Propaganda & Protest

Design as a tool for social change

When an individual is protesting society's refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.Bayard Rustin

Navajo woven blanket, dyed and undyed wool, 1865–70.

Navajo chief’s blanket, dyed and undyed wool, 1865–70.

Navajo wedding basket, woven grass, late 1800’s.

Sioux cradleboard cover, leather, birchbark, quill, metal, 1810-1830.

Lakota shield, leather, pigment, wood, feathers, 1885.

Sioux painted animal hides, rawhide, pigment, 1880-1885.

By the turn of the 19th century, over 95% of the indigenous population of the Americas would perish as a result of the violence and disease brought upon them by European settlers. By the same time, almost 11 million Africans would be brought to the New World to be sold into slavery. Both of these historical accounts exemplify the erasure and exploitation at the core of the colonial campaign for progress and growth that would, by the end of World War 2, establish the US as a leading world power.

In overlooking these aspects of history, the connection between the harsh realities of the past and the inequities of the present is obscured. While it’s important to acknowledge the many ways in which the US has advanced and evolved since its inception; the imprint of colonialism is still very much present in the underlying structures that dictate the circumstances of those living under contemporary American capitalism—from the unequal distribution of wealth, to the current perceptions of power, race, and privilege. The past is not behind us.

“The United States of America has had the world’s largest economy for most of our history, with enough money to feed and educate all our children, build world-leading infrastructure, and generally ensure a high standard of living for everyone. But we don’t. When it comes to per capita government spending, the United States is near the bottom of the list of industrialized countries, below Latvia and Estonia. Our roads, bridges, and water systems get a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. With the exception of about forty years from the New Deal to the 1970s, the United States has had a weaker commitment to public goods, and to the public good, than every country that possesses anywhere near our wealth.”

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heather McGhee

Indigenous Design

n 1492, when Christopher Columbus first “discovered” the new world. there were almost 600 indigenous tribes residing in North America alone. Each of these tribes represents a singular culture with its own distinct history, language, and approach to art and design.

In the location along the Arizona-Utah border designated as the Navajo Nation, evidence of human inhabitants date as far back as 12,000 BCE. The Navajo tribe first emerged in the Four Corners area of the Colorado Plateau between 1100 and 1500 CE. Spanish settlers first made contact with the Navajo in 1582. From 1860 to 1864, the Navajo tribe retaliated against the US government who had initiated a series of military campaigns to drive the Navajo people from their land. American troops burned down Navajo homes, destroyed crops, and slaughtered livestock. Many Navajos were killed or imprisoned. In 1868, Navajo leaders signed a treaty with the US government and the first Navajo reservation was established at Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico—a great distance form the original Navajo territory. Boarding schools and internment camps were set up on this new reservation which employed methods of forced assimilation to separate Navajo people from their history and culture. Later, the treaty was renegotiated and the Navajo were allowed to return to their ancestral homeland.

Today the Navajo Nation covers over 27,000 square miles and includes areas of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. The current population of the Navajo tribe is over 330,000. The Navajo people are known for their distinct creative culture. Traditional arts and crafts such as pottery, textiles, and basketry are a significant part of the contemporary Navajo culture and economy.

The Sioux are a group of indigenous American tribes made up of three primary subcultures which speak different dialects—the Lakota, the Dakota, and the Nakota. The Lakota, also referred to as the Teton Sioux, are the largest of the three groups and occupy areas in both North and South Dakota. The Dakota, also called the Santee Sioux, live mainly in Nebraska and Minnesota. The Nakota are the smallest group and reside in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana.The Dakota and Lakota are known for their activism.They have a long history of engaging in protest and legal action to fight corruption and injustice. In 1980 the Sioux went to the Supreme Court to reclaim territories they were officially granted through the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 but then later denied by the US government. They were awarded over 1 billion dollars but refused the settlement, preferring to, instead, have their land returned to them.In 2016, the Lakota and Dakota of the Standing Rock reservation positioned across the border of North and South Dakota initiated a grassroots opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Completed in 2017, this underground oil pipeline runs through North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois and intersects with numerous sites that are sacred to the Sioux people. The protests began out of concern of the pipeline’s impact on the environment and its potential to contaminate water sources in the area.

