“We propose a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication—a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.”
– First Things First 2000: A Design Manifesto
Over a decade and a half since the 2000 re-issuing of the First Things First manifesto, engulfed in the sound and fury epitomised by an American presidency mobilized through bigotry, racism, misogny, etc., not to mention deepening environmental crisis, endless war, racialised state violence, and exponentially increasing inequity, it seems like a good time to re-evaluate how the discipline of graphic design has responded to the manifesto. What has changed? What has stayed the same?
FTF had strong popular appeal back then, and the debates it inspired filled the design press influencing many young designers’ practices and spawning a plethora of initiatives addressing and rethinking graphic design’s social role (It's hard to imagine AIGA’s current Design for Good Initiative without that groundwork being laid). Naomi Klein's No Logo sat on almost every graphic designer's bookshelves (whether they read it or not), alongside issues of Adbusters magazine and the latest copy of Emigre. More recently, the manifesto was once again renewed in 2014 with a clearer focus on the implications of digital technology. Initiated by Cole Peters, it collected over 1,600 signatories, but without design celebrity endorsement, and within a vastly different cultural climate, resulted in little discussion or visible action beyond good intentions.
It would be defeatist to state that nothing has changed, and certainly, social engagement, sustainability, and inclusion have gained a significant foothold within design departments. Dori Tunstall, at OCADU, has recently been appointed the first black Dean of a Faculty of Design bringing with her a mandate towards decolonizing design education. Design thinking, despite its often empty and co-opted rhetoric, is now a popularly lauded term that at its core stresses approaching design problems through empathy. Social media has provided a fertile breeding ground for all manner of emergent political and activist art, and many popular protest movements have come to understand the vital and mobilizing role graphic design and art can play.
LOKI (or rather the ideas behind the studio) emerged out of the heyday of critical discussion on design’s social role, within the context of a vibrant, internationalist, anti-globalisation movement. We’ve always maintained that not only does graphic design have much to contribute to social movements, but that it is in itself a fundamentally social practice fraught with contradictory ideologies, its forms embedded with the political. Within our practice, our pedagogy (both institutional and popular), our collaboration with Memefest, and our research, we’ve continually engaged with these issues, hopefully in a productive, and self-reflexive manner.
To externalise some of this thinking, we’re proposing here a survey of graphic design studios/designers/collectives working in what could be roughly defined as socially engaged practice. It will certainly be an incomplete and personally-biased list, but it’s one that we haven’t really seen anywhere else. Hopefully it acts as an inspiring and useful starting point for analysis and further research into questions of studio typology/positioning and client selection, organisational and working methodologies, creative labour and precarity, and the aesthetics of engagement and resistance.
Socially Engaged Designers and Design Studios
The Grapus Legacy. The Grapus design collective emerged out of the May 68 student protests in France and came to define the aesthetic of the French political poster and protest art more generally. Members of the French Communist Party, their work expressed a new vision of society, merging politics and culture with a bold and distinctive form of image-making that was equally playful, aggressive, and rigorous. The collective dissolved in 1991, in part over a dispute on whether to work for the Louvre or not, but gave birth to several studios that each carry on a particular aspect of Grapus' legacy: l'Atelier de création graphique, les Graphistes associés, Ne pas plier, and Nous travaillons ensemble. Grapus was Pierre Bernard, Gerard Paris-Clavel, François Miehe (founders) and Jean-Paul Bachollet and Alex Jordan. Spector Books' What, you don't know Grapus? is an indispensible account of the many perspectives that made up the collective.
Sebastien Marchal is a French activist graphic designer that in many ways continues the Grapus/Ne pas plier tradition. He created/facilitated many of the open-source mobilisation graphics for the Nuit Debout movement, based on his typeface design Commune Sans. Though he doesn't have an official website, some of his work can be viewed online here.
Image-Shift is a Berlin based graphic design and visual communication studio founded by Sandy Kaltenborn. Sandy is also connected to the Grapus lineage via Alex Jordan of Nous travaillons ensemble and his 13-point non-manifesto is an excellent guide to socially-engaged design practice. He has shifted (or extended) his design practice into organizing an enduring, community-led anti-gentrification campaign in the Kreuzberg (Kotti) neighbourhood of Berlin.
ça ira! is a design studio founded by Pierre Maite, who co-led Image-Shift with Sandy Kaltenborn until 2012. The studio develops visual communication tools in the context of political, social, cultural and educational projects.
