By the time this column is published, nearly a year will have passed since November 9, 2016. As I write this in May, time and the rapidly changing political news have already affected our experience and understanding of the election. For those of us who describe ourselves as liberal or progressive, there has been space to evaluate how we responded to this pivotal event. Did the election act as a wake-up call? Was it a moment for self-interrogation? Or a time to redouble efforts already long under way to work toward a more open, engaged and inclusive society? As I discovered when I spoke to designers and illustrators across the country, the responses have been complex and varied.
Immediately following the election, there was an outpouring of personal work from designers and illustrators decrying the new president and supporting the people, values and institutions they saw threatened. Baltimore-based illustrator Hayley Thornton-Kennedy recalls, “When the Women’s March on Washington was announced, I knew I needed to participate and create something that had a clear message of feminine strength and resistance to carry in DC.” She posted an open call on Facebook and Instagram, inviting people to send their slogans for use on a series of posters. The resulting designs—boldly colored images of strong female figures, with texts like “Viva La Mujer” (Long Live Women) and “Activism into Action”—were carried in marches from Los Angeles to Barcelona.
Also in January, Ross MacDonald created an image—the Statue of Liberty’s torch with a wall rising around it, and the word Resist—in response to the president’s travel ban. The Connecticut-based illustrator had very personal reasons for responding. “I’m an immigrant, married to an American, and our kids are both foreign adoptees,” he explains. “Despite the fact that they are both American citizens, they kept asking me if they would be deported if Trump was elected.”
MacDonald ran his image by Steven Heller to ensure its originality and gain some constructive criticism, then “cut the block and handset the wood and metal type” on the day the president signed the order. As he began printing, he heard reports of demonstrators flooding the airports. “I felt like I was no longer just alone in my workshop, cranking the press handle, printing a personal piece, but was instead a tiny part of the spontaneous reaction and pushback,” he recalls. Again working with Heller, he later made a new image with the torch held aloft and the word Welcome; the School of Visual Arts used the piece on posters and buttons to communicate its support of its foreign students.
Many creatives made products to fuel donations to chosen organizations. One of these, a tote bag made by Power and Light Press, a five-woman shop in Silver City, New Mexico, went viral. Just before Christmas, Power and Light’s Kyle Durrie “was trying to figure out a creative way … to use my voice and skills to actually [cause] some kind of change, however small.” She sketched out the concept for a black-and-white tote with the phrase, “I went to Planned Parenthood and all I got was,” followed by a comprehensive list of services the organization provides. “I figured we’d maybe sell a hundred,” she says. But two days after initially posting the tote on Instagram, Power and Light made another post: “You guys are amazing. … We will be making a donation of $20k [sic] to Planned Parenthood today.” As of this writing, they’ve raised $80,000.
Minneapolis designers Holly Robbins and Jennifer O’Brien chose the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as the beneficiary of the Signs of Resistance Protest Sign Show that they held in late April. O’Brien says, “It was important to us to select a nonpartisan organization dedicated to bettering the nation for everyone.” The 33 visual artists who participated in the event created a wide range of approaches. “When I wandered into the room, I realized that for many of the guests, this was their first exposure to the ACLU,” says Carol Stoddart of the ACLU’s Minnesota chapter. “That was a success.” So was the approximately $8,000 raised that evening.
Other recent projects have hinged on collaborations with fellow creatives. When Los Angeles studio Use All Five created Artifax (artifax.us), a web-based platform that enables users to send artworks to their representatives in support of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), it reached out to a diverse group of artists. “Not just designers, and not just people with one type of life experience,” explains Use All Five’s chief executive officer and cofounder Levi Brooks. “We’re not living in a country of only white people or only straight people or only able-bodied people; it’s important that the submission pool reflect that.” The resulting pieces range from the direct, such as artist Rachel Eulena Williams’s contribution that proclaims “Save the NEA!” to the abstract, such as artist Andrew Thomas Huang’s drawing that evokes arteries and roots.