The Sioux have a rich history of art and design. Colorful geometric motifs can commonly be found painted on hides and pottery or woven into clothing and baskets. The forms and symbols used in these artworks have specific meaning or purpose.


The Harlem Renaissance

The US Civil War ended in 1865 with the defeat of the Southern Confederacy and the official abolishment of the system of slavery in America. However, the almost 4 million newly freed Black Americans would soon discover that any progress signified by both Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the 13th amendment to the Constitution passed by Congress in 1865 would be severely negated by the new Jim Crow laws which began to be legislated in Southern States in 1877.

For Black citizens, the era of Jim Crow represented a new form of subjugation in the form of mass incarceration, extreme inequity, discrimination, and institutionalized violence and murder. With the 1896 Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, segregation became the established structure within which separate and inferior resources and opportunities existed for Black communities. Where once the oppression and inhumane treatment of Black people were validated by law, after the end of slavery, the status of Black Americans as second class citizens would be upheld by state sanctioned white supremacy and accepted social patterns of racism, terrorism, and discrimination.

Beginning in the early 1900’s, many Black Americans began to depart from the South in search of a life free from the violence and degradation they were experiencing under Jim Crow. World War 1 generated a labor shortage across the country and many Northern factories began to recruit Black workers from Southern states. By the end of the war in 1919, over 1 million Black citizens had migrated to cities in the North, Midwest, and West. This mass exodus, known as the Great Migration, transformed the American cultural landscape bringing large populations of Black Americans to urban areas across the country.

“They traveled deep into far-flung regions of their own country and in some cases clear across the continent. Thus the Great Migration had more in common with the vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world, where oppressed people, whether fleeing twenty-first-century Darfur or nineteenth-century Ireland, go great distances, journey across rivers, desserts, and oceans or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land.”

—Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

In these new locations, although Black citizens didn’t have to contend with legal segregation as they did in the South, they experienced racism, discrimination, and exclusion in other forms. In crowded cities like Chicago and New York, newly arrived Black Southerners were seen by white locals—often European immigrants who had newly migrated themselves— as competition for jobs and housing opportunities that were scarce and often hard to come by. This resulted in Black communities converging in specific areas or neighborhoods. These areas were often densely populated and defined by economic hardship and lack of public resources and support. In the face of these challenging circumstances, a new Black American identity arose in the 1920’s that was defined not by the legacy of slavery and racism in the US but by an emerging Black creative, economic, and intellectual awakening.

One of the most prominent centers of Black culture to develop during this time was the neighborhood of Harlem located in Upper Manhattan in New York City. Originally designated as an area for affluent White families of New York, the neighborhood never caught on with its intended demographic. By the early 1900’s, in order to fill vacant properties, landlords began to rent to incoming Black residents. Harlem soon grew to be a well known destination for the Black diaspora that was migrating from the South.

By the 1920’s Harlem would begin to attract prominent creative and intellectual luminaries. Poets, artists, writers, and thinkers converged in the neighborhood between the Hudson and Harlem Rivers resulting in a golden age of Black music, art, literature, and scholarship in America known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith performed nightly at Harlem Jazz clubs drawing both Black and White audiences alike. Writers like Zora Neal Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes contributed to the formation of a vibrant literary scene in Harlem and founded a short-lived magazine called Fire which gave voice to up and coming writers and poets of the time that were living and working in New York.

The artists and designers of the Harlem Renaissance both incorporated modernist approaches in their work —art deco, art nouveau, cubism— and expanded on those visual styles to develop a creative vision all their own. Artists and arts organizers working in Harlem during the twenties and thirties understood the relationship between the visual innovation found in the creative contributions of African cultures like the Benin Empire and the Chokwe people and the development of European modernism. They sought to highlight this connection by positioning the creative works of the Harlem Renaissance within a broader cultural context. Many Black artists during this time saw their creative practice as having roots in the rich legacy of African art, craft, and design. They wanted this legacy to be acknowledged, understood, and celebrated within the larger canon of creative history.

