In The Rhetoric of the Image (1964), Roland Barthes’s seminal essay on semiotics in images, he examines an advertisement for Panzani pasta products. He writes, “If this image contains signs, we can be sure that in advertising these signs are full, formed with a view to the optimum reading.” In other words, advertising prioritizes the directness of the image and its efficacy in transmitting the advertisement’s message. To Barthes, the image is a coded document whose signs are visible through close reading and formal analysis. Words, when they appear in an image, point us to the image’s hidden signs.
Historically, graphic design has been associated with advertisements. The earliest examples of graphic design are Renaissance-era printer’s marks, the small logos that appeared on the first mass-produced books. Shortly thereafter, in the mid-17th century, advertisements for goods began to appear in corantos, the single-sheet precursor to newspapers. In the 20th century, agencies began to design logos and ads for clients, and companies realized that visual communication was key to selling their products.
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But graphic design is not solely in the service of advertisements. Indeed, Barthes’s notion of the advertisement’s fully formed sign also applies to art produced for various activist movements. For the 1900 World’s Fair, W.E.B. Du Bois and his collaborators at the Atlanta University prepared a series of visualizations, which he called data portraits, sourced from years of sociological research into the economic and social conditions of Black people in the United States.
Du Bois’s efforts to present complex sets of data in an easy-to-understand format were early versions of infographics — the well-designed graphs and explanatory texts that now pervade social media and news articles. His goals were twofold: to illustrate the diversity and depth of the Black experience for an otherwise unaware white population and to dispel social Darwinist theories that Black people and culture were unable to thrive independently.
The signs in Du Bois’s data portraits were approachable to his audience. Indeed, his images were so poignant because they employed a distinctly European visual vocabulary — one that drew on Florence Nightingale’s well-known infographics as well as proto-modernist design. At the same time, the directness of these signs allowed Du Bois to fulfill another goal of his research: to return his sociological data to the community from which he gathered it. Complex data sets are rarely interesting to lay people. By presenting this data in a straightforward visual format, Du Bois hoped to engage people in the Black communities where he worked.
During the Vietnam War, antiwar activists in the US like the Student Mobilization Committee and other campus groups took a similar approach. They appropriated the patriotic imagery and catchy slogans of wartime posters churned out by the War Production Board and the War Advertising Council and transformed them into antiwar statements. In one particularly acerbic example, a seemingly patriotic image of a red, white, and blue eagle contains the text “Johnson, pull out like your father should have.” Others played off of the popular “make love, not war” sentiment to draw attention to other, more important causes. One poster that appeared around UC Berkeley during the War demanded Americans “fight pollution not wars.”
The practice of imitating popular visual styles as a means of subversion has continued well into the 21st century. When Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilić’s The Design of Dissent was published in 2004, it chronicled the liberation movements in post-communist Eastern Europe and Israel/Palestine, as well as growing resentment toward the nascent war in Iraq. The documents in the book bear many of the hallmarks of early-2000s print imagery: subtle manipulation of logos and advertising campaigns, and not-so-subtle photoshop collages.
Some artists took advantage of the internet’s abundance of graphic imagery, creating images that appeared to be benign advertisements but, in reality, were radical modifications of the originals. Anur Hadziomerspahić’s 1998 “Made in Bosnia” campaign appropriated the design of anti-animal cruelty posters that were popular in Europe at the time to draw attention to the horrors of the Bosnian Genocide. During the second intifada between Israel and Palestine, Israeli designer Yossi Lemel mimicked the style of posters usually posted by governments after major peace deals. The design featured two hands shaking and the vague title “Israel Palestine 2004” in Hebrew and English. On closer look, however, the two hands are severed from the body — a reference to the lost limbs that are hallmarks of the unending conflict.
Others took a more direct approach, creating realistic facsimiles of popular ad campaigns that actually subverted the message of those campaigns. A poster designed by Rebecca Bughouse rotated McDonalds’ iconic golden arches to create a “W” and replaced the “I’m lovin’ it” slogan with “I’m bombin’ it” — a pointed jab at George W. Bush’s scorched earth tactics in the Iraq War. In all of these images, the activists’ underlying assumption was that, by adopting these well-known visual frameworks, they could effectively disseminate their message because the public was already receptive to those images.
As the Black Lives Matter uprisings accelerated in response to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, protesters utilized graphic design to present information on police brutality and racial discrimination on social media. For nearly two months, many of our feeds were full of these posts, and they contributed to public support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. On Instagram, these graphics offered resources for activists, such as information on how to get involved and where to protest, as well as infographics detailing the historical conditions leading up to the protests. So You Want To Talk About breaks down progressive policies like defunding the police and polling place restrictions, explaining their history and importance. Future Earth, an Instagram collective focused on climate justice, mostly creates guides that educate readers on the impacts of climate change. However, they’ve also produced infographics that detail the impacts of disenfranchisement and marginalization on Black and brown communities.
Once again, activists looked to popular visual styles and advertising as a guide. The images followed a consistent template: centered text, a clean font, and a plain background — a visual format popular in advertisements for startups. In our cluttered visual landscape, simple images tend to stand out. This is something designers have long understood. Du Bois’s data portraits followed a template similar to that of the Instagram images, removing all superfluous information and streamlining its signs to convey only the most urgent information.
Some of the most powerful examples collected by Glaser and Ilić are also the simplest. A series of “Fire Arms Facts” posters designed by Kerry and Herb Stratford have only one or two lines of text, all against a plain white background. One of the posters features the number “200,000,000” with bullets for commas. Underneath is a single line of text: “There are over 200 million privately held guns in the US.” The number — and the automatic association with any number of news images documenting the effects of mass shootings — is so startling that it doesn’t require additional visuals. Likewise, the Instagram posts connoted so many powerful and painful images — notably, the videotaped deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and others — that these simple graphics spoke for themselves.
Infographics are essential to our online lives. Following in the tradition of Du Bois, some Instagrammers created visualizations that amplify the voices of those behind their data, while appealing to a broad audience. Mona Chalabi, a British data journalist, creates simple, shareable graphics that serve as a vessel for important data on policing and racial justice in the US and Britain. Many of these, like a recent post on how long effective protests last, are deeply indebted to the visual language developed by Du Bois in his data portraits and the long history of visual activism.
At the same time, accusations of performative wokeness (by far the worst thing one can be accused of on Instagram) have been lobbed at both the creators and those who reposted some of these graphics. The bulk of the ire was targeted at corporations and individuals accused of racism, whose aesthetically pleasing apologies were couched in vague language masked as radical disclosure, as in Reformation founder Yael Afalo, who issued an apology on Instagram following allegations of racism toward staff. Afalo was lambasted for the post because she focused on herself and her failures, rather than her employees, who were actually impacted. Her post borrowed the language and minimal visuals of anti-racism activists. But the post, like so many others, fell flat because audiences largely saw it as a personal advertisement masked as activism.
As Barthes noted, the signs in advertisements are fully formed and structured for easy of understanding. Afalo sought to use the directness of these signs to advertise her own transparency. By piggybacking on visuals popularized by activists, she was able to mimic the formal components of those posts. But the straightforward visual language made it difficult to mask her true intentions; instead she only revealed her own hypocrisy.
Over the past century, activists have successfully used familiar, accessible images to create change by making radical ideas palatable. When corporations or individuals exploit the same recognizable imagery, they do so with a cynicism that reveals their true motives. While the accessibility of these images appeals to corporations looking for an easy marketing tool, works produced by activists represent the interests of others over their own self interests.