Design + Dissent + Decisions: Design's Role in Activism


By Jaylin Paschal


Design is generally understood as "the combination of details or features of a picture, building, etc.; the pattern or motif of artistic work."

The most important part of that definition is, to me, "the combination details." Design consists of bringing elements together to serve one particular purpose.

Which brings me to my preferred definition of design: “the implementation or realization of ideas.” 

Designers have the tremendous responsibility of making the abstract tangible/visual. This responsibility of articulation makes designers particularly powerful. With this power, purposeful design becomes a tool of activism.

Ann Thorpe writes on "design activism," "We are familiar with conventional activist scenes—a group of people, often by putting their bodies on the line, hold a strike or a march to resist the status quo, call for social change, and thus influence decision makers and public opinion. We are perhaps less familiar with how structures (such as buildings) or objects (such as furniture or tools), in their design processes and physical manifestations, also have a role in resisting the status quo, calling for change and thus influencing decision makers. "

Design is able to be a form of activism because it is centered in action; the act of making, building or shaping something. Design focuses on deliverables:

With just these examples, web design, graphic design, architecture, etc. has helped register hundreds of thousands for healthcare, inspired millions to march, provided recreational space for under privileged communities, severely gentrified a New York neighborhood and elected George Bush over John Kerry.

Well versus poorly done design makes all the difference. When design is poorly implemented--like the original Obamacare site, the gentrification of Chelsea or the Floridian ballots--, it has the potential to affect the sociopolitical climate for the worst. Remember the "anti-homeless spikes" designed for big city use, which prevented homeless people from lying down in certain spaces? 


All of this is to say that "good" design has to do good. Good design brings about sustainability, function, utility, beauty, profit and change. Design is so much more than the art of making things pretty — it’s the art of getting things right. The right design + the right message pushes a movement forward. Essentially, the revolution will not be--cannot be--poorly designed.

Jaylin PaschalComment