Visual Communication Design: The Poster as an Essential Asset for Future Protest Dialogues

Vassilissa Semouchkina
22 min readDec 18, 2019

In 2013, I was active during a series of vibrant protests moving through the Russian Federation. These protests petitioned for the release opposition leader Mikhael Khodorkovsky from what was widely recognized as unlawful custody. As a visual communication designer, I wanted to use my skills to contribute what I could to the movement — I created a series of brochures and pamphlets. I distributed these with the intent of disseminating information about the issues at hand to the external public, both within the Russian Federation and the United States. While those protests proved successful, culminating in the release of Khodorkovsky in December 2013, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d done enough, and if the small, self-instigated part I played really mattered. As a visual communication designer, I wanted to know if my contribution was actually effective, or simply the lost product of an isolated designer vying to help.

fig. 1 | Plague of Posters, M. Vedhan, 2015

My frustration with the nature of my involvement in the Free Khodorkovsky Movement is understandable. When creative media like posters are made in the vacuum of a designer’s own perception, and with the added detriment of having no concrete way to disperse the work effectively, the product will seldom reach the desired point of completion. I argue the success of protest poster design is an important factor of the triumph of social movements — while the death of protests can be attributed to a multitude of complex factors, I argue that a more thoughtful and methodical approach to protest poster design will bolster the effectiveness of future protests. Protest poster design methodology must evolve to match the quicksilver growth of contemporary protest movements. In this paper, I will look at four central principles gathered from researching past and recent protests: that poster design must have a strong, central visual identity; that poster design must be created internally through a collaborative and equitable process; that poster design must be collected and distributed by a generated central network that gathers and sort the work of participants; that poster design must hold public attention in order to prevent the death of movements through the consistent release of conceptually diverse and attention-grabbing work. In the age of the internet and click-based activism (clicktivism) (White, 2016, pg.123), it is more important than ever to think about the way in which protest posters are created, viewed, and distributed. In the words of Jorge Frascara, “The public must be made more aware of their basic rights and obligations. This awareness is now affected by the excessive noise created by the media, and by the lack of interest of most governments in long-term efforts, particularly when these have no consequence on immediate elections.” (Frascara, 1997, pg. 32) The design of posters can do more, and has in the past.

Visual communication design has long had ties to protest and political movements. (Triggs, 2011, pg. 2) As a tool used to disseminate ideas to the wider public, the products of a visual communication methodology are an asset in helping display ideas through bold and memorable visual formats. In both contemporary and past protests, these displays most often appear as banners, crudely made but vibrant and striking. Before the advent of the internet, posters and placards would often be plastered across walls, hoping to spark conversation and intrigue. The idea of using the wall as a space for visualizing ideas is prevalent and more popular than ever — where there was once a small number of distinct posters, there are now hundreds — political, cinematic, musical, graffiti-based, and more. (fig. 1) The visual noise created by this cacophony of posters is palpable and emphasizes the need for a change in strategy — protest posters must stand out from the chaos and must be created to command visual authority in an increasingly designed world.

In developing future strategies, it is vital to look at both the historic and contemporary use of placards and posters in successful and failed acts of revolt. Beginning with protests from the past 200 years and looking to the revolutionary placards and posters from both the period of the Great Fear of the French Revolution and the Russian Empire’s political uprisings of 1917, in which visual communication and verbal dissemination were key players in dissident information dispersal, I will introspect on the successes and failures of revolutionary imagery and how it might influence future posters to come.

fig. 2 | Unité, Unknown, 1793–94

Past Protest
During the French Revolution of 1789, there began a significant redesign of the country’s political structure. (Lefebvre, 1973, pg. 35) Institutions of absolute monarchy and the existing feudal system were being reimagined — as these emerging ideas gained traction and spread, the people’s revolution grew. Discontent with the aristocratic class and a lack of transparency around the happenings of government culminated in the Great Fear (la Grande Peur), a period of widespread panic which is attributed as the start of the French Revolution and the eventual famed storming of the Bastille. (Lefebvre, 1973, pg. 169) Throughout the turmoil of the Great Fear, the distribution of posters and visual materials (fig. 2) became a way to effectively distribute dissident information. (Markoff, 1986, pg. 332) Posters communicated a sense of alarm and discontent to both large, more literate cities, as well as small villages and their peasants — these posters of revolt, as well as the people behind them, pushed civilians to take charge and stand up for their own freedoms. Occasionally, rebels even supported their claims by falsifying or exaggerating the information written on posters, unbeknownst to those who could not read or truthfully interpret their content. (Lefebvre, 1973, pg. 96–97)

