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How To Make The Perfect Protest Sign

For those making protest signs for the Women’s March on Saturday, more than a hundred years of women marching offer ample poster inspiration.

On Saturday, the Women’s March on Washington is expected to bring more than 200,000 people to the capital to protest the newly inaugurated President Trump. In other parts of the country and across the world, 616 cities will be holding their own marches in solidarity, bringing the number of marchers up to 1,364,010 and counting.

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That’s a lot of protestors with a lot of signs, and we’re banking on the fact that there will be some pretty excellent protest art. The sheer magnitude of this event—in tandem a moment of unprecedented political tumult—ensures that photographs of the march, women, and their posters will go down in historical records, and go on to define this post-inaugural moment for future generations.

Which is to say, you had better make your sign good. Below we have some tips, taken from a long history of art and design at the center of women’s rights movements.

Be Clever, Be Shocking, and Supplement Your Text With Imagery

In the introduction to the book Design of Dissent: Socially and Politically Driven Graphics by Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic, the playwright Tony Kushner lays out three factors of successful protest design: “It is shocking, it is clever—even funny in a grim sort of way—and its meaning is instantly intelligible.”

“War is not healthy for children and other living things” [Image: Lorraine Schneider/Another Mother for Peace]

To Kushner’s point, the most memorable protest posters occupy a sweet spot between those three things—though that’s not an easy spot to get to.

“There isn’t one set formula for it,” the graphic designer Steven Heller told me in an interview back in July, for an exhibition on political posters at the Wolfsonian museum in Miami. Heller has written about protest art extensively in books such as Angry Graphics, Up Against the Wall, and Art Against War (an interview between he and Glaser also appeared in Design of Dissent). In all of these books, he says, posters are meant to arouse emotion. One way to do that, and to be “instantly intelligible” as Kushner put it, is to combine text and imagery in such a way that will immediately have an impact on the viewer.

[Photo: Library of Congress/League of Women Voters]

Take, for example, the Vietnam War poster “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” created by the Los Angeles-based artist Lorraine Schneider. The statement itself has a plainspoken poeticism to it—a simple truth that’s hard to deny—but paired with image of the crudely drawn flower that suggests children and vulnerability, the text strikes a deeper chord than it would have on its own. In 1967, Schneider lent her illustration to the antiwar advocacy group Mothers for Peace to use for its Mother’s Day cards, and the image took off. Today it’s still one of the most lasting images from the Vietnam War opposition.

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Another example of combining image and slogan—one that, in this case, employs more cleverness than shock value—is an image from 1973 that combines a popular slogan worn on buttons by supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment, along with Grant Wood’s 1930 painting American Gothic. In it, the surly looking farmer’s wife is holding a protest sign adorned with “ERA Yes.” Take another lesson from this image and don’t be afraid to get meta with your protest signs.

Stick With A Symbol

On the other hand, sometimes a sign is more impactful with no text at all. Symbols in particular play a powerful role in protest movements, as most iconically exemplified by the peace sign. The peace sign was designed in 1958 by British artist Gerald Holtom for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) for its first major march in England. The symbol—a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters “N” and “D”—was adopted by antiwar activists and then used to represent the counterculture movement in the U.S. and around the world. It all began with one protest poster.

From See Red Women’s Workshop: Feminist Posters. [Image: via Four Corners Books]

In the feminist movement, the symbol for the female sex is often used in protest art in ways that are both graphically resonant and easy to adapt. Women in the 1970s put the “fight the power” fist–historically a symbol of black power and racial justice activism–inside of the female symbol to represent inclusiveness in the movement. The Women’s March, which has also been criticized for not being inclusive to all in the feminist movement, particularly in its initial stages—uses the symbology of the fist in its official branding.

Other protest art in the ’60s and ’70s put the equal sign inside of the female symbol, to stand for equality. For the upcoming march, carrying on this tradition can be as easy as subbing in a female signal for the “q” or an “o” in any text-based signage.