We can see a synthesis of traditional African approaches and contemporary modernist methodologies in many of the visual works from the Harlem Renaissance.  In the paintings of  Jacob Lawrence, Lois Mailou Jones, and William Henry Johnson, elements of Black history and Black cultural experience are depicted through a sophisticated approach that incorporates abstraction, stylization, and expressive use of form and color.

Cover for Fire magazine, Aaron Douglas, 1926.

The migrants arrived in great numbers, Jacob Lawrence, tempera on board, 1940—1941.

The migration gained in momentum, Jacob Lawrence, tempera on board, 1940—1941.

The Ascent of Ethiopia, Lois Mailou Jones, oil on canvas, 1932.

Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées, Lois Mailou Jones, oil on canvas, 1949.

Café, William Henry Johnson, oil on paperboard, 1939-1940.

Aaron Douglas

One of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance is the painter, illustrator, and educator Aaron Douglas. Originally from Topeka Kansas, He earned his bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1922 at the University of Nebraska and shortly after accepted a position teaching art at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1924 he was encouraged by the prominent sociologist and community leader Charles Spurgeon Johnson to move to Harlem. Douglas resigned from his teaching position and moved to Harlem the following year.

Once in New York, Douglas studied under the German expressionist painter Fritz Winold Reiss and was mentored by the renowned American sociologist, historian, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois pushed Douglas to study the legacy of African art and design as well as the avant garde artists of Europe. Douglas soon developed a signature style which incorporated the bold stylization inherent in African works with the graphic geometry of Art Deco design and typography that was prevalent between the wars. In book covers, magazines, posters, paintings, and murals, Douglas created a dynamic visual approach that would capture the spirit of the flourishing creative movements of Harlem.

This approach can be seen in the covers he design for The Crisis magazine, which was the publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP which was formed in 1909 by a group of white progressives and Black activists, one of which was his mentor W. E. B. Du Bois.

Party invitation, Aaron Douglas, undated.

Cover for The Crisis magazine, Aaron Douglas ,1927.

Book cover design for The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Aaron Douglas, 1927.

Book cover design for Not Without Laughter, Aaron Douglas, 1930.

The Data Portraits of W.E.B. Du Bois

In addition to his work as a writer, sociologist, and trailblazing activist, W. E. B. Du Bois also made a groundbreaking contribution to the field of graphic design with a series of infographics he created in 1899 with a team of students from Atlanta University where he was a professor. The works were developed as part of an exhibition centered on the lives of Black Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. The exhibition, which was displayed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris the following year in 1900, particularly focused on the circumstances and experiences that Black American citizens were facing at the time in the wake of the abolishment of slavery.

When Du Bois was first approached to contribute to the exhibition, its design was already in progress. There were plans to showcase a collections of photographs depicting the everyday lives of Black Americans of the era; however Du Bois wanted to convey these experiences in another way—not through imagery or written narrative, but through data.

Dubois is regarded as a pioneer in the field of sociology having established the first school of American sociology at Atlanta University in 1897. He understood the power of data as a tool for understanding and empowerment. For the Paris exhibition, the professor and his team designed a series of 60 handmade infographics —bold, striking abstract forms in vibrant colors that expressed specific points of information on Black communities like public school enrollment, earned income, political affiliation, and accumulated wealth. These graphic visualizations of data painted a portrait of strength and resilience that was quantifiable. They effectively conveyed the progress that Black Americans were making in education, business, and community building despite the challenges of racism, discrimination, and oppression they encountered on a daily basis.

