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Large group of women holding signs in protest.


When Activists Use Art: A Masterclass in Messaging from Bonnie Siegler

The Eight and a Half studio founder tackles the graphics of American resistance from Benjamin Franklin to the Vietnam War and draws a few lessons on how America’s darkest moments spark some of its greatest design.

Bonnie Siegler, founder of Eight and a Half, has spent most of her career parsing the history of brands like This American Life, SNL, and StoryCorps and reshaping them for the future. Now, she’s turned her acumen toward another design evolution project: protest signs.

Recently, Siegler held court at the Brooklyn Public Library (where she’s designed the logo and identity), to launch her book Signs of Resistance: A Visual History of Protest in America. Toting a book (that was not the one she was promoting) called Visionary Women, Siegler marched up and down the rows, greeting guests.

“How many people marched this year?” she asked the crowd. A majority of the hands went up.

Signs of Resistance covers expressions of American anger, from Suffrage to Civil Rights to the AIDS Crisis. What makes Americans take to the streets? And how do they design the posters? Siegler knows how graphics operate in politics—she’s designed on behalf of both Obama campaigns, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, plus local races from Alabama to Nevada.

She recently spoke with 99U about how anger becomes art, protest design rules, and just how many letters add up to a good sign.

A lot of these posters have a short text message and one graphic. Is that a recurring theme in all of these protests?

In the successful, memorable ones, it definitely is. In “F*ck the Draft” it’s one picture and 4, 7, 12 [total] letters. It’s almost like you Instagram it in your brain. You can remember the whole thing: the guy burning his draft card. One simple image, a few words, shock value because the word “f*ck” wasn’t used that much: a simple rejection of authority. It wouldn’t work if you went on to explain why the war was a bad idea. It is a recurring theme.

Fuck-the-draft, protest, sign, Bonnie-Siegler

Excerpted from Signs of Resistance by Bonnie Siegler (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photograph used by permission from Kiyoshi Kuroyima (1943-2000), The Dirty Linen Corp., publisher, F*ck the Draft, 1968.

Where else is that idea of one image with a few letters used?

Benjamin Franklin. He owned the newspaper and he experimented all the time. His “Join, or die”—people will say “Oh I’ve seen that before,” even though it’s from 1754. It’s one clear, powerful image of a snake being cut into pieces and a few words.

Signs-of-Resistance, Bonnie-Siegler, join-or-die

Excerpted from Signs of Resistance by Bonnie Siegler (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photograph used by permission from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

It really feels like the Suffragettes didn’t get that memo.

Totally. Those women put hundreds of words on their posters. Their signs weren’t always so verbose. But, they had a lot to say. They were pissed, understandably. 

Signs-of-Resistance, Bonnie-Siegler, Suffragette, protest, sign

Excerpted from Signs of Resistance by Bonnie Siegler (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photograph used by permission from the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.

When did graphic design as a discipline become a conscious part of the messaging of social movements?

Graphic design is relatively new. There have always been designers, usually designing typography. Graphic design developed as a real profession in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. I think it was during the Vietnam War that people were like, “Wait, I do this for clients…I can also do this to get my message out.” And people started to understand the power that they had.

What do you think is the DNA that makes a powerful message?

It’s the motivation behind it. Nobody did these because they were hired to do them. People felt an urgency. They had to do this. They had to make their voice heard, to express their anger and frustration. When an artist or a designer has to create as an outlet for their frustration, the result is powerful. That is very different than someone saying, “I have this widget to sell. Can you make me a great ad for that widget?”

A lot of the post-1960s design seem to use an ‘Oh wait a second’ moment.

Something happens when you look at a poster and it takes you a second to realize what it is. A good example is “Vote or Trump”. It doesn’t have any image, just the crossing out of the ‘F’, so it’s not “Vote For Trump”. You feel proud of yourself for getting it. You’re rewarded for figuring it out and it involves the viewer in uncovering the message, which is satisfying: When you see something and you get it, you feel good about yourself. That interaction between you and the designer is an amazing thing.

Vote-for-trump, protest, sign, Bonnie-Siegler, SIgns-of-resistance

Excerpted from Signs of Resistance by Bonnie Siegler (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photograph used by permission from Mike Matthews.

There are quite a few examples of text or images being used over and over.

I’m fascinated by these American icons that get reused and reused and reused: Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam. Because they are so popular and recognizable they provide a shorthand for protest images. So you already have a context of like ‘patriotism’ or ‘being a feminist’. And they use the power of the original image, but bend it to their will. So, if someone wants to say that Sarah Palin is a feminist, how do you do it? You just stick her head on someone who’s already associated with feminism [like Rosie]. Icons of American history are so enduring that they’re used over and over in propaganda on all sides.

Is there one design that sticks with you most powerfully?

“Am I not a man and a brother?” is the one of the most moving images I’ve ever seen. That stays with me at night. It shows a man imploring someone for his dignity and it was made into an abolitionist talisman, people wore them around their neck. Then, during the sanitation strike 180 years later, it became “I am a man”. That sign is it for me. The power was the multiplicity. The sign is singular and together, it’s the race. The multiplicity is chilling.

Signs-of-Resistance, Bonnie-Siegler, I-am-a-man, protest, sign

Excerpted from Signs of Resistance by Bonnie Siegler (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photograph used by permission from Bob Adelman.

When did your interest in design for social movements start?

In the 90s, we had [Bill] Clinton. So, we were pretty happy most of the time. The Bush administration really got me going. I started working on Air America Radio, a left-leaning radio station in the early 2000s. It was the Left’s answer to right-wing radio, and the first hosts were Rachel Maddow, Al Franken, Marc Maron, and Janeane Garofalo. We did branding, marketing, and advertising for them. And we really felt like we could change the course of the election. It didn’t work: Bush won. So, when time came for Obama to run, I was all in. I did everything I could.

Do you have advice for non-graphic designers who have a march coming up?

The march signs made by people who weren’t professional designers are some of my favorite. Think about the thing that pisses you off the most. Everybody has something. That’s what made the Women’s March so powerful: Each person was representing the things that pissed them off the most, the thing that they most wanted to change. That’s where I would start: Why are you marching?

These images point to the darkest moments in American history, but did it also spark any sense of camaraderie or comfort to see so much resistance?

Looking at these images, I go from rage, to optimism, to frustration, to anger, to hope. It just sends you all in circles. But, all of these movements shaped our country. We’ve been through these difficult times and survived and if we all get involved we can survive this one too. These marches make me feel more patriotic than I’ve ever felt in my whole life.


More Posts by Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. 

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