Back in April, I facilitated the first in what I hope will be a series of social justice design jams. Here’s how I billed it:
Our movements need more images! We have a wealthy visual vocabulary of protest and critique — raised fists, barbed wire, marchers holding placards — but we must depict the world we are building, not just the forces we’re resisting. How can we communicate concepts we hold dear; concepts like interdependence, allyship, safety, and accountability?
This workshop will bring together designers, artists, advocates, and community organizers to co-create images for the world we want to build. Working in small teams, we’ll brainstorm ideas both verbally and visually, and will collaborate on creating scalable, easy-to-use graphics for social justice movements.
The resulting graphics will be shared in a free, open source library.
And here’s how it unfolded.
I posed the question, “when you think of an activist poster, what imagery comes to mind?” The 20 or so of us rattled off a familiar list of tropes — megaphones, raised fists, grunge style, red & black, flags, placards, chains, Shepard Fairey, and so on.
I then asked participants to think of a social movement they belonged to or supported, and had them draw or write about a powerful memory or moment from that movement — one that gave them a glimpse of the world they wanted to build. In pairs, I asked them to share those stories with each other. I admit, I eavesdropped a bit, and recall overhearing about the celebratory atmosphere after a march, a gathering of healing justice practitioners, a victorious Supreme Court decision, and times when food was grown and cooked as a community. I asked them to consider the ways in which those moments differed from the list of images we’d just created. While a few corresponded to the megaphone-plus-raised fist look, most of them did not.
Here was the meat (fruit?) of the jam: that we’re all working towards building a better world, but we have a very limited visual vocabulary to convey what this world looks like. Most of the aspirational, visionary imagery we see day to day is created by the advertising industry and points to consumption-based, individualized notions of a better world: bleached and gleaming homes, men — suddenly free from oppressive body odour — finding themselves chased down the beach by hordes of bikini-clad babes, and of course, women laughing alone with salad. I argued that what we see limits our social imagination, so if the majority of our visual references are either protest imagery or irksome ads, of course we’ll be more cynical than visionary.
But we didn’t lack real and powerful visions. We knew this because of the stories we’d just shared. And by creating and sharing images that represented those visions, we’d be better equipped to communicate them.
I needed to impose some formal constraints so there would be a degree of cohesion in the final outputs, and because participants could easily spend most of the workshop just experimenting with different image types. I’d decided to limit this first jam to the creation of black-and-white, scalable icons, for a few reasons. Firstly, the icon is a ubiquitous and familiar form, so it doesn’t require a lot of explanation. Secondly, they’re quite straightforward to create — a few strokes of a pen on paper can get you most of the way there. Finally, they would result in a small file size that would make them easy to share.
(Having said that, I do side-eye the promotion of icon design as a way to transcend language barriers. While I’m all for using visual language to aid communication, I’m troubled that the style usually defaults to Western minimalism, which is often misunderstood in the West as a non-style or neutral/universal style. I’d argue it’s as neutral and universal as white skin. I’ll get back to this shortly.)
Using the science of seating cards, I’d deviously engineered the story-telling pairs to be comprised of one activist and one artist (though many people identified as both). Back in these pairings, I asked everyone to revisit their stories and tease out a concept that captured the essence of that memory. They would be brainstorming visual ideas around both of their concepts and creating black-and-white icons together. I provided a handout with different types of visual ideas describing the concept of peace, as a cheat sheet in case they needed some help ideating.
The jammers got to work as I strolled around the room and poked my head in occasionally to check in with each team. This is the part of a workshop that’s always super awkward for me — wandering around, feeling a little useless. But the awkwardness is good, as it means that the participants have what they need to get to the task at hand.
The team members seemed to gel quickly; even those that were just meeting for the first time. I’d attribute this to a couple factors. Both the designers and non-designers had come with enough enthusiasm and curiosity about co-design to trust in the process, which made for open-minded and co-operative working relationships. The storytelling exercise probably helped too, as it allowed participants to gain some insight into each others’ ideas of a better world. Working together to identify the concepts underlying each story moved the memories from a place of personal experience to one of shared vision.
After a couple hours, we reconvened to share our images. The jammers presented their icons and graciously gave and received feedback. Each team created at least one image, and some created several. The icons far exceeded my expectations. There was a huge variety both in conceptual approaches — some were abstract, some metaphorical, some literal — as well as a stylistically, which elated me. I was pleased to see that several designers had subverted the “default” style and created images that had more texture and life than more commonly seen minimalist icons.
And without further ado, here are the icons! Please click to enlarge.
I’m pleased to report that, a month-ish post-jam, at least one icon is already in use! The icon representing Fierceness will serve as the logo for a new advocacy organization based in Canada. Stay tuned for a juicy follow-up post about that.
I’m currently figuring out the best way to host and distribute these icons and other image types that will be created in the future jams (I’d love to see what co-created photography and patterns would look like, for starters). Until then, if you see something you’d like to use, please contact me and I’ll get you set up. The icons are licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license.
Many thanks to Bento Miso for the generous offer of free, accessible space and all the participants for their amazing work.