‘…humans and machines now have a complex relationship that cannot be separated…’

How has graphic design and digital collectivism helped shape political activism in the last 30 years?

‘Graphic design gives a visual voice to the social and political concerns’ (Twemlow, 2006:46) it aids protesters in recruiting followers, it appeals to people’s nature, and it is an necessity for democratic societies, attempting ‘to improve on existing conditions’ (Glaser and Ilic, 2006: 224). The use of graphic design ‘…only represents the problem but does not change it’ (MacDonald, 2005:56); it is the people behind the movement that make the difference. The Internet has helped in more than one way for protesters; it is a platform for communication, petitions, distribution and the digital world has broadened the protesters audience. This essay seeks to explore the evolution of protest design relating to the digital culture.

The uses of graphic design for political aims dates back to Rome and were ‘cited in the ‘graffiti’ of Pompeii’ (McQuiston 1993:14), see Figure 1. The tools that they used between 800 BC and 500 AD were slogans and commentary painted over the city walls. It could be argued that this is the beginning of political debate, as we know it today. In 1440 the German inventor Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press, this ‘allowed early German prints to reflect public opinion and peasant life, while spreading new ideas’ (McQuiston, 1993:14). When improvements to the printing press was made in the mid 1880s ‘meant that mass-circulation illustrated newspapers’ (McQuiston 1993:16), could push forward the political debates and discussions through cartoons and the cartoonists ‘held considerable influence on the voting public’ (McQuiston 1993:16).

Graffiti at Pompeii

Figure 1: Graffiti at Pompeii

Through the ages successful graphic dissent has needed three characteristics: ‘It is shocking, it is clever – even funny in a grim sort of way – and its meaning is instantly intelligible’, plus it should seem to be ‘…dangerous, forbidden’ (Glaser and Ilic, 2006:221). However, MacDonald states that great graphic dissent is when designers are: ‘re-directing their fabulous communication skills to the needs of agenda-setting clients’ (2005:54). Where as today’s ‘designers are instead trying to set the agenda, to weave ethics into every aspect of their activity and organisations, and to epitomise their beliefs.’ (MacDonald, 2005:54) MacDonald carries on to say that,

today’s graphic activism is characterised by ill-informed, sanctimonious, grand-standing — verging on righteous anger. It is less about understanding the world and engaging in real debate, more about having one’s views endorsed by like-minded colleagues. (2005:56)

Glaser and Ilic suggest that democracies require political protests to act as a vehicle for public opinion. The public has a responsibility to make their opinion known which keeps society healthy (Glaser and Ilic, 2006). It has been said that ‘designers have aspired to make, and have made, a real difference in the quality of people’s lives’ (MacDonald, 2005:58). Even though Glaser believes that designers ‘attempt to improve on existing conditions’ (Glaser and Ilic, 2006:224) he is also opposed to dissenters ‘motivated by self interest rather than sense of fairness’ (Glaser and Ilic, 2006:224). The world that we live in today ‘believes in materialism and affluence as the fundamental aspirations of society’ (Glaser and Ilic, 2006:227). This is not a good thing because if we believe in this then it is greatly ‘possible for a democracy to become a totalitarian’ (Glaser and Ilic, 2006:227).

Protest design in general ‘…only represents the problem but does not change it’ (MacDonald,2005:56) instead it aids the ‘analysis, strategy, tactics, and argument’ that do make the difference says MacDonald (2005:56). However Glaser states that ‘people respond to powerful imagery and words that contain an appeal to justice’ (Glaser and Ilic, 2006:227) which brings people behind the movement and that is what changes the social and political issues.

‘Dissent has long been manifested in a human desire for equality’ (Glaser and Ilic, 2006:226) by blueprinting powerfully simplistic designs that grab the viewers’ emotions (Glaser and Ilic, 2006). However MacDonald asks the question ‘If the design profession has achieved such profound insights about the world, shouldn’t we expect there to be more design theorists within its ranks?’ (2005:56) David Berman a Canadian designer said to his class, “don’t just do good design, do good” (MacDonald, 2005:54) and Tim Rich posed the challenge “ if we really care about the power of design, shouldn’t we care more about who we do it for?” (MacDonald, 2005:54). The magazine ‘Citizen Designer’ asked the questions that todays designers should consider ‘How can a designer effect social or political change?’ and ‘At what point must a designer take a stand?’ (MacDonald, 2005:54).

