Design Activism – Protest Art

In 2020, an analysis of Shutterstock search data showed the importance of protest art. Topics like inequality, environmentalism or Black Lives Matter were search terms which show that there is a need for images that both represent and inspire change. When you look at the action of protest itself – walking on the streets and raising your voice – protest art is a powerful tool to underscore and accompany the protest itself.

But what is protest art?

Protest art has the aim to promote activism and inspire social and political change. Therefore, it refers to a wide range of visual media and can be split in three categories, which influence each other: 

  • Art produced for demonstrations, such as posters, billboards, costumes, and performance art.
  • Campaign art created by groups looking to raise awareness of a particular issue, and circulated in print or online. 
  • Artworks created by protest artists, which are displayed in galleries, online, or in the outside world.

Protest art aims to evoke both shock and empathy in relation to issues that need attention. Basic design rules and carefully chosen words are used for this purpose. In today’s world, where protests, marches and demonstrations are almost the order of the day, also the role of protest art is getting bigger and more important. 

Yet protest art is not an invention of the 21st century. It is just as much a part of human history as great discoveries, wars and inventions.

The history of protest art

The invention of the printing press was also at the same time the gateway to a world in which the mass distribution of art and literature was suddenly possible. Protest art was not exempt from this. The technology, which made it possible to reproduce prints by using repeatable, machine-accurate letters and images, also made visual design possible as we know it today. And through the freedom of visual design, ideas could spread without gatekeepers.

The invention of the printing press in 1455 also made it instantly easier for citizens to protest. They no longer had to rely purely on word of mouth and were able to mass disseminate their philosophies and ideas, which also turned against the church and the government, in a summarized, concise form.

The first result of the printing press, The Gutenberg Bible, changed how humanity communicated. (Photo credit: imageBROKER/Shutterstock.)

Gutenberg’s printing press thus enabled entirely new avenues for protest through text. Art has always been used to supplement this text, but the early 20th century in particular is considered the time when visual art began to challenge the status quo. For example, Pablo Picasso led the reconstruction through Cubism, which in turn inspired the Bauhaus – who resisted the Nazis. This deconstruction, coupled with the ability to reproduce and share design, led directly to what we know as modern graphic design. The spirit of artistic protest was evident in the desire to deconstruct systems of oppression through modern, visual communication.

Protest art today

When it comes to protest art in today’s world, on the one hand you have a lot more reach through social media and can take your message around the world in no time, on the other hand it is increasingly important for protest groups – as well as companies – to stand out from the information overload and the multitude of visual signs. Protest art is no longer about the message alone, it’s about a unique brand identity. Logos, typography, and color schemes are just as important as they are in corporate identities for commercial companies. While the concept of branding might seem in contradiction with the anti-commercial nature of protest groups, the increasing visibility of and competition between groups online means that visual identities have quickly become a common feature of protest organizations.

Visual identity of Black Lives Matter Movement

For example, if you look at Black Lives Matter: it is a protest movement which has experimented with creating a visual identity. They have a logo (wordmark), color palette (black and yellow) and even typography. An independent design agency created it and the designers used a simple layout and a freely accessibly font, so the logo can easily be recreated – digitally and by hand. This is important for protest movements like Black Lives Matter as it makes it much easier to support the movement and spread the word. 


Design Activism – Protests and famous symbols for activism

In design activism, the designer seeks to effect change on a critical issue. Even when you go on the streets to protest, you stand up for something to change the world a little bit for the better. You are part of a movement, that has the aim to shape social and political processes. 

A powerful tool in protest is art. It is used to make change happen. From hand-drawn posters to large-scale art installments, everything is used for protest art to draw even more attention to a topic. Especially in 2020, Protest Art was developing as a stand-out visual trend for 2020. From an ongoing global pandemic to a mounting demand for social justice, the stories of 2020 have been illustrated along the way with art that helps us understand — and calls for — momentous changes. But integrating art into protest is not a 2020 invention. Powerful symbols, posters with often very reduced designs and effective messages implemented in artistic form have long been part of protest.

