Using Design to Promote Activism and Action

December 12, 2014


The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless other Black men and women have sparked protests around the world. These protests also bring a number of other issues to the surface that disproportionately affect Black people throughout the United States — most notably, police brutality.

Design activism has a long history of helping spark change. Design can be used to highlight root causes to issues and help attract attention and evoke emotion to create a visual identity behind a shared cause. How are designers helping with activism efforts?


One of the most notable representations of design activism efforts is Black Lives Matter. Graphic designer Janisha Gabriel created the Black Lives Matter website in 2013 as an outlet for social justice and a call-to-arms to turn frustration after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted.

Since then, Black Lives Matter has illustrated actionable solutions to eliminate police brutality and citizen demands such as urging the federal government to discontinue supplying military weaponry and equipment to local law enforcement precincts. Janisha Gabriel is also the founder of Haki Creatives, a graphic and web design company focused on using technology for social change.

The Black Lives Matter website promotes activism-related events throughout the country and displays photos, graphics, and stories related to the cause. The #blacklivesmatter hashtag has become popular on Twitter as a symbolic outcry for justice. The powerful imagery on the site as well as the Black Lives Matter logo has helped transcend language barriers to bring the message of social justice across to people worldwide.

Source: Sebastian Tomada

Source: Sebastian Tomada

Even simple artistic expression has had a profound impact on protests. In the wake of the protests in Ferguson, St. Louis-based artist Damon Davis took photos of people’s upraised hands and printed them out on sheets of paper and posted them at businesses throughout the city. The photos symbolize the gesture Brown allegedly made when Wilson gunned him down in August.  The chant “hands up, don’t shoot” has become a familiar battle cry during protests against police brutality throughout the country, and Davis’ photos are a powerful symbol based on this.

The deaths of Rice, Martin, Garner, and hundreds of other Black men and women in the U.S. have set off a new wave of activism that is being felt around the world. The sense of frustration from the people is palpable, and channeling this outpouring of anger and grief into action will take lots of effort from many people who can bring their unique skills to the table. While activism requires a number of channels to relay messages, the efforts described earlier illustrate how design can make a lasting impact.

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