Design surrounds people daily – in signs, posters, book covers, the layout of buildings and parks, and other details, and design experts understand the scale of their influence. Designers have mainly accepted responsibility for what happens around them and assumed the role of interfering in political and social events through their work (Rezai, 2021). They use design activism which aims to change society, promote progress, and solve social problems with the help of design tools. It also significantly attracts attention to sustainability and the theme of care about nature (TEDx Talks, 2019). However, some criticism of design activism brings doubts about its relevance. Although the design is aimed at the benefit of society, not all projects are activism; therefore, there are difficulties in understanding the concept.
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Activism is often associated with active actions, protests, rallies, or even struggle. Designing buildings or creating a poster may seem far from that prospect. At the same time, the design should always be meaningful, beautiful, functional, and aimed at the good of humans (Thorpe, 2011). As a result, the question arises of distinguishing the project of the design activism, and appropriateness of this term usage.
At the same time, the opinion of scientists about the content of the concept of design activism may differ. For example, some experts believe that such a design expresses protest, as houses on trees for protesters, in forests under threat of destruction. Others believe that design activism criticizes society or can be presented as a protest against poor design. However, Thorpe (2011) emphasizes that a single term is necessary, as it will be able to clarify the discussion of this area and provide designers with tools for changing society. Moreover, a single definition emanating from an understanding of activism can facilitate interdisciplinary dialogue.
There are several features that separate design activism from other forms. Thorpe (2011) highlighted the criteria and argues that design activism should:
- Reveal/frame problem requiring the attention of society and solution.
- Have a claim for changes based on identified problem.
- Act on behalf of marginalized groups.
- Include disruption – change through unconventional channels of change.
Work on social design projects can be beneficial for solving social problems and for the artists themselves. They draw attention to the problem by demonstrating it from an unusual creative perspective. According to a study by Patel (2021), such projects are used by non-profit organizations for fundraising. Mallo et al. (2020) also note that one of the critical functions of design activism lies in the formation and common work of a group of practitioners from the community. These practitioners should share views on social issues and can bring valuable skills to solving problems. At the same time, artists working on social design projects must deeply understand the issue, evaluate, and come up with a form to present it. As a result, they develop critical thinking, problem-solving skills, understand cultures, diversity, and societies, and become more tolerant (Patel, 2021). For this reason, participation in social projects expands the outlook of the artist and deepens the experience.
Design activism is often criticized, which creates doubt about its appropriateness in the practice of artists. For example, Dandavate (2019) notes that activists usually focus on what they fight against without offering a decent alternative. As a result, the very phenomenon of activism acquired a negative image. Criticism also claims that activism has no other helpful effect apart from raising awareness (Thorpe, n.d.). However, non-violent activism has already proved to be effective through historical examples of the Civil Rights movement, Gandhi’s activities, and other events. As a form of non-violent activism, design can provide a vision of a better world for which people are willing to bargain, for example, through personal behavior, political activity, and other measures.
Design Activism Examples
Advance to Zero
Using Thorpe’s (2011) criteria, the features of this project as an example of design activism are as follows:
as little as 3 hours
- Reveal/frame. The project created by the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness addresses the problem of homeless individuals and families, as well as rough sleepers (Inkahoots, 2021a). Many people live without a roof above their heads, in trailer parks, cars, or motels. They do not have the opportunity to improve something, as they cannot find work, get financial assistance, or having a job receive small salary.
- Claim. The Advance to Zero project claims that solving the problem is possible through strategic work, the collective influence of communities, and targeted data-driven solutions. The central claim of the project is that homelessness can be terminated, and it proposes a term of four years to solve the problem.
- On behalf of. The project advocates for the protection of a marginalized group – homeless people. Without a permanent and safe place of residence, they cannot satisfy their most basic needs, are often unemployed, and suffer from health problems. Having found themselves in a problematic situation for various circumstances, they do not receive enough help surrounded by negative stigma.
- Disruption. The project disrupts the idea that the problem is unsolvable, and that society cannot do anything for this group of people. Using Katie Bennett’s photo, the project creates visual identity and the feeling that a solution is possible. Moreover, the images demonstrate that communities have significant opportunities to help.