Designers have communicated their agitation throughout history by using their skills. This is increasing due to the web with the heightened ease of distributing posters and other printed materials (Glaser and Ilic, 2006). ‘New technologies have not made convectional forms of protest (or graphics) obsolete, but forms a partnership with them’ (McQuiston 2004:35). The Internet it has enabled global communication on an unprecedented scale; we can now read and hear about tragedies and conflicts from all the corners of the world. The technology that we hold can change history and formats such as Facebook and Twitter, have started a new era of ‘personal politics’. An era that allows the world to agitate the government’s and businessmen, to do something selfless. The Internet also allows for ‘demonstrations and protests to happen as it communicates the word quickly’ (McQuiston, 1993; 2004:34).

As technology has grown so has the desire to have it in your hands, to an extent that


Figure 2: Cyborg

humans and machines now have a complex relationship that cannot be separated, we have become ‘Cyborgs’ (Poster, 2006) for example the relationship between a person and their phone, see Figure 2. The Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners defines a Cyborg as ‘part human and part machine’ (Macmillan, 2002:345).  In a podcast for the BBC, Aleks Krotoski says, we all use technology as “externalised brains” to “store many memories out of ourselves in very small space instead of an entire library of books. Now we have devices that are kinds of portals that we can access memories from anywhere and anytime.” (BBC, 2012)

Technology has changed the world, for instance, cultures believed that they were defined by nationality, however in the most recent years a new culture has emerged. The Digital Culture, which includes everyone that relies on technology to function, as technology has heightened the interaction between the different cultures, reducing the differences because nothing is exclusive anymore (Poster, 2006).

When objects like images, videos and text enter the Internet they become detached from their source and divided from their societies, crossing cultural boundaries with little ‘noise’, that Poster calls Globalisation (2006). ‘Globalisation is the process by which the world is becoming increasingly interconnected as a result of massively increased trade and cultural exchange’ (BBC, 2010). Globalisation is at a point that if something happens in one part of the world it can have a knock-on effect worldwide, such as the financial crises of 2007-2008, nicknamed the ‘Global’ Financial Crisis. This meltdown affected ‘the livelihoods of almost everyone in an increasingly inter-connected world’ (Global Issues, 2010). This crisis was so devastating to the world’s economic growth that even today, five years after the crisis the majority of the world is still in recession.

However, not everyone supports Globalisation such as the Anti-Globalisation Movement, a group of protests whose causes include, environmentalism, third world debt, animal rights, child labour, anarchism, and anti-capitalism as well as opposition to multinationals. They target meetings of world leaders like the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. ‘Opponents of globalisation say it leads to exploitation of the world’s poor, workers, and the environment. They say it makes it easier for rich companies to act with less accountability’ (BBC News, 2001).


Greenpeace is an activist group campaigning to protect the earth and find the causes of environmental destruction through documentations and investigating. Greenpeace protests through political lobbying, citizen action and consumer pressure (Greenpeace, n.d).

When the Word Wide Web became accessible to the general public, Greenpeace was one of the first to create their own website, before many of the leading corporations, which meant that the corporations could not challenge the protesters. Greenpeace pioneered the use of the Internet to help ‘its audience [to] follow campaigns and actions, thereby subverting the control of the newspapers’ (McQuiston, 2004:34). The use of this website mustered up support from the European Pubic during the 1995 Brent Spar incident. When ‘Shell UK was forced to abandon plans to dump the Brent Spar (a disused oil installation) in the Atlantic Ocean’ (Greenpeace, n.d) (McQuistion, 2004).

Since the Brent Spar episode other movements and activists have made their own sites’ which, means their followers can find out what they are doing at any given time, plus people can subscribe to online newsletters (McQuiston, 2004). As the Internet grew, so did Globalisation, which means that ‘anyone, anywhere in the world could follow the Greenpeace campaigns on the web and lend their support,’ (McQuiston, 2004:34).

A recent campaign for Greenpeace was to persuade Facebook to go Green. Over 700,000 people from all over the world helped Greenpeace to mobilise, agitate and negotiate with Facebook to use and promote renewable energy. ‘Celebrities and students joined Greenpeace volunteers and activists from Argentina to Zimbabwe, and in every city where Facebook has offices’ (Eosin D, 2011) see Figure 3. These supporters set a Guinness World Record for the most Facebook comments in 24 hours (Eosin D, 2011). Without the aid of the Internet and globalisation would not have been possible for Greenpeace to organise the demonstrations.