Though this troubling fact taints the purity of intent, these protest placards, whether truthful or libelous, were effective in helping rally the discontented masses. With a significantly illiterate population, a highly representative aid was beneficial in acting to visualize specific ideas through a pictorial language, as a necessary compliment and asset to word-of-mouth dialogues (Markoff, 1986, pg. 332). The placard, therefore, became a tool for discourse. Through extensive distribution, placards were a poignant example of the mass production of posters around a singular concept, armed with the intent to dissipate information — there was even a notable report of posters appearing in Pérrone which were printed, as opposed to hand drawn like most. (Lefebvre, 1973, pg. 97) Placards, in the period of the Great Fear, were one of a group of important players working to bring together members of the working and marginalized classes under a common, if not occasionally hysterical, belief that things needed to change. The Russian Revolution of 1917, though taking place more than a century later and within a different country, echoed kindred principles.

fig. 3 | Parus Publishing, V. Mayakovsky & A. Radakov, 1916

Leading up to the events of the Russian Revolution of 1917, there was a significant rise in posters and signage as a way to speak to and visualize the frustrations among working class citizens and serfs of the Russian Empire. (Jangfeldt, 2007, pg. 544) Many former serfs, soldiers, and low-level workers were frustrated by the perceived opulence and luxury of the Russian upper and middle classes. (Avilov, 2017, pg. 7–8) With Marxist ideology gaining traction, and minding the size of the Russian Empire, there came the issue of discreetly communicating a unifying message of dissent to a country that spanned almost half the globe. A major asset emerged in the advent of leftist publishing houses, which played a major role in the distribution of independent posters (fig. 3), poems, and zine-like publications. (Lenkhart, 2017, pg. 657)

fig. 4 | Ukraine: Vote for the United Jewish Socialist Workers’ Party Unknown — Ne Boltai Collection, 1917

The posters from these publishing houses were translated into the Russian Empire’s different languages, such as Armenian, Georgian, and Hebrew, in order to be effectively distributed, often with culturally different yet interconnected visual elements. (fig. 4) (Lenkart, 2017, pg. 656) Posters were commonly circulated with messages expressing worker’s concerns and portraying a disillusionment with the aristocratic class, and would be easy to understand even without accompanying text. These story-like visuals helped create a narrative for the often-illiterate peasant class. (Avilov, 2017, pg. 8) The imagery was vivid and bright — reds, blacks, and pale cremes were a popular and memorable color scheme, and the hammer and sickle motif emerged to symbolize the working class. (fig. 3) Following the Russian Revolution itself, propaganda posters adopted the bright color scheme more uniformly and explicitly, using it to communicate a central message and identity for what would become the classic Soviet-era propaganda poster.

The Follies and Successes of Past Protests
In both these examples, protest posters and placards act as historical visualizations to look to when trying to understand and research revolutionary events. They communicate a message and an atmosphere — we can start to understand how people might’ve felt during various events through the appearance of line, color, and message. Visual mediums are a powerful way to express the voices of those without the agency or means to stand up for their values. In terms of both the early French and Russian Revolutionary periods, considering the atmosphere of the era is especially poignant — vivid protest posters and placards enable the viewer to visualize and experience some of the frustrations felt by past revolutionaries.

