how do design activists cope with fear, risk, and danger?

I’ve heard a lot recently about how those of us working on social change issues, from climate change to health care, should avoid trying to scare people into change. We shouldn’t be fear mongers.

Object Orange, a Detroit group highlights abandoned, often
crime ridden houses by painting them orange

But a couple of recent episodes of “direct action” social protest have gotten me thinking about the fact that I rarely hear anyone, least of all designers, talk about how scary, even dangerous, it can be to engage in protest and confrontation, even in their mildest forms. And I’m inclined to think that the fear, risk, and danger of social protest deter designers perhaps even more than others.

First consider these recent episodes:

1. the conviction of 22 UK climate activists who obstructed a coal train.
George Monbiot, writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper notes that scientists and journalist can “bang on about the climate crash until everyone has died of boredom” but direct action like the coal train obstruction makes the issue real in an entirely different way. He also reports that research suggests that, “the greater the personal cost of the action you take, the more likely other people are to respect and follow your cause.”

2. pro-democracy demonstrations in Iran.
Sociologist Jeffrey Goodwin, considering the recent protests after the Iranian elections, asked why, for example, people in the US didn’t take to the streets protesting the flawed 2000 election between Bush and Gore. He notes that a flawed election has to “generate such outrage, such rancor, such disgust, that people are willing to bear the costs of protest, up to and including, in many cases, facing truncheons and bullets.” (emphasis added)

Protest and direct action are powerful, but also risky and potentially dangerous. By contrast, personal change–drive less, eat organic food–is relatively safe and “easy.” As Derrick Jensen argues, writing in Orion magazine, personal change doesn’t equal political change:

“Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?

Is design activism ever protest?

River Glow by architects David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang, indicates
water quality with green or red floating lights.

Where does design activism sit on the spectrum from “safe” personal change to risky social protest? Most “design activism” is not too confrontational and designers typically put their artifacts on the line rather than themselves. For example, two New York architects created “River Glow”, a floating and highly visible monitor that glows green when water quality is OK and glows red when water quality is too low. A designer created tree “houses” for protesters occupying a forest. In the project Object Orange, shown above, designers and artists painted condemned houses bright orange to shame the local government into demolition as a step toward improving blighted neighborhoods. “Critical” artifacts (also called “discursive design” in this article), such as a vase made out of a gun or a voting ballot on a french fries carton, are often the subject of exhibitions rather than street protest.

Occupy a forest in style–tree tents by Dutch designer Dré Wapenaar

These examples show that designers engage in protest, but it strikes me that their work may often be both less strategic and less sustained than it could be.

Confrontation…why not?

Returning to Jenson’s Orion article, with examples of powerful industries and systems such as industiral agriculture, petrochemicals, energy and transportation, he notes that, “the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.”

He acknowledges that confrontation is scary for any number of reasons. Below are some of the reasons I think designers might be deterred by the risks and dangers in protest:

  • designers live under the pressure of appearing cool–how they look, the places they see and in which they are seen, the artifacts they produce. Protest does not typically support a “cool” persona. It is in varying degrees messy, unpredictable and dangerous. Can any amount of “rebranding” change that?
  • designers are trained to serve clients and users in a business context, a context in which “protest” is not comfortable. When design gets involved in protest it often starts to be called “public art.”
  • designers routinely take creative risks, and it may be that a person has an overall risk threshold beyond which they can’t emotionally go. Perhaps designers bump up against this threshold more than others.
  • most designers are from the privileged classes, so they have something to loose.
  • the way design measures success is heavily invested in existing power structures — starchitects work for the wealthy, after all.

For any activist there seems to be a problem of finding the balance between maintaining social acceptance on some level and provoking change. I begin to wonder if it’s the case that activist groups need to know more about design and how to deploy it, or if it’s the case that designers need to become better activists. Perhaps both.

What do you think? Let me know of interesting cases where designed artifacts or designers have been involved in social protest.

5 Responses to how do design activists cope with fear, risk, and danger?

  1. gregor says:

    hi there,

    i write from slovenia, just for a side info 😛
    anyway, i admire your thread about some kind of effect-less and selfcontained activism brought to us by designers from mainstream media, or media in general…
    i also think this folks risk basicly nothing at all, and their work in majority of times brings nothing fresh and new either (if i dont take the talent for design into an account), but are usually just playing around with the stereotypes and the information we all are pretty much aware of. did design ever make change happen? its hard to tell, but my intuitive answer would be that it didnt… the change is being made by action, action drives motivation, and action finally makes a change for the better
    i dont want to be too judgemental, i really enjoy looking at activists work in design and art… but these works leave me with the feeling mute-ness… in a way.
    just one more thing i would like to mention… or expose… is there a correlation within a social conscience, a strive for justice an equality, building a better tomorrow/today and activism in design? or redifining a question, does anybody agree with me if i sharply state that this kind of activism is just washing your hands or in other words, a way to clear the conscience, and say i did my best, i did what i could… now its on the world what they will do with that… ?

    pieace out 🙂

  2. Ann Thorpe says:

    Thanks for your comment. I think this is the BIG question…does design activism matter? And if so, in what ways does it matter? Can we improve how it matters?

    As I say in the post, I think it does matter but is typically less strategic and sustained than it should be to matter meaningfully. But it does seem that design, particularly architecture, is emerging from a long slumber during which social issues were excluded. It may be early days for the newest incarnation of design as activism so maybe it needs more time before we judge it harshly…(?)
    -Ann Thorpe

  3. tyler says:

    hi anne,
    you make some great points — ones that as a graphic designer i have wrestled with for some time. sometimes i feel like graphic design is the least effective of all the design disciplines because all we really do is talk about the issues.

    however, i have also come to think of design as not the end, but a means — to facilitate relationships. i think that can be said for design in general. i *want* design to be and do as much as it possibly can, but at this point i don’t think it should be responsible for the actual change, but should aid in that change.

    many of the projects you cited do that, but need to be augmented by physical action — a multi-disciplinary engagement. everyone knows the simple axiom of “talk minus action equals zero” and in our case i see design as talk, a start to the conversation, and entry point. a student of mine did a project about literacy with the usual poster campaign and whatnot, but what set his project apart is that he went to an elementary classroom and read to the students. at a basic level, those complementary acts are what i think make for effective activism.

  4. Jody says:

    hi Anne,

    Design becomes powerful when it helps people who are working towards change. Yes, definitely designers need to understand how activism works if they want to have any real impact. Making aesthetically pleasing ‘protest’ posters and artifacts is not enough… Furthermore this kind of design is easily appropriated by the next marketing campaign (witness Shepard Fairey). Sometimes there is no way to avoid confronting a situation – if we are serious about change we need some backbone as well as some good ideas.


  5. Ann Thorpe says:

    Tyler and Jody,
    Thanks for your comments. I hear what you are both saying about design working in concert with other “actions” or tactics. And it is so true. The key thing about “protest” is that it is only one strategic part of an overall campaign. A campaign probably won’t be as effective without some form of public protest or demonstration, but without the campaign, the protest tactic has little chance of making a difference.

    What Tyler points out is that unless other aspects of a sustained campaign move forward, the protest itself isn’t really effective. And I think the same root cause–a protest action without a campaign–leaves the design element of the protest action open for the kind of cooption Jody mentions.

    It’s great to hear about other projects and how we are all struggling with these questions. It seems to me that we are getting somewhere!

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