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A history of queer design

Queer design is most commonly associated with the rainbow flag, but LGBTQ_ history takes in numerous icons and design symbols, each with their own fascinating stories

There’s been much furore about the rainbow flag in recent years: its updates have proved divisive not just among the LGBTQ+ community, but the design community too. Many have raised questions around the need for various pattern or colour additions to a flag that’s inherently meant to symbolise inclusion; but however you feel about it, few people know the fascinating history of the most ubiquitous LGBTQ+ symbol. And while the rainbow seems an obvious choice for a book cover about queer design, it’s those lesser-known stories that led Andy Campbell to use it to front his book Queer x Design, which he recently discussed at New York-based architecture firm, Robert A M Stern Architects.

The flag comes to encompass many things that queer design icons and ephemera often share: a key one being a hand-crafted, DIY approach, largely born of necessity. “The rainbow flag was hand dyed: it was created by a community of people who really got invested in what this object is,” Campbell says. “We’re talking about people who feel so passionate that they take their message to the street, and that often means that they are creating visual and material culture as they go.”

As another example, Campbell references a photograph from the 1972 New York City Gay Liberation Day parade showing Jeanne Manford and her son Morty, who together co-founded an organisation for parents of gay people that today is known as PFLAG. A key point of interest design-wise in the image lies in the placard made and carried by Jeanne. “I love this object for a lot of reasons,” says Campbell. “It was created by someone who is not a self-identified designer, but someone who clearly thinks about communication. She’s a teacher, and she’s done this poster in a really interesting way.” 

He points out that she’s ‘bolded’ over certain words and letterforms in her poster, which reads ‘Parents of Gays Unite in Support for our Children‘. Campbell explains: “I think what she’s getting at is that there’s a universal message in this poster that she wants to really highlight, which is that this is ultimately about supporting children and family members. It just so happens that we’re marching in a gay parade, but we’re supporting our family through our actions.”

AIDs is Not a Game poster by Robert Birch, from Queer x Design
Top: Queer x Design buttons spread; Above: AIDS is Not a Game poster by Robert Birch, from Queer x Design