The reasons behind choosing these two examples, though rather different in nature and location, are because of the heavy visual presence and eventual success of both periods. In terms of the Great Fear of the French Revolution, the countrywide distribution of visualized written placards spurred a powerful reaction, even going so far as to use the peasant class’ illiteracy as a way to push an untruthful agenda. (Lefebvre, 1973, pg. 96–97) While the Great Fear is known to have partially been an instance of overreaction and miscommunication, the anger and fear which spearheaded the revolt were powerful and noteworthy. While this affect cannot be exclusively tied to revolutionary placards, the visualization of national unity and discontent were powerful mechanisms in spreading an emergent insurgent ideology.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was one of the first revolutionary events defined by its attributed visual media. (Williams, 1977, pg. 4) The vivid contrasting color schemes, bold typefaces, and working-class design approaches helped create a centralized identity which assisted in cohesively communicating dissident messages widely and nonverbally. This distribution was assisted through the emergence of designated leftist publishing houses whose sole purpose was to dissipate new and growing Marxist propaganda. (Lenkhart, pg. 655, 2017) While the outcome of the Russian Revolution is highly controversial, the success and power of protest poster-based communication within the movement is undeniable.

Looking into the histories of protest posters and the way they helped shape revolutionary events is essential for analyzing and understanding contemporary protest movements. Spurred by new and growing demographics and technologies, contemporary protest poster design is no stranger to using posters as a tool for communicating agendas and garnering interest in social movements. However, in an increasingly digitized world full of designed spaces, the calls for protest must find new ways stand out in order to avoid being lost among a swarm of other visual information. (Bruinsma, 1999, pg. 301)

Contemporary Protest
The contemporary protest poster designer faces a wicked challenge — they must find ways to best lend themselves as assets to the causes they support, as well as to reach greater recognition and circulation of their work. While in an increasingly designed and finance-driven world, the solution to this problem is unclear, the additional analysis of the successes and failures of recently past contemporary movements could help unveil the direction towards a shift. The internet has accelerated information dissemination — ideas for protest emerge, conglomerate, and grow quickly, prompting designers who have the time and passion to swiftly generate rough yet noticeable visual representations in the midst of a fast-growing movement. These responses are valid — interesting, diverse, and desperate. However, while it is important to acknowledge the romance and humanity of spontaneity, this current approach to designing for protest does come with issues. There is a lack of cohesion; protests rarely have a central identity. Notable posters in the public eye often come from firms or established designers outside of the revolting masses, and movements seemingly grow and fade at breakneck speed. In looking at modern examples of protest, it is imperative to observe and reflect on contemporary movement structures, as well as analyze the aspects which can be improved.

fig. 5 | Occupy Wall Street, Adbusters, 2011

Occupy Wall Street was a protest movement which emerged explosively in September 2011. The protest grew quickly, spurred on by internet activism and the use of a unified, popular social media hashtag. The movement spoke out against economic inequality, proclaiming that the majority of the world’s finances were held by the wealthiest 1 percent of the population — in response, the movement took on the rallying cry, “we are the 99 percent”. (Gelder, 2011, pg. 1) In the words of its initiator, author and activist Micah White, “We released the idea of Occupy Wall Street on July 13, 2011, with a two-page tactical briefing and a surrealist poster of a ballerina balanced on the Wall Street Bull (fig. 5), a famous public sculpture near the financial district. Floating above the ballerina was a tantalizing question­­ — “What is our one demand?” In the smoky background, militant protesters linked arms and seemed to move toward the viewer. The ballerina-and-bull poster was inspired by a photograph by the conceptual artist Joan Fontcuberta purporting to show a mujahedeen balancing atop a donkey in Afghanistan… fearless, playful, revolutionary joy.” (White, 2016, pg. 14–15) This poster was distributed alongside gathering information for the Occupy movement, its popularity resulting in many of the movement’s poster variants congregating around the visual theme of the bull. (fig. 6) The movement was massive, drawing a significant amount of international attention and branching off into smaller subsets, such as Occupy The Farm, which protested development near Berkeley, and Occupy Sandy, which looked to establish a system to provide greater hurricane relief.

fig. 6 | Occupy Wall Street: The Beginning is Near, A. Clotfelter, 2011

However, how much of this was due to the central motif of the ballerina poster? Designer Michael Beirut argues that “the ballerina didn’t matter. The bull didn’t matter. The headline didn’t matter. Only one thing mattered: that hashtag at the bottom.” (Bierut, 2012) However, I would argue that the effect was the product of a combination of the two — a powerful, short statement and a dynamically subversive poster. Regardless of whether the draw of Occupy Wall Street was a trendy hashtag or a surrealist poster, the bulk of the movement faded quickly in November 2011, with protesters being forced out of their central meeting space in New York and participants growing frustrated with the lack of a central ideology. (White, 2016, pg. 30)