This use of information and data to facilitate cultural understanding was, at the time, groundbreaking. Equally innovative was the visual approach Du Bois employed in giving form to statistics, facts, and measurements. More than a decade before avant garde movements like the Constructivists and the De Stijl movement would begin to incorporate basic, rudimentary forms as visual subject matter, Du Bois’s data portraits featured a neutral yet dynamic minimalism in the form of distilled geometry, primary colors, and graphic typography.  The infographics for the Paris exhibition of 1900 represent an early example of a modernist methodology that would, years later become the standard for contemporary designers throughout Europe and beyond.

Infographic created by W.E.B. Du Bois and a team of students from Atlanta University, 1899—1900.

Infographic created by W.E.B. Du Bois and a team of students from Atlanta University, 1899—1900.

Infographic created by W.E.B. Du Bois and a team of students from Atlanta University, 1899—1900.

Infographic created by W.E.B. Du Bois and a team of students from Atlanta University, 1899—1900.

Infographic created by W.E.B. Du Bois and a team of students from Atlanta University, 1899—1900.

European Modernism Makes its Way to the US

The rise of the Nazi regime during the 1930’s in Europe created one of the greatest transitional migrations of intellectual and creative talent in history. Groundbreaking designers such as Walter Gropius, Mies Van Der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, Laszlo Moholy Nagy, Herbert Matter, and Jean Carlu all fled to the US importing the perspectives and approaches of Europe’s avant grade and the Bauhaus. During this time, the US was in a time of great turmoil—attempting to come out of the great depression and entering into the global conflict of World War 2. Many of the groundbreaking creatives who were coming from Europe took positions as educators in the US. The modernist approach would become integrated in the curriculums taught to emerging designers who would go on to define the landscape of American design in the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

From the wars and revolutions of the first half of the 20th century would emerge a new climate of innovation and connection that would define the post-war era. Modernism was the look of this spirit of transformation. New industries centered on media, technology, and marketing would utilize the language of modernism to give form to the messages, images, and information they were transmitting to a global audience.

Beginning in the thirties, creatives who migrated to the US from Europe would, through their distinct perspectives, transform the look of American media, advertising, and publications. From magazines and posters to identity systems and information graphics, the modernist approach of designers like Herbert Matter, Cipe Pineles, and Alexey Brodovich, would define the look of American pop culture and serve as a model for countless designers in fifties, sixties, and seventies.

The expressive type, graphic flatness, and stylized geometry of modernist work perfectly aligned with the vibrant energy of the music, magazines, films, and television shows that began to dominate American popular culture in the Postwar era. The visual vernacular of modernism perfectly expressed the ideas and attitudes of the emerging cultural landscape in America.

New Frontiers

Television and film became booming industries in Postwar America, infiltrating the public consciousness like nothing before. Visual communication became an important counterpart to these media formats. Screens both large and small became a new space for modernist designers to execute their craft. For the first time, designers were incorporating sequence and movement into their work.

During the fifties, designers William Golden and Georg Olden transformed the visual identity of the television network CBS and positioned the station at the forefront of American culture and media. Golden redesigned the network’s identity in 1951. Taking inspiration from traditional Shaker hex symbols he observed on the sides of barns while on vacation in Pennsylvania, Golden created a striking image of an eye which he paired with modern-style serif letter-forms. The resulting identity system evoked a graphic elegance that enabled the station to stand apart from its competitors. From 1945 to 1960, as the director of graphic design, George Olden created identities, title sequences, and advertisements for CBS. He combined his passion for modern art and design with elements of movement and animation. His work earned him several CLIO awards. As a Black man in a predominantly White industry, Olden strove to incorporate his cultural identity into his creative work. In 1963, he designed a US stamp to commemorate the centennial of the emancipation proclamation.

“As the first black American to achieve an executive position with a major corporation, my goal was the same as that of Jackie Robinson in baseball: to achieve maximum respect and recognition by my peers, the industry and the public, thereby hopefully expanding acceptance of, and opportunities for, future black Americans in business.”

