The Art of Protest: A History of Resistance in Design

The Art of Protest: A History of Resistance in Design

Protest art spotlights issues that need attention, using basic rules of design and carefully chosen words — as well as eliciting both shock and empathy.

Good design often resists the status quo, thus complementing civil disobedience. As a Creative Trend for 2020, protest art and design help communicate issues through powerful imagery supported by bold, straightforward typography. And, in noisy times like these, the most successful examples can either shock or elicit the empathy that protest art strives for.

Women's Rights ProtestA modern example of political art protest. (Photo credit: Rmv/Shutterstock.)

Examples of protest art and design, visual activism, resistance via visual communication, etc., are part of the record of human history. Let’s take a look back at the roots of modern protest art — and then how modern design amplifies voices today.

Seeds of Visual Dissent: Printing Press to Picasso

The technology that enabled print reproduction (thus graphic design) was the same that enabled large-scale dissemination of protest art and literature.

The invention of the printing press — using repeatable, machine-accurate lettering and imagery — made visual design as we know it possible. And through the freedom of visual design, ideas could spread without gatekeepers.

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

The printing press immediately facilitated the common citizen’s ability to protest. Johannes Gutenberg changed modern human history forever by printing the Gutenberg Bible in 1455, and people almost instantaneously began printing letters and pamphlets — filled with ideas once reliant on word of mouth or angry mobs. Now, it was possible to succinctly share philosophies and ideas opposing the church and the government — en masse.

In European history, where the press emerged, the first target of protest was the church. In those days, the church was the state. They ruled the government and were the source of society’s cohesion — as well as the oppression that comes with totalitarian rule. Martin Luther protested the church directly in 1517, allegedly nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Thus began Protestantism — and the use of printing to effect tidal change in society.

Martin Luther's Ninety-five ThesesThe famous Thesis Door of the Castle Church. Martin Luther (1483-1546) is said to have nailed his ninety-five theses, against the selling of indulgences, onto the door of the castle church. (Photo credit: Hendrik Schmidt/EPA/Shutterstock.)

As Gutenberg spread the voice of the people, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, among others, spearheaded deconstruction through Cubism, and Cubism inspired the Bauhaus (which semi-successfully resisted the Nazis). The early 20th-century creatives would subsequently completely disassemble visual art and its philosophical foundations.

Paul Klee's <span class=Painting "Ein Fetzen Gemeinschaft"" class="wp-image-117502"/>Ein Fetzen Gemeinschaft, or “A Scrap of Community,” 1932. Paul Klee taught visual communication at the Bauhaus, so the Nazi government condemned him as a degenerate. (Photo credit: The Art Archive/Shutterstock.)

This deconstruction, coupled with the ability to reproduce and share design, led directly to what we know as modern graphic design. And interwoven with these new art forms, providing the greatest platform, was the spirit of artistic protest — the desire to deconstruct the systems of oppression using cutting-edge visual communication.

Picasso Art ExhibitPicasso’s “Guernica” strikes a chord in viewers, with little to no explanation necessary. It is a foundational course on visual communication in one powerful painting. (Photo credit: AP/Shutterstock.)

Picasso set up modern protest art in 1937. “Guernica,” one of the most enduringly powerful anti-war statements, memorializes the people of Guernica, in northern Spain, who died during the Spanish Civil War. The painting shows grotesque and twisted human figures and animals, in states of agony and distress. It’s meant to hold a mirror to the savage behavior that we wreak upon our fellow beings through violent abuse of power.

Contemporary Protest Art

The 20th century brought huge technological leaps, paired with the widest gaps — between the wealthy and poor — the world had ever seen. The recent developments in industrialization and world-wide warfare followed shortly after, making the world a smaller, more volatile place.

The Masses MagazineEarly layout and publication design mixes hand-drawn illustration full of emotion and meaning. (Photo credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock.)

Factory worker uprisings — protesting for workers’ rights — created frequent opportunities for mass bloodshed. Warfare now took place on a global scale, and the weapons behind it were suddenly capable of immense destruction. It was the common citizens, not the elites, who had to wage these wars, so there was plenty against which to speak.

The 1960s is perhaps when American protest culture and outspoken art came into its own, bringing the fight home from factories and faraway battlefields. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1960s, massive demonstrations took place throughout the nation in an effort to bring fair and equal treatment to all races. Then, the Vietnam War started, and the counterculture took off.

US Women's Brigade Anti-War ProtestIn 1968, the U.S. Women’s Brigade held an anti-war protest in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: Shutterstock.)

This technology also allowed nearly anyone with an idea to reach audiences never possible before. The coming-of-age for the internet, in the ’90s, was an even more unifying force than the printing press — for better and for worse.

The birth of the modern internet made sharing and developing ideas more immediate than ever. With a modest connection, one could near-instantly share art, ideas, and information about where gatherings were taking place. This also enabled art and design to evolve its own modern identity for the generation weaned on it.

Protester Displaying the American Flag with Corporate LogosA powerful and direct statement against corporate ownership of American government, or “Culture Jamming.” (Photo credit: Steven Senne/AP/Shutterstock.)