White argues that this movement was not a total failure, but a constructive failure — “Occupy Wall Street failed to live up to its revolutionary potential: we did not bring an end to the influence of money on democracy, overthrow the corporatocracy of the 1 percent or solve income inequality… I call Occupy Wall Street a constructive failure because the movement revealed underlying flaws in dominant, and still prevalent, theories of how to achieve social change through collective action.” (White, 2016, pg. 26–27) Despite massive gatherings and a hefty collection of protest posters, Occupy Wall Street’s failure leaves room for analysis and introspection on how movements might maintain consistency and a strong, central voice in the age of the internet.

On July 1, 2019, massive protests erupted in Hong Kong on the anniversary of the city’s handover from British colonial rule to China. The protests, which had started in June and are ongoing, and considered pro-democracy and oppose an extradition bill which would “enable the [Hong Kong] chief executive and courts to handle fugitive transfer requests to jurisdictions where there are no prior agreements — such as China — without legislative oversight.” (Creery, 2019) On the first day of the protests, more than 550,000 demonstrators gathered. (Lam, 2019) These protestors were ready for vehement political opposition and even violence, though the focus of the event was peace and protestor turnout.

fig. 7 | Me & My Parents Go Protesting, J. Li & V. Chan, 2019

With the numbers of participants and the riot police overwhelming and intimidating, some chose to support the protest’s cause through alternative mediums. In interviewing Hong Kong activist Atom Cheung, author Tiffany Lam describes Cheung as standing in the crowds on July 1, overwhelmed by the magnitude and listening in to others prepare for the riot police’s tear gas attack. Cheung, who is aged 39 and no longer felt particularly capable in confronting the police, was inspired to search for a different way to contribute to the movement against perceived authoritarian rule. He, along with other Hong Kong artists and designers, chose to respond to the demonstrations with an international exhibition: Freedom-Hi, whose “collection represents a different entry point for understanding the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong. …these pieces are meant to be a more intimate way into the protests, featuring titles like “Me & My Parents Go Protesting.”” (fig. 7) (Lam, 2019) In addition to design exhibitions like Freedom Hi, protest posters are also circulated virally on the internet — and while free agents create their own work to distribute across social media, pro-democracy organizations emerging within Hong Kong, like Demosisto, centralize and disperse in-house designs (fig. 8) from within the heart of the movement.

fig. 8 | Withdraw ELAB, Demosisto, 2019

Throughout the duration of the protest, posters appear frequently and with astonishing diversity, put out by both individuals and organizations, tied together with common slogans such as: “Oppose sending to China”, “One More Person”, “Defend Press Freedom”, and more. (Creery, 2019) The presence and voice of the people, as communicated through a visual medium, is loud in Hong Kong, transfiguring and evolving daily. While there are many messages and many sides to the Anti-ELAB protests, the frustration and vocal discontent of the people are both loud and palpable.

In both Occupy Wall Street and the Anti-ELAB protests, the movements evolved and grew rapidly — they drew powerful reactions and attracted large amounts of participants. The movements were fueled by the belief that democratic governments are swayed by massive, urban, non-violent, and unified protests (White, 2016, pg. 25). However, with time, one of the protests simmered out, and the other is ongoing with no sign of the accused government budging.

While Occupy Wall Street and Anti-ELAB are historically massive in size, their effectiveness isn’t absolute, and desired responses aren’t guaranteed despite the volume of community voices. In the words of White, “Western democracies will not be swayed by public spectacles and mass media frenzy. Protests have become an accepted, and therefore ignored, by-product of politics as usual.” (White, 2016, pg. 27) I argue that this notion applies to more than just western democracies — in general, the world has grown to see protests, movements, and revolutions erupting in a cacophony of nations — most, if not all. Protests, while important, attention-grabbing, and public, are now expected. While technology has expedited the speed at which protests grow, I observe that the structure of the contemporary protest — in terms of massive gatherings and vocal opposition — are virtually the same as those of the past. In order to reinforce the power, authority, and effectiveness of the future protest, and keeping in mind that with a growing and diversifying population the amount of protests and subjective diversity will grow, the way social movements are staged must evolve and adapt.

