Design can cause political change - but it doesn't always come from the "designers"


There's an important and fun new exhibition in London's Design Museum, "Hope to Nope", open from now to August 12th, 2018. From the blurb:

Graphic design in the form of internet memes, posters and protest placards is being used by the marginalised and powerful alike to shape political messages like never before.

From the global financial crash and the Arab Spring, to ISIS, Brexit and Trump, this exhibition explores the numerous ways graphic messages have challenged, altered and influenced key political moments.

Journey through Occupy Wall Street, Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution and the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Have your fortune told by the All-Seeing Trump.

Creative Review magazine lays out the areas the exhibition will focus on, with an emphasis on how non-professionals lead design decisions in protest movements:

The show is split into three main sections: Power, Protest and Personality. Power, the Design Museum says, “explores how graphic design is used by the establishment to assert national and political authority, and how that iconography can be subverted by activists and opponents”.

Protest, the largest section in the show, displays design by activists and demonstrators, including newspapers from the 2011-12 Occupy London camp, and a two metre-high replica of the inflatable duck from 2016 protests against Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Responses to the Grenfell Tower disaster are also included.

Finally, Personality looks at the graphic representation of political figures, including Corbyn, Trump and the hacktivist network Anonymous.

Digging into the background of some of the featured exhibits, you can see how much a design-led battle for hearts and minds can be led from all sides. For example, who couldn't enjoy the sight of a large inflatable rubber-duck at a protest? 

Yet as this Reuters report tells, the duck represented the protests of Brazil's "restive middle-class rich" against Dilma Roussoff's administration, both for its corruption and its taxation policies. "To pay the duck" is Rio slang, meaning "to unfairly pay for someone else’s mistakes". So "enough of paying the duck,” said Paulo Skaf, president of the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo. 

One can easily imagine inflatables used as a strategy to immediately shape the emotional and moral tenor of a public event or demonstration. Where is the giant inflatable "Maybot" for example? Or a similarly-puffed up "Unlike" icon, if we were protesting the data manipulations of Facebook or Cambridge Analytica? 

Yet as we're discovering in A/UK, the question of what capacities and skills are locally available is key. We'd imagine that the duck could have been made by artisans who got involved in Brazil's street carnivals every year - and know how to design and stitch an inflatable together. 

Of course there is an obvious place in the UK to find these skills - and that's the communities who make the effigies for the Sussex Bonfire Night celebrations each year, notably the Lewes parade. The sources of the parade lie in the area's non-conformist traditions since the 17th century - it has been a celebration of Protestant martyrs.

But today, as you can see below, it's become a bottom-up critique of top-down power:

We must remember this is ancient and deeply local stuff - the procession of burning crosses at the Lewes event commemorates the Protestant martyrs, not anything Ku Klux Klan like. (Although this year is the first time the Lewes parade has banned its processions from "blacking up"). 

At the very least, it shows what cultural resources there are - and always have been - in localities, to express their views on the wider world around them (students of the carnivalesque in history will attest to this potential).

The Design Museum exhibition looks like an excellent tool-box of practices to extend and widen this capacity, in the age of memes and social media.

[Research note: Alternativet ex-board member Silas Harrebye is a global expert on "expressive protest" - see his work here, including "Can Art Save Us From Bullshit?"]