Following I would like to present three amazing, well-known and strong symbols for activism and protest: 

The Raised Fist

The Raised Fist is a symbol of solidarity and one of the most widely used graphic symbols in the world. It was first used by as the logo of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1917. In the Spanish Civil War, the symbol was popularized by the Republicans and has been copied by many different organisations and campaigns ever since. It has been used by Irish Republicans, Feminists and during the May ’68 uprisings in France. Probably the best known use of the Raised Fist is the Black Fist. It represents Black Nationalism or Socialism and was used widely by the Black Panther Party in 1960s’ USA. It is a global symbol of fighting oppression and it has a strong history. From1936, where a Parisian crowd demonstrates its support for the Popular Front, a coalition of socialists, communists, and other anti-fascist organizations, over members of the anti-Nazi Red Front Fighters, who gave the clenched fist salute in 1928 to black lives matter protest – there are a lot of examples for protest including the symbol of the raised fist. 

The Smiling Sun

The Smiling Sun is a globally recognised symbol of the Anti-Nuclear movement. Today it is most known in the slogan as “Nuclear Power? No Thanks” but it was actually originally Danish: “Atomkraft? Nej Tak”. In fact, the symbol was originally a badge designed by 21 year old Danish activist Anne Lund. Lund belonged to the organisation OOA (In English: Organisation for Information on Nuclear Power).

The special thing about the icon is that it is non-confrontational. It’s friendly appearance combined with its polite but firm questioning calls for communication by dialogue. This badge has been produced in 45 different regional and national languages. Over 20 million have been produced and distributed worldwide.

The Peace Symbol

The Peace symbol can be definitely seen as one of the most famous symbols worldwide. It was designed by British designer Gerald Holtom as a logo for Nuclear Disarmament. Soon after its release in 1958 it became the official logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). It was first used in the march to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, England. Holtom began with Nuclear Disarmament, ND for short, and then took the semaphore signals for those two letters. He combined the symbols, added a ring, and ended up with one of the most well-known icons of our time.

The logo was never copyrighted and in the decade after its introduction became the general purpose peace symbol we know it as today.

Design Activism – Emotionality

On November 9, 2020, I had a conversation with Sigrid Bürstmayr about design activism. She works and teaches at FH JOANNEUM. Her professional interests and skills include product management, exhibition design, sustainable design and design activism. Sigrid believes that design should be able to shape whole environments and processes, ways of thinking and acting. Designers should try to change the society and the world for the better, at least a little bit.

The following are the main points of our conversation.

Emotionality and media design as a cross-sectional discipline

In design activism, media design can be seen as a kind of cross-sectional discipline. Through media one has the opportunity to explain and disseminate other disciplines and the ideas behind their design activist context. A well-implemented media design achieves an emotional effect, for example through graphic implementations that clearly and understandably present the problems of the topic. This emotionality can be implemented even better into videos. Interviews, which are well conducted, with interview partners who bring their topic strongly to the outside world, are a powerful tool to draw attention to design activist contexts and their goals in a broad audience.
Below are a few illustrative examples:

Why Santa must die | Andy hobsbawn, naresh Ramchandani | UK

This picture shows us that the Christmas season has turned from a quiet, harmonious time into a time of overconsumption. It wants to show that one should focus more on the emotional value of the Christmas season and not on the material goods.

Pumpipumpe want to encourage a sharing community by creating stickers you can pick on you letterbox, so your neighbours know, what they can borrow from you.

buero bauer asked the question: What can designers concretely contribute to improving the situation of refugees?
They developed a language-independent, understandable, icon-based communication system for first-time accommodation. It shows the most important information clearly and deals with ethnic characteristics subtly but efficiently.

Socken mit Haltung | buero balanka

buero balanka wants to show with their “socks with attitude” that it is important to show political attitude. In particular, they want to say that politically right ideas must be opposed. The text and concept office draws attention to this topic with a certain wit and charm, which creates an emotional value.

period products from einhorn

einhorn is a community and a team that has a stake in society, culture, politics, and the economy.  We believe that being fairstainable involves a mutual dialogue between all involved. They are a start up and want to combine design with Fairstainability (fair & sustainable). They believe in using the business power to do good and all that in a sexy design.
With visually playful design and texts they encounter taboo topics such as period or sex in a fun way. On their website you have more the feeling of buying toys than products for your period.

Emotionality through interactivity

However, the greatest emotional impact is achieved through interactive experiences that appeal to the senses of the recipient. I would like to cite the example of “The Fun Theory 1 – Piano Staircase Initiative” from Volkswagen.