To see where we must go from here, we must look to the past and present of protest and analyze failures and successes. In observing the French Revolution of 1789, the success could be attributed to the novelty, ferocity, and surprise of the revolt, stemming from the hysterical rise of fear in the countryside. (Lefebvre, 1973, pg. 163) However, using fear as a tactic for spreading information in a space of oral culture gave rise to false information, ultimately leading to further revolutions, violence, and public discord. (Lefebvre, 1973, pg. 73) For the Russian Revolution, the success can be attributed to the passionate aggression, vivid propaganda, and violence of the revolution. (Lenkart, 2017, pg. 655) While these factors also created a new kind of governmental distrust, the powerful, central Soviet identity was potently intimidating and difficult to challenge. While Occupy Wall Street possessed the excitement and rapid growth necessary for a successful movement, White attributes the national protest’s failure to a variety of factors — the fragmentation of the central message, protestor conflict, and an ultimate police raid on central meeting grounds. (White, 2016, pg. 30–32) And while the Anti-ELAB protests are vibrant, visual, and ongoing, the movement faces challenges of its own — governmental resistance and divided ideologies as peaceful and violent protestors separate into movement factions. (Hernández, Yu, 2019)

Though some of these issues are unfortunately unavoidable, post-protest analyses create opportunities to look into moments of failure and success, to understand the breaking points and climaxes of protests, and to create ground to work on them. It is hard to say for certain which methods are appropriate and truly applicable when considering the future, however, it is important to start the discussion and attempt to ideate possible solutions. The following strategies I present are formed out of reflecting on past and contemporary protest poster use and dispersal, as well as looking into the flaws and successes that carried them. The technology with which we make posters in the contemporary has evolved significantly — computer programs and websites make the creation of graphics simpler and faster, and available to almost anyone. The diversity of posters has also expanded, with formats, colors, and directions beyond what anyone would’ve anticipated 50 years ago. And while this progress allows a wider variety of contemporary creatives to produce both visually stunning and conceptually diverse work, this also highlights the visual saturation of the world. The thoughtful consideration and application of future poster media is essential in bringing forth poignant social issues, and must be carefully designed to stand out amongst the sheer quantity of existing posters.

Central Visual Identity
Within both the Anti-ELAB and Occupy Wall Street protests, issues arose in the absence of a cohesive, unified dialogue. While both protests began with a central idea, they splintered into differing factions and interest groups. While it can be argued that hosting and projecting a variety of ideas is important, within protests this process often creates a dialogue which is inconsistent and hard to follow. In the case of Occupy Wall Street, this fragmentation lead to the movement’s downfall. (White, 2016, pg. 26)

As the population of the world grows, and with that the nuance and diversity of ideas, I argue that it is imperative to maintain and push a central, uniting message in protest dialogues — this message must be enforced through protest poster design in the form of a central visual identity. Protest poster design should be cohesive, but not identical; the designed messages can be nuanced and derived from a central voice. In drawing inspiration from the posters of the Russian Revolution (fig. 3, 4), future protest posters should be connected through elements of color, stylistic approach, and mood. It is hard to argue that Soviet propaganda posters, while controversial in message, lacked a central, widely recognizable identity. This sense of place gives strength and cohesion to protest movements, while allowing for visual diversity. It is as important to emphasize identity through visual means as it is through verbal means.

Unified Creative Network
Protests draw in people from all walks of life, to come together and implore society to consider a central idea or problem. Protests thrive and capitalize on passion — when I participated in the 2013 ‘Free-Khodorkovsky’ demonstrations, I was enthusiastic and ready; I wanted to do all that I could to help. However, in creating brochures and pamphlets in the bubble of my own perception, I was generating work in a vacuum — while some people may have been drawn to the creativity of the materials I distributed, I was one person with a few brochures in a much greater, already-vocal crowd. My work, while visually engaging and displaying factual information, could’ve been more powerful had it been distributed through an official central publication network tied to the protest itself. Looking to the leftist publishing houses of the Russian Revolution (Lenkhart, 2017, pg. 655) and to the internal publishing of the Anti-ELAB protests (Creery, 2019), I argue that future protest posters must be collected and strategically dispersed both digitally and physically by emergent movement-specific distribution networks, whose purpose is the tactful dissemination of inter-movement visual and news media. The instigators of future protests must work to create spaces for collecting the work of involved artists and designers, in order to more effectively utilize the movement’s human assets through a centralized platform.