Use All Five was hardly alone in encouraging people to reach out to representatives. In February, Brooklyn-based designer Jen Wang set up an Instagram account and store titled Dangerous Objects and began selling postcards featuring a stylized eye against a magenta background. “I wanted people to not so subtly let their elected officials know they will be held accountable,” she explains. Proceeds of her postcard project go to the Immigrant Defense Fund. Sales of a poster she created before the election, with “Black Lives Matter” rendered in dramatic metallic lettering, will support the Black Lives Matter movement. She describes the poster as “an exercise in subverting expectations of what protest art looks like—to show not necessarily a hard-edged political bent, but to convey the beauty of the movement and what they are trying to accomplish.”
Soon after the election, Lindsay Ballant, Baltimore-based art director for The Baffler, who had previously designed a series of black-and-white pins with progressive messages, produced “Call Your Congressmen” and “Call Your Reps” buttons. Ballant is donating her proceeds to a range of organizations corresponding to the buttons’ messages, including Democracy for America and Jobs with Justice. With buttons that read “A Living Wage” and “We Are All Workers,” she aims to draw attention to labor issues. “After the election, there were many stories and roundup posts listing organizations … where people could offer their support,” Ballant says. “But none of them were addressing labor rights. That was astounding to me considering… we just had an election where economic anxiety was front and center.”
Ballant is among the creatives who engaged in political discussions long before the election. The introduction to her online store, Goods for Revolution, urges visitors to “ask uncomfortable questions and have uncomfortable discussions.” “Many designers refrain from talking politics because, I imagine, they don’t want to be seen as polarizing or divisive,” she reflects. “But now that the status quo is, by default, offensive and controversial, you see more people speaking out.” Robbins, who has “always been an activist,” notes that her local community in Minneapolis “is strongly engaged with social, cultural and political issues. But I think this election surprised a lot of people who weren’t paying much attention to politics.”
Minneapolis-based designer Melanie Stovall has felt both appreciation and frustration when it comes to how creatives have responded, postelection, to important social issues. In early 2017, Stovall organized a lecture series on diversity in design, followed by a poster show focused on identity. The lecture series featured visual artists of various backgrounds, with the dual goals of moving people to “look outside [their] networks to find diverse talent and also to get the creatives involved in social justice onto AIGA committees.” She says, “The election heightened people’s awareness of racial issues, and that affected how they viewed what we were trying to do. Before the election, when I brought up our lack of diversity, I was met with comments like, ‘Well, it is Minnesota.’ But during the election, some of those same individuals were asking questions about how to address access issues in our field.”
Still, people often failed to understand that her motivation for the event went far beyond the election. “People assumed that [the show] was because of current events,” she explains, “but it actually came out of my own personal frustration over the past few years. I was in several discussions where I was the only person of color in the room trying to argue that [design’s] lack of diversity stems from a lack of representation and that there were a lot of people of color working in our field.”
Cleveland-based designer Jacinda Walker, chair of the AIGA’s Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, also points to the ongoing work that she and others are doing. “I have been advocating and working with young designers in my community for years before this administration began,” she notes. The main effect of the new administration, she says, has been to “reinforce the need and urgency for marginalized and underrepresented creatives to unite and get involved to make their voices heard.” But Walker adds, “I actually think that the administration opened up individuals who may not have spoken up before [to] see the need in speaking up now and asking to hear more about how designers can help more in the social justice spaces.”
Walker’s words may point the way for creatives considering their roles in the months and years ahead. This politically fraught time has highlighted two prevailing threads of design activism: expression and service. Both have merit, but it’s possible that in service, there lies a more sustainable opportunity to help bring about change. “Find people and organizations that are already doing what you’re interested in and support them,” urges Stovall. Says Wang, “Let organizers and activists who have laid all the groundwork and talked to their communities lead the charge. We are there to help push out the messaging.” ca