At no other time in history has the visual image, and in particular graphic design, been more important than it is today. Ar t is no stranger to protest, but the proliferation of both news and advertising means that graphic design's place in the protest movement has become more important than the marches that used to define what we generally call 'activism.' Image is all, and knowing the precise language to subvert that is how graphic design is now changing the world, albeit in small, pointed, single-issue nibbles. Designers are taking Picasso to heart, when he said: "Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defence against the enemy."
Perhaps the most straightforward application of graphic design to protest is the CND logo, known across the world as the peace sign. It came about in 1958 at an Easter anti-nuclear arms march organised by The Peace News, more specifically its Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War. Its designer was Gerald Holtom, who consciously avoided the cross as a symbol, despite being a devout Christian, as well as the symbol of the dove, which had been co-opted by the Soviet Union's nuclear armament programme. His design, a line schematic of himself, arms down and palms out in despair based on a work by Goya, also resembles the semaphore signals for 'N' and 'D': nuclear disarmament.
On the protest day it was mounted on 500 'lollipop sticks' and countless ceramic badges (said to be capable of withstanding a nuclear attack themselves). The logo, free of affiliation, easy to draw and consciously not copyrighted or trademarked was copied and used for countless marches for peace, particularly against the Vietnam war worldwide, and in particular, in the US, through the 1960s.
In fact, television enabled the world to live out war day by day in an unprecedented manner. In the United States, as discontent grew, a generation raised on post war prosperity and a strong sense of optimism was able to take to the streets with silk-screened placards in reaction to news the day before. Jay Belloli, currently director of publications for the Austin Val Verde Foundation, designed his poster 'Amerika is Devouring its Children' as just such a reaction.
"The poster was created in May 1970 in general response to the Vietnam war, but particularly in response to the Cambodian incursion - the bombing and deployment of troops into a country that was not involved in the war," Belloli recalls. "When the incursion was announced in May 1970, the press, many colleges and universities in the US shut down in protest. After the campus closed at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a student, there were many places on campus where anti-war silk screen posters were being made."
As to the work's graphical inspiration, he adds: "A large amount of counterculture art was inspired by late 19th century Art Nouveau, an earlier art movement related to youth and a new vision of the future."
American television went on to further alarm anti-war activists the following year. In early 1971, American network CBS aired a programme called The Selling of the Pentagon, which asserted that the American military had spent millions on PR to 'sell' US armed intervention to its public, using everything from recruitment drives to staged and edited battle footage. The programme caused outrage in the US, partly because of its content and partly because the military disputed the network's journalistic integrity.
Unselling the war
One Ira Nerken, then in his penultimate year studying political science at Yale University in Connecticut, decided that if the government could concertedly sell the US public the war, then surely it was possible to 'unsell' it. Thus he started something called the 'Campaign to Unsell the War' that year. Introduced by Yale teaching staff to David McCall, president of New York Ad agency LaRoche, McCaffrey & McCall, letters and invitations to participate were sent to 60 advertising companies.
This was to be a highly graphic campaign: according to the letter the campaign was "not interested in cheap, superficial, anti-American work". The idea was to have "thoughtful and honest advertising, created by people who love their country. The Pentagon's side of the story has been ably and massively told. Ours has not."
The campaign's call to action was to encourage Americans to vote for anti-war candidates in the upcoming election, and it used slick professional advertisements in print and on billboards, local television and radio to do so. Advertising creatives donated roughly $2m of time to bring the campaign to life. In one television advertisement, Uncle Sam was shown dividing a pie for a number of diners; the army general got the biggest slice. This ad went on to win a Clio advertising award. Some observers credit the Unsell campaign with the Nixon's ceasefire announcement, days after being sworn in for his second term.
A more modern application of the Unsell campaign's methods can be found in the work of Adbusters. The Vancouver-based, advertising-free monthly magazine is based on similar principles, although the target of its direct action is an area which can be broadly defined as global consumer culture.
"We started Adbusters way back in 1989 with a bunch of burnt-out activists of all stripes," says Kalle Lasn. "We were disillusioned with all the old activisms, and we felt that culture was going to be the next big battleground." So its 'culture jam campaign' began; at its heart, says Lasn, "Tricks are visual tricks and aesthetic tricks not just tricks that are to do with the 26 letters of the alphabet."
Adbusters has spotlighted a number of high-visibility brands, including campaigns focusing on Absolut Vodka, McDonalds and Nike. While legal challenges have been threatened in the past, it is often Adbusters that has maintained the upper hand.
"I remember one of our first targets was Absolut Vodka and they came after us in a big way," Lasn recalls. "Eventually they just didn't want to have a public debate with us. Legal action in the background started to fuel a debate as to whether there actually should be alcohol advertising."
But today's protests are nothing without the internet. Furthermore, it is the modern web - Web 2.0 with its user-generated content - that is leading all charges for direct action. Absolutely crucial to its success is well thought-out graphic design.