- Reveal/frame. The presented project is a poster comparing disruptive devices – a bucket wheel excavator used in coal mining and a bicycle lock used by activists chaining themselves during protests (Inkahoots, 2021b). The problem the poster reveals is that, in favor of its benefit, the government encourages the operation of coal mining companies as ADANI, which is harmful to the environment. At the same time, there is a call for outlawing the actions of environmental activists (Cave & Albeck-Ripka, 2019).
- Claim. Poster, through contrasting images, argues that encouraging environmentally harmful activities and restricting protests are unfair. The project also claims that politicians deny the influence of the coal mining industry on the environmental problem and their responsibility for it through such actions. For this reason, it is necessary to accept reality and protect people and their right to protest.
- On behalf of. Poster advocates for environmental activists, whose right to protest can be limited by the government even though they use non-violent methods as confinement. Companies destroying the environment receive state subsidies, and activists can get a term in prison for their activities.
- Disruption. The project challenges politicians’ understanding of disruptive devices and measures, drawing attention to the fact that coal mining is more harmful than activism.
Real Australians Seek Welcome
- Reveal/frame. The studied poster is part of a bigger project, Real Australians by Peter Drew. It draws attention to several issues: multiculturalism, national identity, immigration, respect for native land, and Aboriginal rights (Drew, 2017). The latter problem is especially emphasized in the poster Real Australians Seek Welcome, as racial prejudice negatively affects Australian society and reduces people’s quality of life.
- Claim. The author believes that people united by one state should respect each other, not forget their roots, and develop communication between communities. The poster is also an opportunity for modern Australians to identify themselves with the people who lived on this land before them.
- On behalf of. Before the advent of Europeans, representatives of about 250 language groups with different values and traditions lived in Australia. Hence, multiculturalism is also crucial in modern Australia, and the poster advocates for the whole society (Smith, 2017). Moreover, it also seeks to protect Australian Aboriginal people, who suffer greatly from discrimination and oppression.
- Disruption. The poster opposes current societal attitudes towards Aboriginal people and Australian identity. It also undermines the modern social order implying a significant division between people and calls for unity.
Design surrounds people daily and, for this reason, has a significant impact on their opinion. Using their influence for the benefit of society, designers create projects of design activism, which draws attention to social or environmental problems and calls for their solution. Since activism has a negative image, people also often criticize design activism. However, projects in this direction are helpful both for society solving problems and for designers, which develop their skills and expand their worldview during projects’ creation. Any design is aimed at the person’s benefit, and experts have different opinions about what pieces relate to activism. Thorpe (2011) carefully studied this problem and presented criteria for determining the activism design. Such works should reveal the problem, claim change, advocate for oppressed groups, and disrupt routine practices. In the paper, these criteria were used to analyze three design activism projects – Advance to Zero, Disruptive Devices, and Real Australians Seek Welcome.
Cave, D., & Albeck-Ripka, L. (2019). Why is Australia trying to shut down climate activism? The New York Times. Web.
Dandavate, U. (2019). Design activism. Medium. Web.
Drew, P. (2017). Real Australians seek welcome [Poster]. Adelaide, S.A.
Inkahoots. (2021). Advance to zero [Design Project]. Web.
Inkahoots. (2021). Disruptive devices [Design Project]. Web.
Mallo, D., Tardiveau, A., & Parsons, R. (2020). Design activism: Catalysing communities of practice. Architectural Research Quarterly, 24(2), 100-116. Web.
Patel, T. (2021). Design as activism: Position and pedagogy. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 25(3), 1-14. Web.
Rezai, M. (2021). Design by act: A new look at design activism and its actors. In M. Christensen, R. Michel & W. Jonas (Ed.), NERD – new experimental research in design 2: Positions and perspectives (pp. 110-119). Birkhäuser. Web.
Smith, R. (2017). Man behind Real Australians Say Welcome campaign launches most ambitious project yet. News.com. Web.
TEDx Talks. (2019). Changing the world through design activism | Sigrid Bürstmayr | TEDxLend [Video]. Web.
Thorpe, A. (2011). Defining design as activism. Artigo Submetido ao Journal of Architectural Education, 1-17. Web.
Thorpe, A. (n.d.). Design as activism: To resist or to generate? Current. Web.