Culture Jamming, or guerrilla communication, is an overarching anti-consumerist social movement. Though mass globalization and exorbitant advertising budgets formed in the early 20th century, the ’90s is when you could start to see a real backlash in the counterculture.

Anti-Consumerist ProtestDone by hand vs. designed on a computer: both can be clear in their messaging. (Photo credit: Neil White/Shutterstock.)

Though the proliferation of brand trust-building was essential to a strong post-war American economy, the free-play corporations ran amok. Culture Jamming tried to draw attention to the absurdity of this existence.

Anniversary of the 2015 Attacks in FranceA gathering of protesters marking the anniversary of the attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. (Photo credit: Francois Mori/AP/Shutterstock.)

The slogan “Je suis Charlie,” French for “I am Charlie,” was the brainchild of French art director Joachim Roncin. After the 2015 shooting of twelve people at the office of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, the rallying cry was adopted around the world to support freedom of the press and freedom of speech with the hashtag #jesuischarlie.

Brexit Protest DesignFine arts can blend with graphic arts, increasing the clarity of the message. (Photo credit: Stephen Chung/LNP/Shutterstock.)

Brexit, a seemingly never-ending threat from the United Kingdom to separate itself from the European Union, is a fertile subject for protest art and design as well. England has a long, rich history of satire and anti-authoritarianism. The divisions between those who support Brexit and those who don’t have revealed the artistic depth of the commonwealth’s citizenry.

Women's Solidarity March in New OrleansGraphic arts and design communicate a single, unified message, increasing the volume of the message. (Photo credit: Rmv/Shutterstock.)

Perhaps the most noticeable movement of the last several years has been Women’s Rights. Tied to the 2016 United States Presidential Election, it seeks to highlight how far we have to go in equalizing treatment among the sexes. With a candidate revealed to have made unequivocally sexist comments having won the presidency, the advocates for the rights of women had no choice but to turn the volume up to eleven, with the 2017 Women’s March.

Women's Day March in New YorkNotice how typography design on protest art tends to be bold. This kind of blunt typographical treatment is critical if you want your message read and understood quickly. (Photo credit: AP/Shutterstock.)

This helped sweep in a new generation of four groundbreaking congressional office holders — who happened to be women — with strong, outspoken personalities, seeking to bring change from within the government.

Women's March in New YorkAs new faces in U.S. Congress hope to change a number of existential issues during their terms, concise and unified message designs ensures unity. (Photo credit: Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock.)

The changes in 2016 also highlighted existing issues, amplifying and uniting them. Whether LBGTQ, Black Lives Matter, general inequality, or another issue, the broadest spectrum of marginalized groups found common ground against common authoritarianism and oppression. The vast numbers and styles of visual languages melded to create a palette of resistance, painting frequent, large-scale, widely covered protests across the globe.

Kenyan Activists Protesting Against Inequality The Inequality symbol here, or “does not equal sign,” mixes with Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights in one powerful image — succinctly explained through iconography and symbolism. (Photo credit: DAI KUROKAWA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.)

The Future of Arts Activism

Susan Sarandon and Joaquin Phoenix at a Climate ProtestCelebrities supporting the art of protest. (Photo credit: Jose Luis Magana/AP/Shutterstock.)

With environmental concerns mounting, more people are raising their voices to global concerns. According to the 2020 Creative Trends, the main issues people are concerned with now, and going forward, include the following:

SustainabilityEnvironmentalismCivil unrest

All these issues cross borders, and none have any regard for ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, or gender. The efforts to communicate these dire issues will inspire protestors to discover creative methods of communication.

Taiwan Nuclear ProtestSimple, anthropomorphic design and clear typography easily cross language barriers on common issues. (Photo credit: Chiang Ying-ying/AP/Shutterstock.)

Though social media has already made an impact, it’ll become even more important, especially as people use it to disseminate false information — even those in the highest, once-respected offices of our lands.

The tone of protest art can usually be nihilistic, but with the added immediacy of citizens who want their governments to take action on the impending climate crisis, messages can and will get pretty bleak. We saw this bleakness in the ’80s with protests against nuclear war. Even in nuclear war, global destruction wasn’t as guaranteed as climate crisis is today.

Bushfire Climate Change ProtestsDark but effective protest design. (Photo credit: Isopix/Shutterstock.)

If anything, the messages will get clearer, louder, and more imminent in their warnings against the consequences of inaction. In fact, we’re now seeing the conversation switch to acceptance and preparedness for what is seemingly inevitable.

Bushfire Climate Change ProtestThe more dire the issue, the bolder and simpler typography must be to leave no question about the message. (Photo credit: Penelope Barritt/Shutterstock.)

We can look forward to the brilliant ways artists use this unfortunate situation to inspire change. The hope is that they make a difference — or at least carry on the tradition of leaving evidence of the efforts to fight for one’s rights.

Looking for more on the design industry? Check out these articles.

Just Cause: Graphic Designs with Awareness and SignificancePeriodicals Through the Ages: A Look at the Impact of Magazine CoversWorkflow Tips for the Environmentally Conscious DesignerThe Legendary, Influential Bauhaus Movement Turns 100Design Trends: An Introduction to the Return of Zine Culture

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