The Greenpeace case study shows how digital culture has changed the way people protest. Greenpeace are pioneers as they were the first protesters to use the Internet to communicate with people from all the corners of the world, to gain support, as we are all massively interconnected. The Internet is now their main vehicle for communication as they have email subscription, and to the website itself. They even use Facebook, Twitter and Livestream to communicate with the world. Aleks Krotoski stated that we have become cyborgs; therefore the message on the digital platforms stated above will be all over the Internet, and in conversations in no time.

Figure 3: Students from all over Africa

Figure 3: Students from all over Africa

President Bush and Prime Minister Blair launched the invasion of Iraq on 19th March 2003 (Shakir, 2006), even though a month before on the 15th February 2003 ‘more than a million people protested in the streets of London’. This was ‘the biggest demonstration in UK history’ and ‘at the same time around the globe millions marched in more than 300 cities and more than 60 countries’ (McQusiton, 2004:184) all for one cause which was to stop the planned war and they all blamed the politicians and oil industry (McQuiston, 2004). Unfortunately the governments did not listen to the protesters and the war went ahead.

Subsequently there were thousands of anti-Iraq war posters and a few of those are hosted

on war.miniaturegigantic.com, which is a website that was a public design forum, where people were allowed to post their posters. Even though some of these posters are not powerful, there are a few that are. The poster by Boban called Victory?  (Figure 4) Which is also featured in the book The Design of Dissent. The poster takes the iconic image of the Second World War American flag being raised with a twist, the grim reaper scythe, in essence Boban’s poster is saying ‘that every war victory leaves death behind’ (Glaser and Ilic, 2006:68). This poster was distributed across the Internet and ‘taped up on city walls as a call to and promotions for demonstrations’ (Glaser and Ilic, 2006:68).

Figure 4: Victory? by Boban

Figure 4: Victory? by Boban

Probably one of the most recognisable anti- Iraq war posters is the iRaq poster series created by Cooper Greene (Figure 5). One of Greene’s posters uses the horrific images of torture at Abu Ghraib military prison (Shakir, 2006) with the iPod style of advertising and places the ‘confrontational posters among the iPod posters, resulting in a surprising and powerful effect’ (Glaser and Iliac, 2006:66).

Figure 5: iRaq by Greene

Figure 5: iRaq by Greene

The Iraq Posters were mainly distributed the old fashioned way, putting them up on walls, to call people to battle against the governments. They were also on the Internet. This shows the partnership that Glaser previously stated between the old and the new; as they were on both platforms the audience would have been wider than those on just one. Those who were a part of the Digital Culture would have come across the posters on the Internet and then passed them around so in little time they would have been seen all over the world, and gained support from people on every corner of the world, which is Globalisation. The anger about the Iraq War was public and it showed that the Governments did not care about what their citizens thought.

In the Zimbabwean election of 2000 ‘president Robert Mugabe announced in May 2000 that elections would be held in June’ (Davis, 2008), this gave any opposition little time to form a campaign against him. Therefore, the graphic activists Chas Maviyana-Davies began his ’30 days of Graphic Activism’ (Maviyana-Davies, 2010). Maviyana-Davies attempted, ‘to raise the consciousness of our situation and similar ones in the world at large.’ (Maviyana-Davies, 2010)

Maviyana-Davies produced around 50 graphic commentaries two of which will be shown in Figure 6 and 7. These commentaries were distributed though the Internet, sent in daily emails to individuals and civil rights groups plus on ‘the website of the opposition party’ (Davis, 2008). As the commentaries were published on the Internet it was possible for other countries to see these images and publish them all over the world ‘from South Africa to Sweden’ (Davis, 2008). They ‘inspired an international community of support’ (Davis, 2008) and created ‘a model of hope and faith [for] the future’ (McQuiston, 2004:178). These posters were so effective that Maviyana-Davies ‘soon ­­began to fear for his safety under the Mugabe regime, and in January 2001 he moved to the United States’ (Davis. 2008).

Maviyana-Davies used only the Internet to distribute the posters because of the little time frame. Daily emails were sent to people interested in the protest and they were posted on Mugabe’s oppositions website. The digital culture allowed other countries across the world to see the dissent and gained masses of international support. The world became sympathetic to the controversy going on in Zimbabwe. As Poster stated we all shared a cultural exchange, this exchange changed peoples’ lives, as it is accurate information of what was wrong with the country, not a fabrication of what the Zimbabwe government wanted the word to know and recognise. 