Co-Design and Collaboration
Creating spaces for designers to communicate personal ideas is the first step of a successful information dissemination process. When design firms are hired to create visual identities for protests, this externalizes the design of protest posters to a group who may not even be participating in the dialogues they’re creating for. Occupy Wall Street’s use of Adbusters is a poignant example — while the organization is focused on creating dissident works, they do so for a variety of causes in which they act as anti-capitalist observers, but not necessarily participants. (White, 2016, pg. 12) For a poster to truly represent the movement it belongs to, the work must be designed and ideated by individuals partaking in the movements — both designers and non. During the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, a poet, and Alexei Radakov, an artist, created some of the movement’s most circulated posters through their collaboration within the leftist publishing house, Parus. (fig. 3) (Williams, 1977, pg. 137) The design of protest posters must be collaborative, allowing for designers and other participants to share and collectively ideate on the most effective mediums for visualizing important ideas. This co-design process (Sanders, Stappers, 2008, pg. 6) should be conducted as often as the hectic growth of a movement permits. Protest poster design should not be created by the designer in the lone context of their own perception, but rather be made together with non-designers in order to best capture and project an equitable and effective movement vision.

Failure Prevention Through Attention
The ultimate failure of a movement is in its death — death here referring to a movement that ends prematurely or without any real resolution. While the French and Russian Revolutions ended with the revolting groups’ desired shifts in power, Occupy Wall Street experienced an untimely and abrupt end, and even though the Anti-ELAB protests are ongoing, they are experiencing their share of challenges. While there are many difficulties that movements can face in their attempted path towards success, in the contemporary, I observe a critical reason for failure: the loss of public interest and visibility, and the corresponding movement’s dissolution by existing governments and forces. Public interest can be lost for a variety of reasons, however in terms of protest poster design, I argue that the stagnation of visual communication and the output of new media are major contributors. In the case of Occupy Wall Street, the fragmentation of the cohesive central idea and the lack of a clear end goal ultimately lost the public eye. (Bierut, 2012) Oftentimes, a movement is documented extensively by the news and internet media during its initial occurrence, and fades from public attention as global media loses interest and directs attention to other, newer stories. In considering future poster design methodologies, I argue that protest posters must be methodically produced and released to the public in order to help maintain a consistent visual energy and garner continual attention. A lack of attention, and therein public support, is the ultimate nail in the coffin for contemporary protest movements.

In looking at past and contemporary examples of placard and poster design within protest movements, I have theorized four central ideas in helping boost the effectiveness of future protest posters: protest posters must push a united message supported by a central visual identity; protest posters must be shared, accepted, and developed in a dominant publication network; protest posters must be ideated and created collaboratively by teams of designers and non-designers involved in the movement; protest posters need to be released consistently and innovatively in a way which helps keep public attention on the movement. As the global population grows and national cultures change and evolve, protests are bound to occur with increasing frequency. With this in mind, helping protests maintain their effectiveness as a vessel for the will of the people is imperative — free and public speech are the essence of a democratic society. Protest posters have a large and valuable part to play in this discussion and are one of the many factors of contemporary protests which must be strengthened in order to help push public revolts into a more successful future.

Poster design is a popular field in the contemporary age. Bright, colorful, and diverse, the medium presents a wide variety of ways in which to represent products, opinions, and more. However, poster design is a multidimensional field that pushes beyond mere aesthetic — it has a rich history tied to the public expression of ideas, both the anodyne and controversial. In the contemporary, the use of posters in protest is widely applicable, however, I would argue that posters can have a greater affect and that protest poster designers can better utilize the medium’s inherent power. As society charges forward into the future, it will be evermore important to change the way we think about protest and protest posters. Through new and evolving methodologies, the future techniques for designing protests posters must amplify their effectiveness, create stronger and more successful movements, and enforce the voice of the public.

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Vassilissa Semouchkina

MDes 2021. University of Washington. From Saint Petersburg, Russia to Seattle, WA.