Extinction Rebellion on its striking protest graphics

The climate change group has brought design to the heart of the action to forge both graphics and community. We talk to them about the work and why it’s printing designs live on the street

A pink boat in the middle of Oxford Circus sits among a sea of green placards bearing a simple, striking black sharpened hour glass device. The design is the marker of the current UK Rebellion protests orchestrated by non-violent climate change action group Extinction Rebellion which is looking to “shut down London” with actions across Parliament Square, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, and the little boat’s current dock is in the heart of the capital’s shopping street; which is currently playing host to not just a bunch of protestors, but a small guerrilla design studio.

It’s all very peaceful down there when we catch up with Clive Russell, a graphic designer by trade who’s working at the helm of the movement’s Extinction Rebellion Art Group. Russell is design director of the London-based studio This Ain’t Rock’n’Roll, which has previously worked on projects including designing the Brixton Pound, a pay-what-you-can currency that looked to encourage people in the south London area to spend their cash within the community, at local businesses.

Extinction Rebellion poster

Russell is behind much of the graphics output for the Extinction Rebellion protests, and explains that the font used across posters, banners and other materials was based on a woodcut type he found on eBay. He and volunteers from the Extinction Rebellion Art Group, which is open for anyone to join, are currently sited at Oxford Circus, where today (16 April) they will be running a relief printing press, creating more designs including fabric clothing patches. Other volunteers are busy sewing, amid a sea of tents, cheerful people offering vegetarian Percy Pigs around, and (at the time of writing) a couple of slightly bored-looking policemen.

“We took inspiration from early 50s stuff and the Paris 68 stuff, so we wanted to create a font that was deliberately slightly wonky and wood type-like without going down the hackneyed distressed route,” he says. I suggest that the sharpness of the movement’s graphics feel rather different to what we might have seen before with such protests. “That stuff is an attempt to look like something rather than being the thing itself,” he says. “When we print something we actually print it properly print it via silkscreen or linocut, and generally try not to get things looking distressed. We try and make it look strong: I’m a graphic designer, so I don’t want lots of wonky, sort of pseudo-punk crap.”

Extinction Rebellion poster

Russell and his business partner Charlie Waterhouse began working with Roger Hallam, one of the Extinction Rebellion founders, when he gave a talk at the studio about climate change. “As a designer I feel passionately that we are disproportionally responsible for a lot of the consumerism that occurs within society,” says Russell. “I know people have to do a job, but we try and work for charities and let our principles guide us.” He adds that that This Ain’t Rock’n’Roll doesn’t work for FMCG companies or fashion brands. The work for Extinction Rebellion from the studio is entirely for free.

The Art Group is made up of a core group of four people, who got together prior to the formation of Extinction Rebellion and brainstormed to devise a way to visualise the demands they wanted to make of the government regarding environmental issues. “We came up with a basic design programme that could deliver the various messages we wanted to deliver,” he explains.

Extinction Rebellion poster

The posters veer away from shock-value or outright vitriol, instead using bright colours and playful patterning such as a man with a beard of bees to make their point. “It was important that there was a sense of dark humour,” says Russell. “The colour palette we use hints at the intersectional nature of the movement – every single person can be involved. Other eco movements have centred around the green, and we do use green, obviously, but we’re about much more than green issues – there are big cultural issues we’re facing now too.”

Alongside This Ain’t Rock And Roll’s designs, five other designers who currently wish to remain anonymous (due to the flyposting element of the protests) were commissioned to create posters for the movement. Russell also project managed the website design for Extinction Rebellion, which was designed by Arthur Stovell. It looks pretty slick, considering the site was only started in January this year.

The live element of the design was important to the group. It acts as one of many focal points within the Oxford Circus protest site, and Russell says that a vital part of dealing with the issues the campaigners focus on is about “building resilient communities, and part of showing how that can work is getting people to do things together, like printing. You can sit and sew and talk, it’s sociable. We’re losing a lot of those simple interactions in society.”

The designer of the hourglass symbol, which existed prior to the formation of Extinction Rebellion, also wishes to remain anonymous (he signs off his email simply with “Goldfrog ESP”). “The symbol represents extinction,” says the unnamed designer on the dedicated symbol site. “The circle signifies the planet, while the hourglass inside serves as a warning that time is rapidly running out for many species.”  

A Flickr group has been created showcasing activists’ use of the logo, which is free to download and distribute. These include the logo carved into a dead tree, as part of a mushroom cloud for a tattoo design, painted onto an umbrella and on a fetching sparkly minidress.

The protests began yesterday (15 April), and according to Extinction Rebellion, are planned to continue until 29 April. They are being being held to raise awareness that “the world is currently undergoing a mass extinction event”, as the group puts it, “and this symbol is intended to help raise awareness of the urgent need for change in order to address this crisis”.

Extinction Rebellion banner
Extinction Rebellion banner

According to Extinction Rebellion, it is estimated that between 30,000 and 140,000  species are becoming extinct every year due to human activity, in what scientists have named the Holocene, or Sixth Mass Extinction. It adds that within the next few decades approximately 50% of all species that now exist will have become extinct. “Such a catastrophic loss of biodiversity is highly likely to cause widespread ecosystem collapse and consequently render the planet uninhabitable for humans,” says the group.

Extinction Rebellion (sometimes shortened as XR) was founded in 2018 by Roger Hallam, Gail Bradbrook, Simon Bramwell and other activists from the campaign group Rising Up!, aiming to use non-violent resistance to bring about radical change in minimising species extinction and averting climate change. It was formed with around 100 academics signing a call to action. The movement has made headlines with the pledge from a number of protesters that they’re willing to be arrested and are prepared to go to prison for their cause. The group is said to be inspired by movements including Occupy, Gandhi’s independence movement, the Suffragettes, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.