The Art of Protest

I have long been fascinated by that place where politics and design meet. Whether in protest or propaganda, agitation or information, when graphic design finds its political voice it has an eloquence and magnetism that can cut deep into the public imagination.

It’s a testimony to the long lasting resonance of such design that so many images have become a part of our public consciousness. This is design that leaves its mark, from the iconography of the Paris student protests of May ’68 and the searing, uncompromising style of Emory Douglas and the Black Panthers to the language of protest and provocation mastered by latterday icons like Shepard Fairey and Banksy. This is stuff with the power to agitate and activate. For me, it’s graphic design at its best: potent, passionate, political.

It’s a common refrain that these days, we’ve lost the art of protest. We’re so absorbed by shopping and facebooking, so it’s said, that protest is a dying art, a casualty of apathy and consumerism. I don’t buy this. What’s exciting about the art of protest is that it’s taken on a new form and lives in a new place. If you’re looking for angry, placard-waving demonstrations then, yes, there’s less of those around. But the digital domain has enabled new forms of protest to thrive. Remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico? There were over 4,000 ‘re-designs’ of the BP logo flying around hyperspace expressing their outrage at this environmental crime.

Likewise, the art of protest can be seen on our streets, expressed in a renaissance of provocative graffiti that speaks with a political voice as sharpened as any placard. This is all part of the new art of protest: homegrown, personal and viral. And it’s creative as hell.

My design agency, Provokateur, was set up to work with ethical organisations and charities to employ graphic design not to sell trainers and soft drinks but ideas and causes. We believe design can be a powerful force for good. That in its simplicity and clarity, design can express a political message that is engaging, challenging and purposeful. For us, the art of protest is one of the most exciting frontiers of graphic design. This is where art and design can change the world. This is the passionate belief that drives our work, and when we see it in the work of others it’s a source of inspiration.

Joshua Blackburn, published November 2011, Art of Protest

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