Design In The Front Line

Activists at Climate Camp 2007 march on BAA’s Heathrow offices. The ‘shields’ feature images of a cross-section of the world’s population. Photo © Kristian Buus
Climate Camp provides an opportunity to examine design activism in action. Jody Boehnert attended this year’s event and reported back for CR.


Activists at Climate Camp 2007 march on BAA’s Heathrow offices. The ‘shields’ feature images of a cross-section of the world’s population. Photo © Kristian Buus

Climate Camp provides an opportunity to examine design activism in action. Jody Boehnert attended this year’s event and reported back for CR.

The design industry is an import­ant player in the creation of a sustainable society, writes Jody Boehnert. Designers could help the world collectively rise to the challenge, but only if we wrench our creative faculties free from their recent history as servants of industry, pawns in a game that spawns the conspic­uous consumption that is now clearly causing ecological overshoot.

In the wake of the latest IPCC reports, activists have become increas­ingly focused on climate change and are confronting the systemic problems that lay at the heart of the crisis. The Stern Report made it clear even within the highest corridors of power that climate change threatens to be the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen. We are now witness­ing a movement of people convinced that we cannot buy or sell our way
out of this predicament.

Limits to Growth [a report commissioned by think tank The Club of Rome] warned us over 30 years ago that unlimited growth within a finite planet was a recipe for disaster, but now the reality of resource depletion, pollution and climate change is acknowledged by mainstream audiences. Whether we respond fast enough to avoid cata­clysmic climate change remains to be seen.

There is still an immense discon­nect between the consensus within peer reviewed science and awareness and action on the ground. Designers are key inter­mediaries between science, policy, and the public. Design activists are filling a gap where more conserv­ative organis­ations and governments fear to tread.

“A design activist will activate people to ‘become the change’ by using the power of the design process to engage, raise awareness, amplify exist­ing capacity and generate transform­ative actions,” explains Alastair Fuad-Luke, author of the original Eco Design Handbook who is presently working on a new book, Design Activism (to be published in 2009 by Earthscan).

Ann Thorpe (author of Atlas of Sustain­ability and blog, designactivism.net) describes design activism as work where designers use their skills to make the changes in the world that neither the market nor the government pay for, but are design actions that seek to protect and act for the disempowered.


Penknife identity for the 2008 camp by Ultimate Holding Company

The theme of design activism featured strongly at the recent Changing the Change conference in Turin and new work developed in this field is creating a better understanding of design as a tool for social change.

Meanwhile, one of activism’s most visionary and potentially influential manifestations is the Climate Camp – which, this year, set up outside the Kingsnorth power station in Kent in England. Climate Camp, now in its third year, is a congregation of diverse indiv­iduals so concerned about climate change that they are willing to take non-violent direct action to demon­strate their deter­mination to stop a new generation of fossil fuel-based infra­structure.

The camp is organised as a radically decen­tralised entity with ‘no leaders’. Decisions are made by consensus through an elaborate series of meet­ings. The Climate Camp is also funded primarily by the people who attend. An estimated 2,000 people partici­pated in the creation of a completely sustainable temporary community powered by the sun, wind and cycles for a week at the begin­ning of August this year. The camp held over 100 workshops. Some­what miraculously, it all worked.

The Climate Camp this year took place near the Kingsnorth power station (the site of the proposed first new coal fired power station in the UK in over 25 years) with a day of action that was remarkably disciplined in the face of police intimidation.

Within the Climate Camp activism is evolving. The camp makes sophisti­cated use of the media and its networks through an extensive communications strategy. Activism is said to be the public face of social movements. In a media saturated world the public image of a movement must compete with well-funded industry advertising and public relations campaigns. Design has helped mediate the public image of Climate Camp and transform the move­ment into a friendly, under­standable, but politically powerful voice of dissent.

Activism is rooted in a moral position. Ann Thorpe describes how activism serves to make an injustice or oppression unavoidably public, thus forcing those who witness it to decide if they can live with the moral deficit produced in themselves in the face of an unavoidable demonstration of what is better. At Climate Camp, design serves to amplify the conflict and make this confrontation with the issues and ethics meaningful to as many people as possible.

The debates the camp creates (at Kingsnorth 2008, Heathrow 2007 and Drax 2006) are at the cutting edge of change: will society continue to invest in techno­logy that will change the climate of this planet?

Fuad-Luke claims that design activism revolves around three key words: ‘participation’, ‘re-evaluation’ and ‘transformation’. By pushing the boundaries of the practice of design, design activism can further demo­cratise ‘why, what, and how we design’. Designers at the camp are using their skills to transform voices of activists into legitimate high profile calls for change.

Design at the Climate Camp

Each year the camp has worked with the Manchester-based studio Ultimate Holding Company (UHC) to create an integrated campaign (website, posters, flyers, stickers, etc.). The leading image for the 2008 camp was a Swiss army knife, out of which all the tools of activism extended: here is wrench, book, wind turbine, loud speaker, rubber boot, carrot, and flower.

The camp also produced a newspaper, You Are Here, in an edition of 20,000. Subtle headlines, text and images draw you into the issues slowly. Climate change is not even mentioned or alluded to until several pages into the paper. John Jordan worked on the paper and is one of the key design activists at the camp.

The intention, he claims, is “to make publicity materials which have the slickness of corporate media yet the punch of rebel flyers, the poetic writing of literature yet the political analysis of radical theory, the desir­ability of capitalist design, yet the subversiveness of anarchist thinking”.