Barnbook Design. Jonathan Barnbrook is one of the few designers on this list that holds equal clout within institutional design spaces as within artistic and activist design circles. His notable collaborations with artists such as David Bowie are coupled with his radical political design work that unflinchingly attacks corporate globalization, consumer culture, resource exploitation, war, organized religion, and designers themselves. He has acted as art director for Adbusters magazine and created the logo for Occupy London. His celebrated typeface designs (with names such as Fat Bastard, Bourgeois, Manson, Doctrine, Olympukes) distill his ideology of design aesthetics and politics, each face drawn from/with historical reference and political criticism.
Pedro Inoue is a Brazilian graphic artist & designer who worked with Barnbrook Design between 2001 – 2007. He is the current creative director for Adbusters Magazine, providing him with an ideal platform to explore anti-capitalist design ideas and aesthetics. He works between São Paulo, Vancouver & Tokyo, producing a wide-range of challenging professional and personal graphic design work.
Tzortzis Rallis is a graphic designer based in London. He has also worked with Barnbrook Design, and explores the social and political role of visual communication in the public sphere. He is co-designer of the Occupied Times, and part of the Propagate collective and Occupy Design UK/Base Publication. He is currently a PhD student at LCC undertaking a practice-led research on agitational graphics and he is a member of DARH (Design Activism Research Hub).
Tings Chak is a multidisciplinary artist and designer (trained in architecture) based in Toronto whose work draws inspiration from anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-racist struggles. She is a migrant justice organizer and her graphic novel, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, explores the role and ethics of architectural design and representation in mass incarceration.
The Public is an activist design studio run by Sheila Sampath, whose work focuses on amplifying the concerns, ideas, and voices of marginalized communities. The studio is defined by anti-oppressive and social justice principals, and is deeply engaged with the communities it works with through popular education, research and collaborative initiatives. The Public's studio space in Toronto houses a storefront gallery. Sheila is also the editorial and art director of Shameless, a grassroots magazine for and by young women and trans youth.
Justseeds is an artists’ cooperative/network of 30 printmakers that contributes graphics to grassroots struggles for social justice. Considering their impressive visibility within active social movements in the Americas, and the scale and quality of their productions, their absence from institutional design discourse is a glaring omission. Their extensive portfolios of work epitomize the relationship between art and resistance, and act as a living archive visualising the histories of a wide range of social justice struggles. Many of their artists could be featured on this list individually, but I felt it was more important to rep the collective project. The image featured here is created by member Mary Tremonte.
Interference Archive. Though not a design studio, I wanted to include Interference Archive on this list as an important resource for the study of social movement design and graphics. The archive contains many kinds of objects that are created as part of social movements (posters, flyers, publications, etc.) and through their programming preserves, honours and animates histories and material culture that is often marginalized. The archive is an all-volunteer organization supported by a community that believes in the work they do. Please consider supporting their work!
Design Action Collective provides graphic design and visual communications for social change organizations and movments. The collective began in 2002 as a spin-off of the Inkworks Press Collective, a resource for the printing needs of progressive organisations active in the Bay area. Members of the collective are social justice activists and organizers who offer their skills as graphic designers and web developers to progressive movements. The official Black Lives Matter logo was designed by the collective.
Partner & Partners is a design practice focusing on print, exhibition, interactive and identity work with clients and collaborators in art, architecture, public spaces and activism. They bring beautifully and intelligently executed design work to many activist projects (they designed the Justseeds website).
Inkahoots is a design studio based in Brisbane with a distinctive visual language and a firm commitment to left wing politics, designing for community, culture and ecology. The studio operates collectively and evolved out of a community access screen printing studio. Member Jason Grant contributes regularly to discussion around the possibilities of a radically alternative design practice. Their unofficial slogan resonates deeply with me: Direct Design Action.
The Work Dept is a women-led social innovation design firm based in Detroit. They use human-centred and participatory design to reinvent experiences, improve communication, and increase advocacy. They are long-term design collaborators for Allied Media Projects, an amazing organization that cultivates media strategies for a more just world through the Allied Media Conference and sponsored projects program.
And Also Too is a collaborative design studio founded by Una Lee that works with social justice visionaries using community centred design processes. Their blog features some insightful case studies of their projects, connecting theory and practice. Una has facilitated the formation of the Design Justice Network, which aims to connect design practitioners and users who believe that those who stand to be the most impacted by design projects should be centred in design processes.
Hyperakt is a New York City social impact design agency working with humanitarian and philanthropic organizations, think tanks, universities, government agencies, tech innovators and social enterprises. Though their work encompasses strategy, design and technology, their interactive visualisation work is particularly impactful.
Firebelly is graphic design studio started by Dawn Hancock based in Chicago that often works with community-oriented nonprofits, foundations and charity organizations. Through their endeavours such as the Grant for Good, Reason to Give, and Camp Firebelly, they actively support local community organizations. Firebelly also organizes Typeforce, an annual showcase of experimental typographic design.