[Image: via Four Corners Books]

Speak To The Issues

As Heller points out, many of history’s most memorable protest graphics play to people’s emotions. But posters that are too incendiary or too emotional run the risk of being tossed off as empty rhetoric, particularly to people on the other side of the issue who are more prone to oppose your message already. Posters like “F*ck Trump” and “Not My President” at the protests the day after the election were poignant displays of people’s anger and disillusion. But on Saturday, it will be over two months since the election, the man will be sworn in, and, as dispiriting as you may find it, Donald J. Trump will be your president.

Now is the time to take action and show support for specific values and policies you believe in, be they equal pay, right to decisions about your own body, or a visible opposition to defunding of Planned Parenthood.

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A powerful expression of your support will rely on you actually knowing the issues you are representing at the march. When I interviewed Emory Douglas, the activist, graphic designer, and the Black Panther Party’s minister of culture, about what politically motivated artists and designers need to keep in mind today, he gave an answer that boiled down to “know what you’re talking about.” In his own words:

Basically just be informed. You can only go so far on the emotions of it because sometimes emotion is a direct experience of being confronted with oppression. But then thereafter, to broaden the scope and understanding and bring it into your art, you have to have a basic understanding of the issues you’re being confronted with. You have to have a relevant reference to get your information from.

During the Women’s Strike for Equality March in 1970, led by Betty Friedan and sponsored by the National Organization for Woman, the event’s organizers agreed on three specific goals, according to Time: “free abortion on demand, equal opportunity in employment and education, and the establishment of 24/7 childcare centers.” Their signs that day in August spoke to as much, with banners demanding “Equal Jobs and Educational Opportunities” and claiming “I Love My Husband, I Love Those Nights, I Also Love My Daily Rights.” (Meanwhile, the strike’s intention to leave men to their own devices for the day was reflected in signs like “Don’t Cook Dinner, Starve a Rat Today!!”).

The suffragists were also prone to straightforward messaging in the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in D.C., with signs that read, simply, “Votes for Women”. Sometimes making the posters clear, and the message so obvious as to seem self-evident—are we really still fighting for women’s equality?—is the most effective approach to protest art.

Go Positive: Optimism Trumps Negativity

The tendency to be negative in protest imagery is strong—after all, what you’re protesting is presumably not a positive. However, as documented in See Red Women’s Workshop: Feminist Posters 1974-1990, a new book about the U.K.-based collective that was formed by producing silk-screen posters for the women’s liberation movement, positive posters can be more effective than negative posters. After they produced their well-known “My Wife Doesn’t Work” protest poster, the aim of which was “to encourage women to start to question the monotony and isolation of this role and to challenge the inequality of prescribed gender roles in marriage and parenthood,” they received feedback from women in the movement encouraging them to make their messaging more empowering. They went on to make posters with slogans like “Girls Are Powerful” and “Don’t Let Racism Divide Us,” which became more popular means to fuel the movement.

Even better than positive? Make your poster funny, even if caustically so. Lighten the mood. Apply some wit. Take inspiration in signs like “From Adam’s Rib to Women’s Lib,” and “Don’t Iron While the Strike Is Hot,” both from the Women’s Strike in 1970.

Or, If You’d Rather, Print These Already-Designed Signs

[Image: via For All Womankind]

If you’re feeling too lazy to make your own signs, that’s fine, too. The beauty of protest in the digital era is that artistic messaging can spread quickly and widely, and you can carry other people’s designs with just a click of a button and a trip to the FedEx printers. For that, consider these colorful signs from Tabu Health, a women’s health tech startup, designed by New York studio HAWRAF. You can also download the poster “I March for All Womankind” by graphic designer Deva Pardue and a handsome sign for the men allies designed by Pentagram designer Britt Cobb.

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[Image: via Tia]

Scour your favorite designers on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook and you’re bound to find more. The important thing is that your poster’s meaning is clear, instantly understandable, and well-informed. Add in some acerbic humor or shock value for extra effect. Remember you’re designing for a man who does not take criticism well, so come on strong. But keep in mind the larger goal: to create visual messages that, together, will show the core issues and values of the movement, and will continue to communicate them throughout the years of work ahead.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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