You Are Here, the newspaper for the 2008 camp, a collaboration between UCH, John Jordan, Isa Fremeaux and the Climate Camp team

The crisp design produced by the Climate Camp is removed from the typical anarchist/ Marxist/revolu­tionary visual codes of earlier activists movements. The Climate Camp’s graphic identity aims to be attractive to everyday people; it is accessible and asks everyone to participate.

Gone are the stencilled or dirty grunge fonts that are identified with youth counter-cultures. In an era when our rebellion has been sold back to us for so long that the aesthetics of rebellion are virtually meaningless, the Climate Camp has avoided positioning itself with any of the counter-culture based identity politics of earlier activists movements that could never escape the anarchist ghetto.

So far, the camp has stayed clear of old ideology-based rhetoric and imagery, but it is a constant battle to maintain a fresh perspective and communications strategy. How does the relationship between designer and client differ from a commer­cial situation? Here the client is the networking group of the camp. UHC describes the dynamic: “We begin from their starting point, that is to say – the brief is ‘to save the world now’ and the target audience is ‘everyone’.

It can be hard pleasing everyone, with such a vociferously non-hierarchical, decen­tralised, voluntary and deeply committed group. Every year we nearly have to start building relation­ships from scratch, because the client is a shifting group. After three years we now have a good relationship with one or two people who have remained constant and are design savvy.”

Because the movement is diverse and decentralised, the Climate Camp creates plural identities. While UHC creates the main identity for the camp, neighbourhoods and affinity groups create their own unique identities, artwork, and communication material. Traditional activist material such as posters, banners, flags, artefacts, props, stickers and exhibitions exist along with newer strategies such as subvert­ising, viral animations (see ev-eon.com), song books, and creative direct action (such as the The Great Rebel Raft Regatta: thegrrr.net).

Because the changes ahead are necessarily social as well as technical, the frontline of the debate is human psychology. John Jordan says: “It’s about taking people on a journey, about helping them to access their deeper desires and aspirations to adventure and a better world, not just telling them the facts and information … I think we need to have material which encourages desire and partici­pation, which works on the level of fantasy and dream more than rational facts and figures.

“Much political design thinks you can change people with rational information: ‘If only people knew how bad climate change is they would act!’ is often the logic. But it’s clear that pure information does not change people or lead them to action, capitalism and consumerism has known that this for a long time. They know how to manipulate desire and touch our fantasy beings. I think we manage to do this with a lot of the design for the Climate Camp.”

Nevertheless, the camp is a clear-headed confrontation with hard facts. Making space for debates, dialogue and learning is a key objective. Indy­media and two new DIY media outfits turned up at the camp this year; Vision TV and Camp Radio. All are powered onsite by cycle, solar or wind, broadcasting news from the field.

Indymedia is the main link between the action at camp and the outside world. An independent website for publishing activist news set up in 1999 to cover the June 19 Carnival of Capital in the UK and then the WTO in Seattle, it now has over 100 branches around the world and its importance in keeping the community informed on the news that never makes it into the establishment press is critical.

The new TV and radio channels program­med material around topics of interest at the camp: alternative technology, climate science, social innovations such as Transition Towns [which work together to address climate change issues] and so on.

The future for Design Activism

Academic research demonstrates that designers are important in the activist movement beyond the obvious need for styling and nice graphics. As part of her PhD research, Ann Thorpe is cataloguing 2000 cases of design activism. Of these, 43% were instigated by designers themselves. Interestingly 65% of the instances of what she labelled as ‘visionary strategies’ were led by designers.

This indicates, according to Thorpe, the “importance of designers undertaking activism themselves as opposed to being activists for hire. As proper activists, designers are more likely to help people imagine not just how to reform broken societal patterns, but to imagine and invent new ones.”

Thorpe describes activism as “a dynamic process. It starts when groups within society call for change, and the society responds – either by resisting or incorporating the values encapsulated by activism. Thus as environmental activism proceeds, for example, green products (e.g. recycled, reused, energy efficient) gain a certain normative position and cease to be at the cutting edge of activism.

Gradually the public sector steps in and requires a higher ‘green’ performance across all products. This process gradually raises the bar so the businesses do more, govern­ments change policy, and activism pursues yet new areas that have been neglected.”

Historically, activism has always been at the leading edge of change, creating a critique on the morality of the status quo. The civil rights, women’s votes, even democracy itself had to be won by people willing to fight for rights we now take for granted.

Activists are now taking a stand for our collective future and the Earth. Design activists play a key role in this, according to Fuad-Luke, by creating a “counter-narrative” that encourages “values that balance the well-being of social, institutional, environmental and economic factors”.

Civilisations that deplete their resource base always decline or collapse. Our own civili­sation has the ability to anticipate a crisis, but cultural and political factors are preventing the change we need to become sustainable.

Designers have a role to play in putting awareness of the necessary changes into the main­stream. Designers can help break the spell of rampant consumerism that they helped create. Designers can harness our creativity to support lifestyles that are sustainable.

If we can create the motivation and political will to make change happen, we can help to design our way out of this mess. Designers are now needed to create the sense of a generational mission and help build understanding of a very real planetary emergency.

Jody Boehnert is a graphic designer and founder of EcoLabs. She has recently started a PhD at the University of Brighton where her research topic is the communication of ecological literacy. This article appeared in the October issue of Creative Review.

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