George Olden

Originally born in the Bronx, Saul Bass attended Brooklyn College where he studied under Hungarian designer György Kepes. Kepes had worked in the studio of László Moholy-Nagy in Berlin and had followed Nagy to Chicago to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago before working at Brooklyn College.

Saul Bass moved to Los Angeles in 1950 where he wound up working for some of Hollywood’s most prominent filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. He designed posters,title sequences, film credits, and storyboards.

Later, Bass wound up designing identities and logos for some of America’s most well known companies and organizations. During his 40-year career Bass earned international recognition as well as countless awards and accolades.

Television title sequence design for CBS, George Olden.

Television title sequence design for CBS, George Olden.

Stamp to commemorate the centennial of the emancipation proclamation , George Olden, 1963.

Titles for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, Saul Bass, 1959.

Poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Saul Bass, 1958.

Poster for The Man with the Golden Arm, Saul Bass, 1955.

Blue Note Records

Blue Note records was founded in New York in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis. The label was specifically focused on Jazz and became known as much for its innovative and modernist album covers as its music. Lion escaped Nazi Germany in the early 30’s and eventually settled in New York. Later, he helped the photographer Francis Wolff escape as well. When he began releasing albums through the Blue Note label, he incorporated Wolff’s photography on the covers. His stark, black and white images elevated the format of record photography.

In 1955, 28 year old Reid Miles began designing the covers of Blue Note releases. His graphic, minimalist approach would singlehandedly transform the Blue Note company into an iconic and globally recognized label.

Album cover for Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims, Reid Miles, 1957.

Album cover for The Rumproller by Lee Morgan, Reid Miles, 1965.

Album cover for Unity by Larry Young, Reid Miles, 1966


The technology of phototypesetting uses a photographic process to generate columns of type on a scroll of photographic paper. Edward Rondthaler first developed the Rutherford Photo-lettering Machine in 1936. This was an early version of phototypesetting which sets type by exposing negatives of letters on photo-paper. Randthaler’s method didn’t become widely used until two decades later when two Frenchmen, René Higonnet and Louis Moyroud created the Lumitype in 1949. This Phototypesetting machine projects characters onto film for offset printing. The first book to be phototypeset was The Marvelous World of Insects in 1953.

Other companies soon released similar machines: Mergenthaler produced the Linofilm using a different design, and Monotype produced Monophoto. Phototype technology enabled the creation of new fonts without hand engraving or hand casting. This resulted in a radical reduction in the cost of introducing new type styles and eventually led to the elimination of metal type as the dominant printing format during the sixties and seventies.

In 1964, a company called Morgan press issued a series of 19th century typefaces in the phototype format. These were styles form the Victorian era and the industrial revolution—wood type and decorative letters. In the wake of the modern movement, these styles had been rejected for years. A renewed interest in historical letter-forms was slowly starting to emerge.

Herb Lubalin

After graduating from Cooper Union in NY in 1939, Herb Lubalin became one of the most prolific and sought after designers in NY. He worked in advertising, editorial design, identity design, and typeface design. His distinct approach mixes a deep knowledge of design history, with a dynamic contemporary style focused on typography and calligraphic letter-forms. He used the new phototypesetting technology of the to develop his signature aesthetic.

Lubalin worked in marketing and advertising for over twenty years before starting his own firm, Herb Lubalin, Inc., in 1964. In his private practice, Lubalin would go on to design typefaces, identities, and publications that became wildly popular and well known during the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

From 1962 to 1971, Lubalin collaborated with New York editor and publisher Ralph Ginzburg in creating a series of design driven publications. Eros was the first in their series of collaborations. Eros was undertaken as a work of art. Art directed by Herb Lubalin, in an elegantly oversized format on both matte and glossy paper, and with hardback covers, it was a coffee-table magazine. A subscription for four issues was $19.95 and was promoted as “the most expensive magazine in the world.” The publication was filled with articles and photo-essays on love and sex. The magazine was shut down after only four issues and Ginzburg was indicted on charges of violating federal obscenity laws by mailing the magazine through the US postal service. He was found guilty by the Supreme Court and sentenced to five years in prison. He was released after only serving 8 months.

