also act as a small fundraiser for the project.
We’ll also be doing stickers, stencils, pins, and more over the course of the summer, so please keep in touch if you have other designs or ideas.
Also, one of our goals in starting this project was to hook up artists with organizations — if you think you might be interested in designing a poster for a specific group or event, let us know, it’d definitely help. Info on all the events and groups is here: http://rncnotwelcome.org/logistics.html. Check it out and see if anything leaps out at you.
We hold regular meetings in Brooklyn every Wednesday night, which people are welcome to come to — e-mail us if you have any interest. We’re currently working on fundraising and other logistics,
We’re working closely with the fantastic folks at Arts in Action, who are planning all sorts of fun, creative, and challenging work in the city this summer. Check them out at http://www.thechangeyouwanttosee.org for more info on what they’re up to.”
The budgetary and printing limitations will also give the No RNC posters a consistent, low-tech aesthetic despite the variety of designs and designers.
You can view the final posters here.
Though the projects follow much the same format, the politics differ considerably. And though each is an open call for entries, distributed primarily through email and the Web, each seems to target participants much like the organizers themselves, though each in the end aspires to influence a broader public.
Designs On The White House is a grassroots initiative endorsing a major political party. They are rallying a younger crowd seeking to inject a sense of style and hipness into the stodgy, elitist political machine.
Let Down By Labour is a top-down initiative, probably financed by the political party. As noted by the commentor, they seem to be looking for free labor, particularly from other advertising professionals.
The AIGA, a national professional association of dues-paying designers, while explicitly non-partisan, is encouraging participation in the electoral process. The competition was only open to members, and is as much about promoting the AIGA and the public value of design as it is about getting out the vote.
The No RNC Poster Collective, an a grassroots, open, volunteer collective is explicitly partisan, and while challenging the Republican convention, is tied to the protest and civil disobedience to take place around the convention. They are accepting contributions from anyone.
Judging for Let Down By Labour is secret and closed. The judges are unknown. Judging for the AIGA and Designs on the White House are via celebrity panelists, though Designs on the White House does open some voting to the public through the Web. Judging for the No RNC Poster Collective project is open, though one has to physically travel to Brooklyn.
The motivation pitched by each also varies: Let Down By Labour promotes pure self-interest and the prospect of fame for oneself; The AIGA sells the high ideals of civic engagement; Designs on the White House pitches the fun of it; while the No RNC Poster Collective provides a place to focus one’s outrage.
I also note how the choice of media plays into the politics.
Designs On The White House focuses on T-shirt design, seem to implicitly target an audience in their 20’s and 30’s that would wear cheeky political T-Shirts. T-shirts with the winning designs will be put on sale for anyone to purhcase.
Let Down By Labour focuses on advertising, specifically national television and billboards, expensive media generally only accessible to wealthy corporations, advertising agencies, and the big political parties themselves. While this might seem to be an opportunity to the grassroots to gain access, it is still corporate spaces purchase by corporations in the service of a conservative, corporatist party.
The AIGA Get Out the Vote initiative and the No RNC Poster Collective both focus on poster design. Both will have open distribution via the Web, and printed posters will be distributed on an ad-hoc basis. The AIGA posters will probably have perennial use for future election campaigns, though the RNC posters are specifically located towards the convention in New York City, the walls and public surfaces of the City, setting the stage for the massive civil disobedience.
I don’t ascribe much significance to the names of typefaces. The style names are not what determine the meanings of letterforms.
But this was just so rich. From The New York Times’ note on last fall’s typographic overhaul:
“The [New York] Times’s text typeface, for news and editorials, remains Imperial, designed in the 1950’s by Edwin W. Shaar and adopted by the newspaper in 1967.”
The shape of the News, the shapes of Truth are inscribed in Empire.
“But virtually everything I complain about in type (even the stuff I take action on) is essentially trivial in the context of the needs of the world. Except for one thing: increasingly I become more worried about Latinization — the imposition of Latin alphabetic ideals on other scripts. It’s really nothing short of cultural imperialism, even cultural genocide. To me Latinization is a henchman of globalization, and anybody who feels that cultural variety is a central pillar of life being worth living needs to fight it.”
Save the Date: Sunday, August 29, 2004.
Buy a T-Shirt: At http://www.cafepress.com/nornc/
So you’re at a presentation by some kickass organization. You’re convinced by their analysis and the work they do. The rest of audience seems fired up, too. But by the end of the question and answer period it’s getting late and the energy has started to wane. Half the crowd has already trickled out by the time someone asks, “How can I get involved?”
Only then does it come out “Oh yeah, can anyone pass around a piece of paper to get everyone’s email addresses?”
But by then it’s almost always too late. The crowd has dispersed or is too busy talking to each other.
I’ve seen this happen again and again and again. In fact, I’m guilty of it myself.
Enough! Say it with me:
“Sign Up for the Mailing List!”
It’s such a basic thing. And so very, very powerful.
While maintaining a Web site does require some special skills, maintaining an email list is easy. Whether publishing a newsletter, sending out an action alert, announcing an event, raising funds, building solidarity, or generally spreading the word, the costs for maintaining an email list are minimal. And the impact can be great.
I’ve also seen four job descriptions in the last two weeks from large non-profit organizations recruiting online organizers. While these large organizations may be able to afford expensive online activist tracking database software, there are several free listserv services available to individuals and small organizations.
Steer clear of “free” services from big corporations, though. Not only are these often padded with advertisements, but Yahoo! and Topica don’t much care for the privacy or security of your users.
Below is a list of organizations that provide free email list services. They are run by activists for activists, generally staffed by volunteers and funded by donations. They generally do not include advertisements on their email lists. Many have specific policies about the types of groups they support and the types of email messages they do not. Visit: autistici.org/inventati.org, cat.org.au, communitycolo.net, interactivist.net, mutualaid.org, resist.ca, icomm.ca, nodo50.org, sindominio.
You can also set up a free announcement list on very your own Web server with phpList. It manages bounces and multiple lists very well and seems perfect for folks who are not yet ready to tackle a full-on Mailman installation.
If you do have a Web site, make sure it’s immediately clear that you do have an email list. And make it very easy for people to sign up. No need for pop-up windows — a prominent link or sign-up form will do.
Here are a couple of links to tips and tricks on using email for advocacy:
I also appreciate when an organization lets you know how an action went. Following-up an action with a brief update is a good way to build good will. MoveOn is particularly good at this.
And please only send email to people who have agreed to receive it from you. Spam from activists is sometimes called “tofu.” It’s just as nasty.
So please, please:
And if you don’t mind my saying so, be sure to add the email addresses you’ve collected to your listserv soon after the event. Then send your participants an email message thanking them for participating and letting them know about upcoming activities.