Design for social protest

Design in the age of discontent

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A reusable protest sign is such a great product.

Versión en Español aquí.

rotests are part of our lives, while not pretty and comfortable, they play an important role in how society is shaped. They have been an engine for social change, equality and justice.

And nowadays there’s been a lot of demostrations. From the many protests against a lot of policies of the Trump administration, the political crisis in Venezuela and many others around the world, protests are prevalent in our current social environment.

As an industrial designer I can’t help but notice how design is mostly absent from this space, how it seems to be a taboo subject in our discipline.

On one hand there seems that designers are voluntary disconnected from politics, probably because of the tight relationship to business, to the point of submission. Also it would seem that the grassroots nature of protests is off-putting to both the aesthetic values of designers and the traditional design process. Its immediacy also difficulties any possible timely development from designers and much more importantly, adoption from the protesters.

The thing is that protests are political demonstrations, and thus are symbolic in nature. Graphic design has been much better prepared to interpret and understand the significance behind these symbols and that is why it has always been quick to create, empower or appropriate these icons.

Industrial design, on the other hand, is comfortable with aesthetics but symbolic value is much harder to achieve in meaningful and not explicit ways.

Products that are present in protests or even those that become symbolically representative of them are mostly appropriations or bespoke creations cobbled together by non-designers during the protests.

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Madres de Plaza de Mayo’s white scarf is an object with such a strong symbolic resonance within Argentinean culture that there is no other possible use of a white scarf.

This is a fairly innocuous object that has been culturally appropriated as an intentional act, it was created, designed as a symbol, only not by designers but by the protesters themselves.

The problem with designers trying to approach design for social protest is that designed objects often fail to predict the symbolic values of the protest and thus feel tacked on or out of place, mostly because they follow common or current design philosophies and methods instead of embracing the spirit and grassroots origin of the protests.

And in this line it’s important for objects for social protests to operate outside the regular consumerist dynamic, as they’re objects that can’t be sold, at least not as such, otherwise they would lose what makes the valuable in their context, that is their rebellious identity.

Objects for social protests have to be understood as part of an system involving actions, actors, laws, organizations and symbols, and to be successful they have to integrate themselves into the fabric of the protest. They have to be born out of the protest, they can’t be an imposition from the outside.

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Protester in Venezuela. © Juan Barreto / AFP — Getty Images

And while I been mostly talking about objects that doesn’t mean that I’m restricting my thoughts to only that aspect of design. Protests as a system are organically created, there’s no organization nor process to it, there’s only a purpose, a purpose so strong that unites hundreds to thousands of people. We designers might become participants, but we approach them as citizens, as part of the protest, never as designers. Could we empower these movements with all our know-how? Could we channel our own dissatisfaction into a designed challenge of society? And I’m talking about not approach it in a naive way, thinking about how to bring order to these popular expressions, popular fights. Protests are nasty, are combative, are about challenging the status quo and demanding your rights, they are as much about anger as they are about hope. We shouldn’t aim to change that, instead it’s something to channel and to be a part of.

Maybe once a protest mutates to an organized movement is when more traditional design roles can come into play, but until then design as way to interact with the world is mostly absent, and that’s something that we should strive to change.

We think of design as order, as beauty, and we don’t stop to think about how anger, disillusionment, divisiveness and basically how the response to injustice should be designed. The thing is that it can’t be done by how we conceive design today. We need to think about the design of the discontent.

Designer with a passion for design and culture

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