The Fun Theory 1 – Piano Staircase Initiative | Volkswagen

Volkswagen has been thinking about how to change people’s behavior in a positive way and what factor is needed to do this. With a simple element, they succeeded in getting 66% of people in a subway station to take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. For this experiential marketing example, the Volkswagen team cleverly created “piano” stairs in a subway stop in Germany, right next to the escalator. This led commuters to choose the stairs, playing their own tunes as they went up and down each step. Volkswagen added the element of fun. 
People could see the Piano Stairs, they could hear them, they could feel them through their own movement – jumping up and down to create a melody. An interactive action that connects the car brand with a simple human emotion: fun.

When a company is able to associate their brand with an emotion as pure as fun, they’ve already won over the customer. In this way, even as a designer, you can inspire people for topics that affect us all. This example shows that gamification plays an important role here, as it provides an incentive for people to actively participate in something.

Furthermore, as a consumer you have a lot of power yourself, which means you can do a lot as an individual. Through social media, you are no longer just a receiver of content, you are also the sender. It is up to each individual to consciously shape his or her own lifestyle and pay attention to sustainability. Too often, the general opinion still prevails that you don’t achieve enough as an individual. However, the more people consciously pay attention to something and participate in a movement, the more effective it is.

Design Activism

A movement for a better world

The current social and political debates are reflected in design and art. Design activism is a movement that takes it upon itself to use its responsibility as a designer to create a better world. It is not about inciting isolated events, but rather using design in all its forms to create a sustainable platform for change – the fundamental problem must be understood and interpreted in order to explore the path to a common solution and publicly call for change. One does not rely on the mechanisms of politics, but uses one’s professional, creative skills for the commitment to a better world. As a designer, you have the responsibility to intervene in current social and socio-political processes in order to actively and globally shape the future society and to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. It is about taking a visionary and provocative position in order to help shape or even initiate social developments. Design activism has a healthy potential for dealing with contemporary societal issues. 

“Design Activism” or “Design” and “Activism”

Both, “design” and “activism”, are connected to our mind. They express our diverse ways of thinking. For design there isn’t only one definition, because it’s not that easy to limit the meaning of something that expresses our inner thoughts, which become to action and art. Design always have to be seen in a cultural context because it is tied to cultural perceptions that are contemporary and yet very personal. Design is about communication, where cultural, political and societal are put into a form of perception, and it seems to be everywhere. 

Design crosses a diverse range of subject fields and disciplinary borders giving design a unique reach among the creative disciplines, while simultaneously adding more complexity and blurring the discursive space. Design is something that is important in all facets of contemporary life. 

As in the discipline of design as well as in the discipline of activism there is a dualism. There are professional and trained designers, who offer expertise, yet design is executed by unknown, anonymous and non-intentional designers, who gain their expertise from outside the design professionals’ world. This also can be applied to the field of activism. The different origins of the designers and activists, whether professional or anonymous, leads to design and activism that makes an important contribution to contemporary issues, social developments and environmental stability.


“We have the opportunity to decide whether we will simply do good design or we will do good with design.” -David Berman

There are many actors, agents and stakeholders in this activist landscape that intentionally or unintentionally usedesign, design thinking and other design processes to deliver their activism.
So not only famous and well-known designers have the possibility and the responsibility to use their creative knowledge to draw attention to important societal and political topics that may not be given enough importance. 

I will ask what media design can do to create an effect for a better world and analyze illustrative media concepts for this purpose. 

The question that arises for me is how such design-activist concepts are received and what influence they have on the recipients. What success does design activism have in this? And how can this success be measured? What are the economic and commercial aspects of design activism?   


Scalin, Noah/ Taute, Michelle (2012): The Design Activist’s Handbook: How to Change the World (Or at Least Your Part of It) with Socially Conscious Design. Simon and Schuster.
Fuad-Luke, Alastair (2009): Design Activism: Beautiful Strangeness for a Sustainable World. Earthscan.
Bieling, Tom (2019): Design (&) Activism. Perspectives on Design as Activism and Activism as Design. Mimesis International.
Banz, Claudia (Hg.) (2016): Social Design. Gestalten für die Transformation der Gesellschaft. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.