Co:Lab is a brand and communications design agency working with organizations for progressive social change. Founded by Rich Hollant in 1988, Co:Lab initially developed brand and product launches for Fortune 500 companies, but has since shifted to focus specifically on work in the social sector.
Justin Kemerling is an independent designer and activist working in Omaha, Nebraska. Amongst his many projects, the comprehensive, multi-year, multi-channel "Pipeline Fighters" campaign against the TransCanada Pipeline is particularly impressive for both its powerful design and political efficacy. In 20098, Justin co-organized the Power to the Poster project to showcase and disseminate open-source political posters.
Gaïa Orain is a multi-disciplinary designer (graphic, product, interaction, strategy) working on projects in the public interest. Her projects have criticallty addressed issues of accessibility, participation and representation in a wide-range of sectors. She is currently the design strategist at Fair Care Labs, the innovation arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). She's also a former student of mine, making me super proud!
Chris Lee is a graphic designer and educator whose current research examines the relationship between currency and graphic design as a way to reflect on design’s entanglement with power. His work seeks opportunities for speculating on alternative, non-coercive and decolonial forms of exchange. A talented editorial designer, he has designed numerous publications at the intersections of art, theory, and activism.
Sadie Red Wing is a Lakota graphic designer and researcher. Her thesis work presents a brilliant analysis of Lakota visual language, and she is devoted to the concept of visual sovereignty in indigenous and multicultural design. She has supported the #NODAPL protests in Standing Rock through her design work and on the ground organizing.
Iconoclasistas develop projects combining graphic art, creative workshops and collaborative research. They use collective mapping workshops as a practice that facilitates encounters, subverts dominant geographic narratives and problematizes social relations of power. Not a design studio per se, but an exemplary model of the possibilities of participatory information visualisation.
Ohyescoolgreat is an Amsterdam based independent studio for graphic design owned by Janneke de Rooi. Many of her projects are created through participatory collaboration and croedsourcing in order to requestion notions of identity, both political and personal. This is exemplified in her latest project Propaganda by the People.
Memefest. For over 15 years Memefest has showcased, investigated, archived and produced radical design interventions and communications practices. It is an international network of designers, media activists, artist, and academics critically engaged with communications design and art for social change. It produces an annual "friendly competition" soliciting projects in visual communication and critical writing from students and professionals, and hosts inter/extra-disciplinary symposia and workshops, where it becomes a temporary design studio producing work for social justice causes in situ. Memefest is an amazing resource for socially engaged design, and I'll be writing more about my work with them in an upcoming post.
Metahaven. Founded by Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden, Metahaven is a collective working across design, art, and filmmaking. Their often self-directed work can be understood as a practice of “aesthetic politics”, where they design about social issues, as a form of political commentary and critical theory, rather than for a client or cause. In my opinion, this approach can be seen to emerge from a particularly Dutch approach to critical design journalism, carrying forth the lineage of practitioners/thinkers such as Jan van Toorn. They have notably collaborated with Wikileaks, musician, composer and artist Holly Herndon (in support of Chelsea Manning), and are currently working on an experimental documentary The Sprawl (Propaganda about Propaganda).
Some Concluding Notes
It bears reiterating that this list is incomplete, and I'd like to continue updating it, so please feel free to suggest additions. This being said, defining the contours of what we mean by "socially engaged design" is still difficult, and I feel like the development of a typology and language to speak about this type of work is very important. Certain organic categories are appearing, but there's quite a diversity encompassed here, from small radical activist studios to progressive NGO communications firms, and even then it is hard to map them along this spectrum. This isn't a bad thing, but thinking about how these varied approaches to social change through design are related and how they differ would be very productive. I'm particularly interested by the differences that may become apparent within their visual languages as well.
In researching this list, I came across several other self-described "social good/impact" design firms that I decided not to include. I have to admit to being quite cynical about this terminology, as it is often employed uncritically to describe simply applying traditionally coercive design and advertising approaches to more "wholesome" clients or as a way to capitalise on the social sector through gentrifying design practices. I'm much more interested in the use of design in politically oppositional ways, that directly challenge injustice and oppression, and/or engage in genuinely participatory processes.
As incomplete and diverse as this list might be, it also feels quite tightly knit. It's a personal list, based on my own interests, and my own connections. I'm honoured to have collaborated or at least exchanged with many of the designers and studios listed here. This type of work often doesn't receive enough attention, or is outright ignored, by the design press and I hope this article sheds a little more light on to these amazingly committed designers.