Less than a year following his conviction, Ginzburg collaborated with Lubalin on a new magazine called Fact. Rather than focusing on love and sex, Fact focused on the equally controversial topics of culture and politics. To ensure its writers were free to take on any institutions and organizations, Fact took on no advertisers. In three short years Fact had a circulation of over 250k.

Their third publication was called Avant Garde and was published from 1968 to 1971. Like Eros and Fact, Avant Garde embraced radical politics and erotic content despite conservative cultural norms. The magazine ultimately folded due to Ginzburg losing his long-running legal battle with the US government over obscenity charges from the publication of Eros and being forced to serve time in prison.

Cover for fact magazine, Herb Lubalin, published with Ralph Ginzburg, 1964.

Cover for Eros magazine, Herb Lubalin, 1962.

Poster featuring the typeface Avant Garde, Herb Lubalin, 1970.

Cover of Avant Garde magazine, Herb Lubalin, 1971.

Archie Boston

Born in 1943, designer and educator Archie Boston attended Cal Arts in 1961—and nearly dropped out to take a job in advertising. Instead, he took an internship at Carson/Roberts during his senior year. After working with his brother Brad on a variety of projects, the two founded the firm Boston & Boston design in 1967. As two Black designers constantly encountering inequality and discrimination within their industry, they decided to use these experiences as cornerstones of their work. Instead of shying away form the topic of race, they chose to instead acknowledge it directly and challenge audiences to rethink their assumptions and prejudices.

In 1969, Archie joined the advertising firm Botsford, Constantine, and McCarthy for eight years. During his time there, he also founded Archie Boston Graphic Design and began taking clients in 1973. Later he became the first black president of the Los Angeles Art Directors Club.

From his 20s onward, Archie has been a teacher. Currently he’s a professor at California State University Long Beach where he’s taught for nearly 40 years.

Boston & Boston self-promotional poster, 1967.

Self-promotional poster for Boston and Boston. 1967.

Advertisement for Pentel pens, Archie Boston, 1971.

The Memphis Sanitation Strike

During the 17 and 1800’s, the phrase  Am I Not A Man And A Brother? became a catchphrase used by British and American abolitionists. The phrase was eventually made into an emblem which was interpreted into a medallion which was worn by those who sought to abolish slavery and promote justice, humanity, and freedom.

On  February 1st, 1968, two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Eleven days later, frustrated by the city’s lack of response and fueled by a long pattern of neglect and abuse of its Black employees, 1,300 Black workers from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike. The strikers re-appropriated the “I AM A MAN” abolitionist messaging, transforming it into a bold visual mantra. The strikers’ accompanying signs emblazoned with their visual rallying cry, when collectively mobilized, created a dynamic public spectacle within a city that has a long history of segregation and unfair treatment of Black residents.

Images of the protest were spread across the US prompting many people to show their support. Many civil rights activists made their way to Memphis to join the strikers including the reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke to a crowd of 6,000 on April 3—and delivered one of his most famous speeches. He was assassinated the following night.

The strike lasted for over two months and the tension was exacerbated by the assassination of King. The strike ended on April 16, 1968, with a settlement that included union recognition and wage increases, although additional strikes had to be threatened to force the City of Memphis to honor its agreements. The period was a turning point for Black activism and union activity in Memphis.

Since then the simple and distinct “I AM A MAN” message has been re-purposed and reinterpreted by countless people seeking to protest against discrimination and inequality.

Photograph from the Memphis sanitation strike, 1968.

Photograph from the Memphis sanitation strike, 1968.

Photograph from the Memphis sanitation strike, 1968.

Photograph showing the reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at the Memphis strike.

I Am A Man plaza was erected in 2018 in Memphis as a memorial to the sanitation strike of 1968.

