The graphic language of protest has never been primarily spoken by professional designers; its most familiar visuals appear on homemade posters and signs carried by marchers. Speed and economy are the main concerns—there’s no time or budget or even a compelling reason to hire a design firm. Anyone can grab a marker, whip up a sign and make himself or herself be heard.
This past year, fed-up people the world over took to the streets to protest issues—systemic racism, unemployment, the ailing environment—that have been simmering at a slow boil for decades. Creatives, in response, have produced typefaces inspired by protest posters or art, to be used in protest. Some are created in response to specific social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, while others are designed with a broader focus, for whenever protest is necessary. These typefaces hearken back through history to the printed posters and leaflets that have supported every cause from voting to civil rights, even as they speak to the future over the internet and social media.
The “I Am a Man” posters and placards generated for the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike featured oddly proportioned yet memorable sans serif capital A’s and M’s. These imperfect letterforms are reflected in the Black Lives Matter fonts designed by art director and user experience designer Don Lee, with copywriter Cody Turk. After a Black Lives Matter mural appeared overnight on a street leading to the White House in June 2020, Lee used the lettering of the mural as the starting point for the first font in the package, keeping the rough qualities and imperfections of type painted on asphalt intact while creating a highly visible, legible alphabet. “We produced the font to inspire designers and represent the energy of the BLM movement,” says Lee. “Creating a design asset as a creative, social open-source project is important to spread the word and contribute to a brand image or story that makes the issue more understandable for a wide audience.” All four fonts, each created from a different Black Lives Matter mural in the United States, can be downloaded on blacklivesmatterfont.com, free of charge.
Graphic designer Tré Seals of Vocal Type Co. (vocaltype.co), which he founded in 2016 to diversify design through typography, has designed eight typefaces inspired by causes including civil and LGBTQ rights, women’s suffrage, and the right to unionize. Most of the typefaces are named after one of the cause’s prominent activists. For instance, Bayard is named for Bayard Rustin, the primary organizer of the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. Bayard’s characters are inspired by a tall hand-lettered sign posted outside the march’s New York City headquarters. For the commemorative 2020 Virtual March on Washington in late August, people were invited to tune in to watch the Reverend Al Sharpton, Stacey Abrams, Martin Luther King III and others recommit to the dream at the Lincoln Memorial. Digital design firm Wide Eye seized the opportunity to use Bayard for the branding of the march, bringing history full circle in a way that an everyday typeface could never do. Seals says, “As a creative of color, I believe the most important role for a designer in a protest movement is to stop being a designer, and start being an advocate. I have seen many creatives and agencies post black squares on social media, or turn our pain into portfolio pieces, but few think to ask us ‘How can I help?’ or ‘How are you holding up?’ I hope a day will come when these reactions come first.”
Around the same time that bold-lettered Black Lives Matter murals were appearing on city streets across the States, United Kingdom–based illustrator and lecturer Sam Rowe released Revolt (gumroad.com/l/Revolt), a display typeface available either for free or a pay-what-you-wish contribution, with 100 percent of the proceeds donated to Black Lives Matter UK and National Bail Out. The energetic alphabet seems to be cut from paper, with few of the rules and restrictions applied to traditional character design. It’s crude and loud and inconsistent—perfect for expressing thoughts that need to be shouted. “I don’t know much about typeface design,” Rowe says. “The tagline is ‘Revolt is an angry font for angry people. It was conceived and designed in anger and should be typed as such.’ I was so angry about the murder of George Floyd, and being unable to attend the BLM protests in person, that the letterforms came out all janky and wonky because I felt frantic and urgent, like it needed to happen right now.”
Agencies have also tapped into the power of letterforms recently. In November 2019, ad agency Heimat Berlin released the Voice of the Wall typeface to mark the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989. Developed for nonprofit hip-hop association The Cultural Heirs, it’s based on graffiti scrawled on the wall, so its characters have all the texture and decay of layers of paint applied to a rough surface. The agency also created an online tool for anyone to type out a message and download the resultant image to post on social media.
Earlier in 2019, Gerry was created by ad agency Leo Burnett Chicago on behalf of nonprofit anticorruption organization RepresentUs to keep the issue of gerrymandering visible. Directly mirroring the problem to be addressed, the deliberately ugly characters are made from the wandering outlines of real congressional districts. Protesters can visit uglygerry.com and use the typeface to generate and tweet messages demanding change to Congress; it is also available for free download.
As projects like Gerry, Vocal Type Co.’s Bayard and others show, typefaces created to carry urgent messages for change represent a significant and unique contribution that creatives can make toward the success of a protest movement. While typefaces created in moments of great emotion tend to lack the refinement of those developed with the luxury of time, they make up for it with their instant availability and the urgency behind their creation. Designers almost always make these typefaces widely available as open-source and free downloads, or donate the proceeds back to the cause, encouraging the widest usage and staying true to the democratic purpose of the work.
When Deva Pardue, a graphic designer and founder of charitable side project For All Womankind, made free downloads of her Femme Fists artwork available for the 2017 women’s marches, the image went viral globally. “I realized I didn’t own the design anymore; it belonged to the culture and the zeitgeist. To feel I was able to participate in that way was one of the biggest things that happened in my life,” she says. “As people, as citizens of the world, we all have a responsibility to contribute to a fair and just society, and everybody should use the tools and skills they have to contribute in the ways they can.” ca