Advertising is big business as companies readily shell out billions of dollars each year to convince consumers to buy their products. Whether it’s switching from Coke to Pepsi, choosing Mr. Clean to tidy up your bathroom or selecting a certain car for your cross country adventures, the goal is the same. Ads that are well done have a significant effect on the culture whether consumers are aware of it or not. For instance, the phrase “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” actually originates from a Listerine ad.
So what happens when graphic designers use their skills for dissent? The effect can be just as profound. You may not know the names of the people behind the images but they’ve made an impact.
Depending on your age, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the black and white poster stating “silence = death” with a pink triangle hovering above. The 1987 poster by Avram Finkelstein targets President Ronald Reagan’s lack of response to the AIDS crisis and to prompt the LGBTQ community to organize politically around the disease. Thirty years later, the phrase still resonates. Rather than AIDS, one could insert the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement or domestic violence.
The “silence = death” poster is one of about 50 pieces in “The Design of Dissent” show at Non-Breaking Space, the gallery of Pioneer Square design firm Civilization. The exhibition brings together prominent graphic works of social and political protest. The works address a number of topics including racism, poverty and women’s rights. Many of the pieces are from an eponymous show and book curated by Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic “I heart NY,” and Mirko Ilic.
“These are the heroes of our field. These are the top of the top,” Civilization Cofounder Michael Ellsworth said. “To see that they all the spent the time to do these things if not for free, even if they were paid just the amount of talent and wit and brilliance that was brought to them. So here’s a really high bar of this kind of work.”
The show begins with a manifesto created in 1964 called “First Things First” by UK designer Ken Garland. The piece is signed by graphic designers, illustrators and photographers. In part, it states consumer advertising has “reached a saturation point at which the high pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise.”
“Everyone who signed would reject commercial consumer culture and instead use their talents for good. They would try to get back to a more humane design practice,” Molly Derse with Civilization said. “It’s kind of informed I think all of the pieces in the show. It’s all these designers rejecting using their talents just for consumer culture.”
Nearby is a poster by Archie Boston titled “Uncle Tom Wants You,” circa 1966. Boston, a Black man, is dressed up as Uncle Sam. The caption begins with “UNCLE TOM WANTS YOU! Yessuh, you Cap’n!” The Boston brothers were advertising their graphic design skills at a time when Black graphic designers weren’t common. In a podcast interview last year, Boston said the poster was a play off of the idea of recruitment.
“Some people would call us an Uncle Tom for going after Whites to get work so why not say it and put on Uncle Sam’s hat and just take it as far as you can,” Boston said. “The idea behind our posters were, well we’re Black and there’s a lot of bigotry around so let’s just put it out there. The people that don’t like us stay away. Those that think we’re cool, let’s go to work. So that was the idea of the posters and it worked.”
The Uncle Tom poster is one of many the brothers created. Another included Boston dressed as a Klansman. They were provocative and, to some, offensive, especially because this was during the Civil Rights Movement. Boston said it was a way to get people to think about the movement. Today Boston continues his activism in graphic design.
Seymour Chwast’s “March for Peace & Justice” design was used to promote a June 12, 1982 anti-nuke rally in New York. There are five diverse legs marching together under a dove representing peace.
Another image in the show titled “Preserve the Right of Choice (Restricted Area)” by Trudy Cole-Zielanski shows a nude woman with a large sign over her vagina labeling it a restricted area by the government. Cole-Zielanski created the piece in 1993, but it demonstrates our progress, or lack thereof, as the battle over women’s rights for control of our own bodies is reignited with a Republican-controlled federal government.
James Victore’s “Fuck Mr. Trump” shows a profile view of Trump with the words “Racist, Bigot, Sexist and President.” President is the only description crossed out. Victore is of the view that design is best when it surprises or shocks the audience.
Civilization brought the show to Seattle in response to the election of Trump to the nation’s highest office. The exhibition is in line with the company mission of focusing on cause, culture and community. FareStart, Shout Your Abortion and the Nature Conservancy are among their clients.
Civilization displayed its point of view in the front window with a mannequin wearing a large poncho that reads, “NO!”
“This has been therapeutic for us. I know for me personally the last two months just putting the show together felt like I was really doing something,” Ellsworth said. “Just putting up the poncho, the all-purpose protest poncho that just says no, it feels good to come in to that every day.”
Taking in the meticulously crafted images, it’s hard not to feel that the fight will never truly be over. There’s no rest for those fighting for the rights of marginalized communities. Whenever America progresses, those in the trenches must brace themselves for the inevitable backlash.
“These are our heroes on the wall. It’s great to see these pieces,” Ellsworth said. “Be inspired when we come in to keep fighting the fight.”