Emory Douglas and the Black Panthers

At the 1968 Olympics, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a black-gloved fist, and kept them raised until the American national anthem had finished. This was one of the first instances where the new climate of empowerment, action, and defiance that had emerged within America’s black community was displayed before a global audience. A raised fist was used as a logo by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1917. However, it was popularized during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, when it was used as anti-fascist salute.

In 1966 in Oakland, California, a new question emerged, born from the Civil Rights Movement, “How would Black people in America win not only formal citizenship rights, but actual economic and political power?” From this question the Black Power movement, and subsequently, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, were formed.

The Black Panther Party established patrols in Black neighborhoods to monitor police activities and protect the residents from police brutality. They developed social services, or what they called survival programs, in Black communities. The programs provided free breakfasts for children, established free medical clinics, helped the homeless find housing, and gave away free clothing and food. The raised fist became their salute, at rallies, at conventions, at marches, and in print. Two years after their founding, in 1967, Emory Douglas became the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party and the art director and main designer of  The Black Panther, the party’s official newspaper from 1967 to roughly 1980.

The newspaper used bold graphics, photographs, collages, and illustrations to voice opposition to police harassment, poor living conditions, and systemic poverty. At its peak in 1970, the paper had a circulation of 139,000 copies distributed across the United States. The graphic pages with their bold calls to action were often ripped out of the newspaper and wheat-pasted around neighborhoods on buildings, billboards, and sidewalks, sparking community activism.

Poster from The Black Panther newspaper, Emory Douglas, 1969.

Poster from The Black Panther newspaper, Emory Douglas, 1970.

Cover for The Black Panther newspaper, Emory Douglas, 1971.

Page from The Black Panther newspaper, Emory Douglas, 1971.

Cover for The Black Panther newspaper, Emory Douglas, 1971.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville

Beginning in the early 1960’s, a new wave of feminism emerged. The first women’s movement occurred during the 19th and early 20th century and centered on women’s right to vote and own property and the right to pursue a career. The women’s movement that rose out of the sixties and seventies broadened the debate to include a wider range of issues: sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, and official legal inequalities. The movement spanned the globe and was a catalyst for women to focus, for the first time in history on politics, economics, and law making.

A designer named Sheila Levrant de Bretteville was coming of age during this time. She attended Barnard College in Manhattan and Yale University in the late sixties. Starting in the early seventies she began to utilizes her practice of visual communication as a vehicle for feminist principles, community, and diversity. Later in her career, in 1990, she would become the director of the Yale University Graduate Program in Graphic Design.

She joined the staff of California Institute of the Arts or Cal Arts in 1970 and in 1971 founded the first design program for women at the school. She produced and directed numerous feminist programs and publications including organizing the first ever conference centered on woman in design. The poster for the event features a bolt that would become the symbol or icon for the event. The piece of hardware resembles the international symbol for women but also conjures ideas of utility, function, construction, and strength.

Two years after the conference, in 1973, she co-founded the Woman’s Building, a public center in Los Angeles dedicated to women’s education and culture. That same year, de Bretteville founded the Women’s Graphic Center and co-founded the Feminist Studio Workshop, both based at the Woman’s Building.

Since the seventies, de Bretteville’s body of work has utilized elements of graphic design to stimulate public discourse. Graphic messaging, color, and distilled forms are used to challenge dominant cultural perceptions around gender, class, and community. She has created a series of public works that are specifically in service of highlighting and celebrating experiences and identities of demographics that are marginalized or typically overlooked.

Poster for Women in Design: The Next Decade, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, 1975.

Spread from Everywoman feminist magazine, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, 1970.

Detail from At the Start… At Long Last… public art installation in Inwood, New York, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, 1999.

The Peace Sign

By the end of the 1950’s the world had seen the devastation of war— from the two atomic bombs that were deployed in Japan in 1945 to the documented horrors of the Vietnam War that had begun in 1955. In 1957, in London, England, a group of antiwar activists founded the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the wake of widespread fear of nuclear conflict and the effects of nuclear tests. Britain had recently become the third atomic power, following in the footsteps of the USA and the USSR, and had begun testing their own H-bomb.

