STRUT: A counternarrative to design elitism

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The original icon
STRUT is a new sex workers’ justice organization based in Toronto. Working from a framework that centres Indigenous sovereignty, racial and migrant justice, and that seeks alternatives to the prison industrial complex, STRUT aims to build power and relationships among those most impacted by the criminalization of sex worker’s lives.

STRUT’s logo — a set of diamond-encrusted, laser-shooting brass knuckles that speaks to beauty and fierceness — emerged from the Co-Design Jam I facilitated earlier this year. Chanelle Gallant, one of the organization’s founders and a long-time sex workers’ rights activist, co-designed the original icon above with Ryan Hayes, an artist-activist and member of the Radical Design School. After meeting for the first time through the jam, they continued to collaborate to develop the icon. The final logo can be found at the end of this post.

I followed up with Chanelle and Ryan to get their reflections on the collaboration that led to STRUT’s logo. They provided pointed critiques of design elitism and spoke about how open design processes — processes that actually reflect our values — tend to result in work that better serves the needs of our movements and communities.

Tell me about your thoughts on design for social justice coming into this process.

Chanelle: I believe graphic design is incredibly important because it communicates your values and who you are. It’s one of the ways that our movements can be creating beautiful things, and frankly as a queer femme I want to create more beauty in the world. We’re part of communities that are fighting back against very grim forms of oppression. Graphic design is one way we can reaffirm our beauty and our dignity.

Were you nervous about collaborating?

Ryan: It was daunting because you were meeting a new person, and the challenge was to collaborate on an image that represents the world we want to build, and to do that in a small amount of time.

Chanelle: Yes. I don’t know how to do design and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything “good.” Also, I was nervous about working with Ryan. I didn’t know who he was and what his politics were around sex work. The left is notoriously shitty about sex work issues. With activists it could go either way. Being a dude, the process could have been titillating or fetishizing for him.

But you were able to build enough trust to work together. How and when did things shift?

Chanelle: I’m an intersectional feminist and I work in a movement where our leadership is over 90% women (both trans and cis women). I have very little patience for mansplaining. I think I asked him about sex work early on — I wanted to get a sense of whether he was the kind of feminist that’s on our side or the kind of feminist that’s going to pull some bullshit. He said a couple things about movements whose politics were aligned.

In the end, the two of you collaborated on an icon that was inspired by the sex workers’ rights movement. Tell me about how you worked together.

Ryan: As preparation, we were asked to recall and share an inspiring moment from a social movement. Chanelle’s moment was the wave of relief that came after the Supreme Court decision that struck down three main anti-sex work laws. We were encouraged to create a specific image around that. It needed to be tawdry, feminine, powerful, and magical. Within sex worker organizing, there are good images but they’re used over and over again, like the red umbrella and high heeled shoe. We pushed ourselves to think outside of the box. We started with the idea of the fist bump which eventually led to images of rings and brass knuckles, and to intersecting rays of light and diamonds. It was a slow unravelling, and we mostly talked. The sketches came later.

Chanelle: It wasn’t conceivable for me that we could come up with a design that we both liked. At every moment when I didn’t know what to do, I was tempted to give up. I don’t know how to design, you guys do, why don’t you just do this? But I felt increasingly responsible and capable. I just had to work at it and we came up with a design that we liked. It was actually a very organic, easy process. We were able to really hear each other. Ryan was doing the opposite of mansplaining — he was actually supporting and enriching the process of design, helping to create a safe, open space to be imaginative.

 

Sketches

 

How did you take it from the initial icon you created during the jam to a final organizational logo?

Chanelle: After the jam, I showed the design to STRUT’s co-founder and other organizers. There has been a lot of love for the image, though there was some concern from one person that the brass knuckles symbolize aggression. That matters to me — I pay attention to who the feedback comes from.

Ryan: I showed it to a couple people who I share my work with and whose opinions I trust. Chanelle and I met up to go further to keep building on it and we came up with some different iterations.

How did this differ from other design processes you’ve been part of?

Ryan: It felt really different than a lot of the other processes I’ve been part of. In my experience doing a lot of social justice work, the processes don’t often reflect our values. I learned these skills coming out of activism from people in the community, but the processes could be so frustrating that it could leave you burned out — everything is so last minute, people reproduce the same ideas over and over again, and it can feel ineffective because there is a disproportionate amount of time put into the work compared to the amount of impact it has. Design and even art is seen as a service that is done by experts and there are a lot of tensions in that relationship. This was really different because it was an open collaboration. The process was open and we were able to build a lot of trust in a short amount of time.

Chanelle: I’d never been this substantially involved in a design process. It was the first opportunity for me to have the idea that I could actually collaborate with a designer. The design we came up with couldn’t have been created by just one of us. We each played really complementary and compatible roles.

What about the criticism that opening up the creative process to non-designers (rather than treating them strictly as clients you’re providing a service to) erodes at the craft and creates things that aren’t as beautiful or appropriate? That it disrespects the genius of a brilliant designer?

Ryan: What is the “craft?” Is it reproducing racist, sexist, heteronormative imagery? Or creating obscure imagery that is difficult to understand? I think designers and non-designers have a lot to offer each other, and trying to protect one from the other is misguided. There will inevitably be tensions but those are things we need to learn to negotiate. I believe the end result will be richer in a lot of ways, but it depends on the conditions of the process.

Chanelle: That criticism sounds elitist and I think elites create boring art, which is why they’re constantly appropriating. Fuck that, why not put the power of design into the hands of the people? When I think of great art and graphic design, it’s not coming from professional elites. When you say graphic design is seen as about individual genius it’s no surprise because the field is dominated by white men. There is this idea that graphic design is about highly specialized skills and talents that no one else replicate. That’s certainly how I’ve sometimes seen it. Working with a white man (I originally misread Ryan as being white) can cause people to think, he’s the expert, what the hell do I know? A valuable part of the work is the emotional labour of showing people how they can be involved in this process and support them through it. Especially the more marginalized people, groups and communities a designer is working with. People might sometimes overestimate a designer’s capacity and underestimate their own. But there might also be ideas that they don’t have access to because they’re not part of those communities. I think this process helped me see that a bit more.

The two of you have certainly co-created an inspiring piece of art that also serves as an effective design. Will you continue to engage in these types of processes in the future?

Chanelle: Before, the process seemed very mysterious to me. I now have a better sense of how it works and my ability to come up with a design in collaboration with someone else. There are a lot of technical skills I don’t have, but I also saw that I do have some capacity on the creative side.

Ryan: It’s really to nice to have had a positive experience as a reference point. When another opportunity comes up it will be easier to insist on the process being collaborative because you can point to a successful result. You can say no, it DOES work!

To read more about STRUT’s work, go to wearestrut.org.

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unaSTRUT: A counternarrative to design elitism

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