Design Microprotests

M/C - Media and Culture
Publication Type:
Journal Article
M/C Journal, 2018, 21 (3)
Issue Date:
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This essay considers three design projects as microprotests. Reflecting on the ways design practice can generate spaces, sites and methods of protest, we use the concept of microprotest to consider how we, as designers ourselves, can protest by scaling down, focussing, slowing down and paying attention to the edges of our practice. Design microprotest is a form of design activism that is always collaborative, takes place within a community, and involves careful translation of a political conversation. While microprotest can manifest in any design discipline, in this essay we focus on visual communication design. In particular we consider the deep, reflexive practice of listening as the foundation of microprotests in visual communication design. While small in scale and fleeting in duration, these projects express rich and deep political engagements through conversations that create and maintain safe spaces. While many design theorists (Julier; Fuad-Luke; Clarke; Irwin et al.) have done important work to contextualise activist design as a broad movement with overlapping branches (social design, community design, eco-design, participatory design, critical design, and transition design etc.), the scope of our study takes ‘micro’ as a starting point. We focus on the kind of activism that takes shape in moments of careful design; these are moments when designers move politically, rather than necessarily within political movements. These microprotests respond to community needs through design more than they articulate a broad activist design movement. As such, the impacts of these microprotests often go unnoticed outside of the communities within which they take place. We propose, and test in this essay, a mode of analysis for design microprotests that takes design activism as a starting point but pays more attention to community and translation than designers and their global reach. In his analysis of design activism, Julier proposes “four possible conceptual tactics for the activist designer that are also to be found in particular qualities in the mainstream design culture and economy” (Julier, Introduction 149). We use two of these tactics to begin exploring a selection of attributes common to design microprotests: temporality – which describes the way that speed, slowness, progress and incompletion are dealt with; and territorialisation – which describes the scale at which responsibility and impact is conceived (227). In each of three projects to which we apply these tactics, one of us had a role as a visual communicator. As such, the research is framed by the knowledge creating paradigm described by Jonas as “research through design”. We also draw on other conceptualisations of design activism, and the rich design literature that has emerged in recent times to challenge the colonial legacies of design studies (Schultz; Tristan et al.; Escobar). Some analyses of design activism already focus on the micro or the minor. For example, in their design of social change within organisations as an experimental and iterative process, Lensjkold, Olander and Hasse refer to Deleuze and Guattari’s minoritarian: “minor design activism is ‘a position in co-design engagements that strives to continuously maintain experimentation” (67). Like minor activism, design microprotests are linked to the continuous mobilisation of actors and networks in processes of collective experimentation. However microprotests do not necessarily focus on organisational change. Rather, they create new (and often tiny) spaces of protest within which new voices can be heard and different kinds of listening can be done. In the first of our three cases, we discuss a representation of transdisciplinary listening. This piece of visual communication is a design microprotest in itself. This section helps to frame what we mean by a safe space by paying attention to the listening mode of communication. In the next sections we explore temporality and territorialisation through the design microprotests Just Spaces which documents the collective imagining of safe places for LBPQ (Lesbian, Bisexual, Pansexual, and Queer) women and non-binary identities through a series of graphic objects and Conversation Piece, a book written, designed and published over three days as a proposition for a collective future.
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