In 2013, two months before the Supreme Court ruled to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), I opened my senior thesis apart of the Constructed Realities show at the Dishman Art Museum in Beaumont, Texas. The work, Same Love, is a progressive installation that focuses on human rights and LGBT inequalities in America. The piece does not directly advocate for the dismissal of DOMA nor same-sex marriage bans, however it presents major rights denied to married couples living in states without bans on same-sex marriage. Before the Supreme Court overthrew DOMA on grounds of unconstitutionality, the act denied over 1,138 federal rights, benefits and protections to same-sex married couples and their families. This persuasive argument informed the audience of issues they had never realized nor confronted, and in doing so changed a few minds. By utilizing the power of graphic design, I was able to create a successful art activist piece that promotes change within my community.
Shortly before starting work on my senior thesis, I read Where Design Is Going, and How to Be There by Cheryl Heller. The article was instrumental in forming the basis of my thesis – that graphic design is a powerful medium which creatives should use to build a better society. I constantly refer back to the article, believing in the power of design, and force myself to push the limitations of my skills. I aim to change society, to be an activist. Art activism refers to creative works that concern or are produced by activist and social movements. In her article, Cheryl Heller wrote:
“Design has the potential to be the single most powerful, relevant and restorative process for change known to humankind. Design can be the methodology that integrates and scales the millions of initiatives already underway, that aligns diverse communities around a shared vision when they need to work together but don’t know how, making invisible dynamics visible, enabling enlightened businesses to grow and thrive. And not least, design has the capacity to invite, motivate, engage, entertain and delight people, moving them to action, inspiring them to believe that something better is possible. It is a vision in which designers are the leaders we need now.”
I believe Cheryl Heller and other major creative figures know that graphic design will begin to shape our era more and more with young talented designers leading the way to progress. In fact, as a young designer, I urge you to read her article and follow her advice on how to use your skills to make a difference. You have powerful visual communication skills which should be used to make an enormous difference in our society. When I write these words, I am reminded of my favorite art activist group, Gran Fury, who advocated for a government response to the AIDs pandemic of the late 1980s. The group made controversial visual art that forced the media’s attention toward a topic being overwhelming ignored by the Ronald Reagan administration. I was thankful to see an exhibition of Gran Fury’s work at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The work was not only inspiring, but extremely evoking. After seeing the work, I yearned for involvement in my community and raising awareness for socio-political issues. I wanted to use my skills to take action.
A second instrumental inspiration to my thesis was Barbara Kruger. She uses the medium of graphic design and her extremely successful style to address social roles and cultural constructions. Constantly confronting the norms of our society, Barbara Kruger paves the way for change and progress. It’s difficult for me to believe that without controversial work from many artists such as Barbara Kruger confronting American conventions, we would not have the progress that we have today. I am extremely proud to have seen a piece of Barbara Kruger’s at the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth. Her style is extremely forceful, direct and universal. The style follows a very clever quote: “Fine art is to making love as graphic design is to rape.” Meaning that graphic design should be immediate and forcefully confront the audience’s preconceived ideas. Graphic design should not require thinking. It should communicate a universal message within seconds. Barbara Kruger openly allows others to use her successful style for exactly this reason: it forcefully confronts the audience within seconds.
An extremely punctual quote by Paola Antonelli, the Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture and Design as well as the Director of R&D at The Museum of Modern Art, portrays the power of graphic design and the future of designers in our society:
“I think that what designers will do in the future is to become the reference point for policy makers for any body that wants to create a link between something that is highfalutin and hard to translate and reality and people. And I almost invasion them as becoming the intellects of the future. I always find it really funny, you know, the French whenever they have to talk about the price of gas or the cheese war with Italy, they go to a philosopher. Right? You know? It’s kind of hilarious, but it’s funny. You know, philosophers are the culture generators in France. I want designers to be the culture generators pretty much all over the world. And some of them really can. And no matter what, they should become really fundamental bricks in any kind of policy making effort. And more and more that is happening. But I see designers as designing not anymore objects per say, in some cases yes, but also scenarios that are based on objects that will help people understand the consequences of their choices.”
The quote, from the documentary Objectified by Gary Hustwit, is a prefect summary of what designers are capable of. We communicate ideas in the most simplified, bare visual form in order to express complex ideas immediately and thoroughly.
You know, I can’t help but to create a parallel between my thesis and art activism and the new Hillary Clinton 2016 logo. I promise I’ll write a future blog post about how much I love it because the logo embodies everything Paola Antonelli discussed. It communicates forward-thinking progress immediately in a minimalist manner. It is universal and iconic, much more like a corporate brand. It is flexible and social-media perfected. It has definitely, in only a few weeks, outshine Barack Obama’s iconic ‘O’ logo. This logo is getting people excited to share, graphically, a political movement of major proportions. And the power of graphic design has embodied that for use in a simple ‘H’. For a great read on the logo here is a review called Hillary, Michael, and Lester on Brand New by Mark Kingsley.
Finally, in my own thesis work, the night of the opening a old straight man spoke to me. Keep in mind this was in Beaumont, Texas – not the most progressive place in the south. The man introduced himself and explained he was a judge. He thanked me for taking the time to create the work Same Love and told me that more people need to be made aware of these issues that face LGBT families. He had seen too many families unnecessarily face hardships because marriage is defined as between a man and a woman and that no one ever thinks of the constitutional rights that are being denied to these families. I was taken aback by this generous support from the old judge and his positive encouragement. Needless to say I was just happy their wasn’t any protests or my worst fears of someone threatening to burn down the museum. I thought really hard about what the judge told me, and it’s for those reasons, to address issues that face our society, to build a better future for the next generation and to mold a society that we are proud of, that I implore every single creative to use their skills to make a difference. It is a duty we have not only as citizens, but as those with powerful tools to shape the world.