The organization employed Gerald Holtom to design a symbol that would act as a visual expression of the movement’s aims to be used at a public demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square. Holtom used a combination of semaphore signals for the basis of his design. Semaphore signals are a system of communication that uses flags to convey information at a distance. The symbol Holtom created is a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters N and D, standing for “nuclear disarmament.” Superimposing these two signs forms the shape of the center of Holtom’s distinct emblem for peace.

The symbol was immediately adopted by the organization and soon appeared on buttons, posters and banners that were used in rallies and protests. The symbol became an effective tool for spreading their antiwar message—so effective in fact that it was soon adopted by other antiwar activists, eventually becoming an iconic symbol of the global antiwar revolution.

During the Vietnam War specifically, as images in the media showcased the unbelievable atrocities that were unfolding overseas, the symbol became a tool to signify disapproval—a means to visually communicate collective opposition and a want for peace. This collective opposition was a key factor in bringing the Vietnam War to an end.

Since then, the peace sign has become deeply rooted in our collective cultural consciousness. It has become part of an essential human value in opposition to conflict and violence. The symbol reminds us that we have a choice and reminds us of our accountability.

Photograph from a public demonstration for nuclear disarmament, London 1958.

Photograph from a public demonstration for nuclear disarmament, London, 1965.

Banner from an anti-nuclear protest, 1960.

Peace sign original sketch by Gerald Holtom, 1958.

Semaphore signals for “N” and “D” are the basis for Gerald Holtom’s peace sign.

The AIDS Crisis

By the end of 1985, 15,000+ people in the US had contracted AIDS. Nearly half had already died. A third of this population of typically young, otherwise healthy gay men were living in New York City. US President Ronald Reagan had not even uttered the word “AIDS” in public. There was so much fear of people with AIDS, people ostracized members of their own family and hospitals treated patients like they were bio-hazard. Many funeral homes refused to bury the dead.

Frustrated and desperate, a group of gay men in NYC formed a consciousness-raising group in 1986 to explore ideas about creating awareness around the issue. Their friends and lovers were dying, the government wasn’t doing anything and not enough people were talking about it.

They decided that the language of design, specifically the visual vocabulary of the world of advertising with its use of bold phrases and graphic symbology would be an effective approach for increasing public awareness. They sought to create a visual message that would act as a signal—a beacon to  unite the gay community but also resonate with a larger audience. It would, like all good advertising, connect with a broad demographic.

After weighing several options they landed on using the pink triangle. The pink triangle was used on Nazi concentration camp uniforms to identify homosexuals. In the context of fears about segregation, quarantine, and internment of HIV-positive people, using the symbol could become a double-edged sword. They changed its color from pale pink to a more vivid fuchsia, Pantone 212 C, which they felt suited the poster’s aggressive tone. They also turned the triangle upside down so the form conveyed a solid based terminating upward into an apex, like that of a pyramid.

They paired this dynamic symbol with an equally dynamic tag-line—Silence Equals Death—the most succinct explanation possible to convey the message that by doing nothing, by ignoring the crisis of AIDS—you are actively perpetuating it.

The group wheat-pasted the poster in the East Village, the West Village, Times Square, Chelsea, and the Upper West Side. Their aim was to target areas where members of the media lived and work. Overnight, they blanketed the city with the campaign creating a dynamic visual spectacle that was impossible to ignore.

Poster for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power or ACT UP, Gran Fury, 1986.

Gran Fury’s Silence Equals Death campaign in action at a demonstration in front of the White House in 1992.

ACT UP protest, New York City, 1994.

Neon sign featured in the exhibition Let the Record Show . . .  at the New Museum in New York, 1987.

The Silence Equals Death messaging reimagined by the artist Keith Haring, 1989.

Silence Equals Death campaign at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York.