Figure 6: Maviyana- davies

Figure 6: Maviyana- Davies

Screen Shot 2012-11-27 at 2.44.11 PM

Protest design is an essential part of democratic society, without it, society tends to have unhealthy aspects; the Government would make every decision and not be questioned.  The ease of communication and distribution for today’s agitators to question powerful people is in thanks to the Digital Culture. Websites are out for all to see and there is no limit; a problem on one side of the world immediately becomes an issue on the other, we are all interconnected. This new technology is aiding traditional protests, they now have a strong partnership, and together they can reach every one of all generations and nationalities.


Bbc.co.uk (2010) BBC – GCSE Bitesize: What is globalisation?. [online] http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/geography/globalisation/globalisation_rev1.shtml  [4/11/2012].

BBC News, 2001, what is anti-globalisation? [online] Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1305103.stm [4/11/2012].

BBC Radio 4 (2012) Memory, The Digital Human. [podcast] 15/10/2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/dh [4/11/2012].

CLARK J, joeclark.org (n.d.) Graphic Agitation, http://joeclark.org/design/graphicagitation.html [22/10/2012]

DAVIS, B, February 2008, Graphic Activist, UTNE, http://www.utne.com/2008-01-01/Arts-Culture/Graphic-Activist.aspx [2/11/2012]

EOIN D, Greenpeace, December 2011, Victory! Facebook becomes friends with renewable energy, http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/victory-facebook-becomes-friends-renewable-energy-20111215 [2/11/2012]

GLASER, M and ILIC, M (2006) The Design of Dissent, Massachusetts, USA: Rockport Publishers, Inc.

Globalissues.org (2010) Global Financial Crisis — Global Issues. [online] Available at: http://www.globalissues.org/article/768/global-financial-crisis [4/11/2012].

GREENPEACE, n.d, Greenpeace, http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/ [2/11/2012]

MacDONALD, N, (September 2005), Practice, don’t Preach, Creative Review, Vol. 25, Issue 9, p54-58, file:///Volumes/MAC/Year%202/Term%201/Contecxulising%20Graphic%20Design%202/ESSAY/Articles/Practice,%20don’t%20preach.html [23/10/2011]

MACMILLAN, 2002, Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learner, Oxford: Macmillan Eductaion

MAVIYANA-DAVIES, C, 2010, Creative Defense, Graphic Commentaries info, http://www.maviyane.com/index.php?id=human-rights-graphic-commentaries-intro [2/11/2012]

McQUISTON, L (1993) Graphic Agitation: social and political graphics since the Sixties London: Phaidon

McQUISTON, L (2004) Graphic Agitation 2: social and political graphics in the digital age London: Phaidon

POSTER, M (2006) Information Please London: Duke University Press

SHAKIR, F, Mar 2006, Think Process, A Timeline of the Iraq War, http://thinkprogress.org/report/iraq-timeline/?mobile=nc [2/11/2012]

Twemlow, A, (2006) , What is graphic design for?, Crans-Près-Céligny : RotoVision

WAR, nod, War Campaign on Iraq poster exhibition, http://war.miniaturegigantic.com [2/11/2012]


Figure 1:  Graffiti at Pompeii (ca 800 BC-500 AD), [online image] http://www.fatdux.com/en/Blog/2009/05/13/microblogging-the-graffiti-of-cyberspace [27/11/2012]

Figure 2: Annabelle Luce, Cyborg (2012), [online image] https://annabelleluce.wordpress.com/ [27/11/2012]

Figure 3: Greenpeace, FacebookCollage 400X600 (2012), [online image] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/cool-it/ITs-carbon-footprint/Facebook/ [27/11/2012]

Figure 4: Jadran Boban, Victory? (2003) [book image] GLASER, M and ILIC, M (2006) The Design of Dissent, Massachusetts, USA: Rockport Publishers, Inc. Page 68

Figure 5: Cooper Greene, iRaq (2004) [book image] GLASER, M and ILIC, M (2006) The Design of Dissent, Massachusetts, USA: Rockport Publishers, Inc. Page 66

Figure 6: Chas Maviyana-Davies (2000) [online image] http://www.agitnet.org/cgi-bin/pro/emAlbum.cgi?c=show_image;p=Graphic%20Commentaries%202000;i=2;in=comm_03.jpg [27/11/2012]

Figure 7: Chas Maviyana-Davies (2000) [online image] http://www.agitnet.org/cgi-bin/pro/emAlbum.cgi?c=show_image;p=Graphic%20Commentaries%202000;i=9;in=comm_10.jpg [27/11/2012]


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