Surfaces Of Protest

Graphic Design and Political Resistance


By Melissa Weiss

Protesters at the Women's March in Washington D.C., January 21, 2017. Photograph by Melissa Weiss.

The poster plays a central role in protest. Its surface is a space to articulate resistance—a plane on which the human imagination rehearses its role for a yet to be realized future. 

At the Women’s March on Washington, some posters were direct and sincere: WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS. Others were witty and unforgiving: MAKE AMERICA THINK AGAIN. Marchers developed provocative narratives with an impressive economy of means: black sharpie against a torn piece of cardboard: the words "HOW WILL I PROTECT MY DAUGHTER? crossed out and followed by: WHAT WILL YOU TEACH YOUR SON? Together, the posters formed an expansive new visual landscape, hovering over and temporarily obscuring the capital as it is now and offering a different vision of America’s future: one defined by justice. 

In times of political crisis, ordinary citizens and non-citizens abandon their daily routines and commit themselves to redesigning the future. They use every possible surface—signs, banners, clothing, leaflets, public parks, streets, websites, social media profiles—as platforms for political expression and resistance. 

While art is often positioned as another form of protest, disrupting the status quo, graphic design is frequently conflated with advertising and understood as a facilitating force—a kind of visual lubrication that aestheticizes consumption and keeps the wheels of capitalism in motion.

In fact, practitioners have been interrogating the relationship between capitalism, politics, and design throughout the young discipline’s history. In 1964, twenty-two designers, photographers, and students published First Things First, a manifesto criticizing design’s complicity in advertising and consumer culture and calling upon designers to direct their skills toward more meaningful ends. The authors contrast a list of what they consider to be the trivial surfaces of advertising—“cat food, stomach powders, detergent, hair restorer, striped toothpaste…”—with a list of surfaces that they deem worthier of graphic designers’ time, including “signs for streets and buildings, books and periodicals, catalogues, [and] instructional manuals.” An updated version of the manifesto, First Things First Manifesto 2000, was published in 1999. Its format and message remain largely the same. 

These manifestos continue to generate conversations about what it means to be an ethical designer. But they don’t push the conversation far enough. They seem to suggest that establishing an ethical design practice requires little more than finding less offensive, less commercial surfaces on which to work. It’s a commitment—but not toward anything in particular. And here is where designers arguably have much to learn from protesters. What matters is not the surface itself, but how that surface is activated by specific content. 

The disruptive, political potential of graphic design was perhaps first actualized in the work of John Heartfield. Born in Berlin in 1891, Heartfield was an active member of the Berlin Dada movement and Germany’s Communist Party. Through his innovative work in photomontage, Heartfield transformed photography into a weapon against fascism. He used the surfaces of his graphic design practice—literary publications, newspapers, posters, and book covers—to publish incisive political critiques. Heartfield saw an opportunity for resistance in advertising and used its distribution channels to bring his subversive photomontages to the masses. 

Protesters at the Women's March in Washington D.C., January 21, 2017. Photograph by Melissa Weiss.

In John Heartfield and the Agitated Image (2012), Andrés Mario Zervigón describes how Heartfield forced “newspaper[s] and advertising to reveal the torment they were generally tasked with concealing.” By embedding resistance into the commercial surfaces of advertising, Heartfield was often able to evade government censors. His practice demonstrates that designers can exercise a great deal of freedom when it comes to the kind of work we make, what that work looks like, and how it circulates—making us well-equipped to bring resistance out of the museum and into the streets.

In her essay, “An Artist’s Statement,” Andrea Fraser writes, “If one considers practice—that is, critical practice, counter-practice—as the transformation of social, subjective, or economic relations, then the best and perhaps only point of engagement is with those relations in their enactment. The point is not to interpret those relations, as they exist elsewhere; the point is to change them.”

What is a designer’s work, if not managing and giving form to these relations in their enactment? The fact that designers’ work often requires close collaboration across disparate parties, disciplines, departments, and institutions—means that we are positioned to facilitate and legitimize these relations and power structures—or to reimagine them.

Every design project presents new opportunities to interrogate the ideologies that choreograph the way we move and think through the world. But this kind of work cannot be done in isolation; it requires a community of designers who are committed to engaging in true critique. Through rigorous thought-partnership, we can challenge our understanding of the world and, rather than replicating its conditions, can begin to envision alternative possibilities.

At the Women’s March, Zahra Billoo, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, urged marchers to make resistance their lifestyle. What would it mean to make resistance an integral part of a design practice? If the protest poster signifies for resistance and disobedience, what does resistance and disobedience look like on the screen? What would it mean to restructure our studios so that supporting the needs of the most vulnerable becomes a central and unnegotiable part of our daily work? What would it require of us to say no to clients who do not meet certain ethical standards? Is it possible to consider every surface we design as a potential space for resistance? 

In her essay, “Reflections on Arte Útil,” Tania Bruguera writes, “Art is living the future in the present.” The posters at the Women’s March—and at the many protests that have followed—suggest that creating a different kind of future requires first taking the time to imagine it. For the designer, this includes identifying political passions and positions, and making the commitment to enact them across every surface one designs.   

“Living the future in the present” also means interrogating and actively shaping social, subjective, and economic relations as they unfold in our professional lives. Under this framework, inquiry becomes practice, process becomes inherently political, and graphic design has the potential to create ideal conditions for critical thinking and informed action.

Protesters at the Women's March in Washington D.C., January 21, 2017. Photograph by Melissa Weiss.


Issue 1
Publication Date: May 17

Melissa Weiss is a designer, artist, and writer currently pursuing an MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. Her practice crosses mediums and is rooted in research and formal exploration.