Activist groups campaigning on a range of issues now encourage submissions for online posters, or for images that can then be disseminated on users own sites or blogs. Significantly, the campaigns are usually highly specific, single issues from which there can be a measurable outcome. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is targeting KFC with a boycott, for instance. Similarly, Blood For Oil is a particular strand of the anti-war movement which has joined forces with the previously mentioned Campaign to Unsell the War.
Perhaps the best example of this is Greenpeace's 'Green my Apple' campaign. Auditing the technology industry's use of toxic materials and use of recycling programs, Greenpeace found that Apple rated very low. Although Greenpeace had been in talks with Apple since 2004, in September 2006 it took a different tack.
"Apple does listen to its users and the users do support each other. So, we thought the only way to get through to Apple was to reach out to the Mac users and have them as a voice saying what they want from Apple, where they want Apple to go and what they want Apple to do," explains Greenpeace campaign coordinator Zeina Alhajj.
Greenpeace set up a website that directly mimicked Apple's. Cleverly, rather than alienating notoriously defensive Mac devotees, the site declared, "We love Apple", thereby declaring its solidarity with fellow users.
Having established the campaign was not about Mac-bashing, it then exposed the toxicity of the products used by Apple's hardware and the impact of Apple waste, especially in dumping grounds in China. As well as urging Mac fans to write to famously recalcitrant CEO Steve Jobs, Greenpeace encouraged the general public to create their own campaign artwork to bring pressure to bear on the Cupertino computer maker. Greenpeace even provided assets: pictures of Chinese children picking through piles of Apple branded computer waste as well as a Green My Apple logo and product shots. Some submissions were pastiches of Apple advertising drives, particularly its most current iPod campaign. And as many Mac users are in the creative industries, many of the submissions had a high level of slickness and polish.
Greenpeace didn't stop there. It linked to blogs and set up a Flickr album. Less graphically led but equally intrinsic to Green My Apple was the iBuzz, a feed from del.icio.us sites tagged 'GreenMyApple'.
"We had about 45,000 people writing to Steve Jobs through the system, sending him letters," says Alhajj. "For us, the most impressive thing was the contribution from the Mac fans to the artwork of the website itself. We had hundreds of designs and photos of people hugging their Macs and sending their photos to the Green My Apple Flickr pool."
In May 2007 the campaign began to bear fruit. Steve Jobs issued a statement of clarification about Apple's green credentials. He referred to "some environmental organisations" that had criticised the company, and he used the statement to announce Apple would eliminate two toxic materials - polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) by 2008, a year ahead of Dell and Lenovo. It would also enable its US customers to return their Apple products for recycling. It's not all that Greenpeace wanted, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.
"One of our web editors calls it Greenpeace 2.0," Alhajj chuckles. "It's the new way of campaigning."
The power of design
When conflict or natural disaster arises, nobody sends for the graphic designers. But that doesn't mean that designers have no power. In fact, they may have more power than they themselves realise. As Kalle Lasn says: "They don't have to think of themselves as these corporate arse-kissers. They do have a lot of power in the feel and the tone and mood of our culture, and if there is going to be some kind of movement to upset the applecart and come up with a sustainable culture for the future, then designers will have to play a huge part in creating it."
YOU NEED THIS!
Five technologies and techniques essential to activist art
1 Silk screening
American counterculture in the 1960s thrived on this technique, which is similar to the 1,000-year-old Japanese art of stencilling. Silk screening was popular because it enabled the artist to create and replicate art relatively quickly. In the 1960s, that meant overnight. It is responsible for much of the anti-war poster culture that thrived in US universities in the late 1960s.
2 Aldus Pagemaker
Prior to its purchase by Adobe in 1994, Aldus Pagemaker was part of the new and exciting world of desktop publishing. During and after the miners' strike in the mid 1980s, many miners' wives self-published stories and accounts using Pagemaker, thanks to help from community organisations like Art Circus in Castleford, West Yorkshire.
Photoshop debuted in 1990, broadening the scale of what was possible in terms of photo-manipulation and undercutting all competition by price. It is currently the most important software package for the would-be activist, enabling the combining and recombining of images in ways inconceivable to the counterculture movement of the late 1960s.
HTML rolled form and content into one initially simple but eventually fragmented language: if you wanted to create sites, you either had to know it yourself or put up with a pretty appalling, pre-cooked web presence. CSS and XML have enabled the proliferation of online blogs and user-generated content, now crucial to any protest movement.
5 Flash video
Flash itself is a handy tool for making motion graphics, but now that it supports video, it's a whole new ball game. Unlike QuickTime, RealPlayer or Windows Media, it's the one online video viewing tool that just about every computer in the western world supports: combined with community video sites and the most rudimentary video capture device (mobile phone), it's the perfect protest tool.