Design with a cause: Graphics in a polarized world

In today’s polarized (and polarizing) world, we too often think of politics as struggles between different factions. This can take the form of intense, heated debates between friends, family members, and neighbors — all of whom are fellow citizens. But there’s another dimension to political conflict that isn’t often covered: Design, a key front in the battle for the hearts and minds of the public.

To supporters, detractors, and the neutral alike, a wholly memorable, classic image can stand as a shorthand for an entire movement or cause.

A picture isn’t worth a thousand words; rather, a picture is worth a thousand ideas. And whatever you may think of any given cause, unforgettable, extraordinary designs will go very far in cementing its legacy in the popular imagination.

Che Guevara’s face

Love him or hate him, Che Guevara will not be easily forgotten. Even if our civilization collapses tomorrow, future archaeologists will likely discover at least one item of our material culture emblazoned with Guevara’s trademark beret, steely (yet hopeful) gaze, flowing locks, and scraggly facial hair. For someone who was so ardently anti-capitalist, it’s more than a bit ironic that Guevara became an enduring symbol of fashion.

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But the path from candid photo to landmark image is more than a bit convoluted — and perhaps speaks more to our society’s yearnings than to enduring perceptions of Guevara himself. The original photograph, now known as the Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla Fighter) was taken by fashion photographer Alberto Korda at a memorial service for dock workers who died in a mysterious explosion (that may or may not have been sabotage). By Korda’s own account, it was unposed; drawn to Guevara’s intense gaze, Korda snapped two quick shots and rushed back to the studio to crop the resulting photo.

From there, the image took off. Certainly, Guevara’s natural charisma and charm helped — as did his death several years later in Peru at the hands of American-backed forces. 

But in truth, time was the greatest ally. It’s easy to forget now, but Guevara’s idealism was tempered with blood: He did call for armed struggle against nations he perceived to be imperialist powers, including the United States. Now that we are far from the life and times of the actual man, it’s easy to reinterpret his image and legacy. A handsome, outgoing rebel who died in his youth, drawn to his cause by a motorcycle journey through Latin America? No wonder Guevara has become cultural catnip for large corporations and pro-democracy activists alike. And all because of the design aesthetics of one powerful shot.

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One of the most iconic pieces of political art was created by Shepard Fairey, a street artist in the vein of Banksy. At the time the Obama Hope poster was made, it spoke to Barack Obama’s potential, when Americans were tired of ruinous wars in the Middle East and economic stagnation (which would later explode into a worldwide recession).

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Like Guevara, Obama’s poster was derived from a photograph, one taken by AP freelancer Mannie Garcia. Fairey’s work has all the makings of an instant classic: Obama’s determined gaze, turned towards the future, rendered in shades of red, blue, and beige. The simple color scheme is paired with an equally simple caption, most commonly “hope” written in block letters (though change and progress are also common variants).

Unlike Guevara, whose image spread thanks to celebrity recognition and media like “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Obama’s Hope poster spread largely through the internet and social media, disseminated by Facebook groups, photos taken at rallies and protests, and Fairey’s own website. It got to the point where original prints (hand-made by Fairey) began to sell on eBay for thousands of dollars. The images themselves also made it onto a variety of mediums, such as bicycle spoke stickers, t-shirts, and campaign cards.

Whatever you may think of Obama and his presidency, one thing is clear: His stenciled visage, with a simple color scheme and a single, one-word message, is inextricably linked to the heady days preceding the 2008 presidential election. And it’s an enduring one as well: Shepard Fairey has continued to utilize the same themes, designing protest art that very much harkens back to this early, hopeful era. Still, only time will tell whether the Hope poster will become a cultural touchstone on the level of Che Guevara.

UX — 1 Billion Nets

In the digital age, print media isn’t the only channel for political movements and causes. Websites are indispensable, especially given that the average American spends 24 hours a week online (compared to 35 hours for citizens of nations such as Brazil and the Philippines). 

One striking example of online charity is the unforgettable 1 Billion Nets web campaign by Creative Science Labs for nonprofit Malaria No More. Dedicated to ending a disease that kills one million people annually (most of whom are children under five), 1 Billion Nets is a masterpiece of linear, streamlined web design. Each section carefully outlines the global scourge of malaria and progressively builds on the previous one.

Yet 1 Billion Nets is careful to avoid pessimism (or even subtlety). Just witness the flashy header: “One Billion Nets” is written in a bold scrawl, silhouetted against a leaping child and a rising sun — the very image of hope. Immediately afterwards, the site flows into a video of the impact of mosquito nets on everyday African families, an artfully shot and edited, feel-good video that never descends into gross sentimentality.

1 Billion Nets offers an interactive timeline that both highlights ongoing efforts and demonstrates how far we’ve come in two decades. As users scroll down, they see how many malaria nets have been supplied and how many deaths have been averted, interspersed with notable events, including celebrity visits as well as the WHO’s 2013 announcement that malaria deaths were reduced by half.

What’s not to love about 1 Billion Nets, with its sleek design, a (mostly) smooth interface, and feel-good story

When it comes to nonprofits and political causes, design is the last frontier. The best organizers and campaign managers understand that iconic design, be it a streamlined, beautiful website or an instantly recognizable image, creates an easy reference point for the masses. In an increasingly visual, fast-paced age, more philanthropic organizations and campaigns must understand (and invest in) the profound importance of design.

To do anything else is to risk falling by the wayside. 

Anthony Wood is the Global Managing Director of Shillington Education; previously he worked as a senior designer for ad agencies in London and Sydney. Find him on Twitter @Shillington_