Design and the Civil Rights Movement

By Bobby C. Martin Jr.

January 18, 2016

I’m often asked who my design heroes are. Who are the designers that have come before me that I look to for inspiration?

The truth is that I don’t know.

I don’t know who filmed the police dog viciously tearing at the body of an African American teenager, and violent blasts of water being aimed toward crowds of people in Alabama.

I don’t know who photographed those children needing a National Guard escort just to enter their school building in Arkansas.

I don’t know who designed the white placards pressed with bold condensed type: I AM A MAN. I AM A MAN. I AM A MAN.

I don’t know because these people are, for the most part, undocumented. The most important placards and banners and signs weren’t about the design.

The film, photographs, type, and images that captured the outrage of the American Civil Rights Movement were default proxies using whatever was at hand to create change, inspire urgency, be heard!

My design hero, the person who I look to for inspiration, made a large black flag for the NAACP. The thick white type set in all caps read: A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.

After they learned of a lynching, the NAACP hung the massive flag outside of their New York office on Fifth Avenue, so everyone passing by was confronted with the reality and regularity of brutal, unjustified killings.

A campaign communicating the killing of men. How do you pick that typeface? It’s an important question because injustice is alive today.

In Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, and all across the country we are confronted with urgent messages scrawled across makeshift signs. And we see that familiar bold condensed type printed on banners: BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Today, I have many design heroes.

Some still anonymous, not from hiding behind Twitter handles, but working in-house, just to be sure we have a seat at the table. Those pushing to ensure issues important to African Americans, women, and minorities stay front and center.

Some are very well-known, like the artist JR, who created one of the most powerful design moments of the Black Lives Matters protests: a series of simple, crude, black-and-white prints of a face dramatically magnified and tightly cropped in on the eyes. The prints, when held edge-to-edge, reveal the eyes of Eric Garner, an African American father of six, who died while being violently taken into police custody on Staten Island, New York. Those banners led marches through New York City in 2014 as protesters chanted “Black Lives Matter.”

The imagery of the Civil Rights Movement yesterday and today isn’t about the design. It's not "pretty." But it is design, nonetheless. It cuts through the clutter. Calls attention to what matters most. Demands to be heard. It takes one more step toward ending a perpetual cycle of discrimination, prejudice, and injustice.

It is design. And it is heroic.

Bobby co-founded the branding and design agency, OCD | The Original Champions of Design. He is a vocal contributor to AIGA, from Design Envy to Eye on Design to the AIGA Design Conference.