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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Protest Signs Code

Protest signs are a challenging design spec: get your point across in a limited amount of space, with a DIY, rebellious aesthetic. Classic features of a good protest sign: 

  • Memorable, pithy slogans
  • Symbols and imagery that convey shorthand meaning
  • Iconic colors, like green and pink


Although this guy above has a cute point, protest is not dialogue. Protestors have to shout their demands from the street. Protest is energetic demand for change, and protestors need bold, energizing statements. This creates two design constraints: a need for simple slogans that people can shout in a short amount of time, and a message that can be read from a distance. Those constraints, and the dimensions of a placard relative to the readability doesn't give the designer much room. 

Take I AM A MAN, from the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike. In the midst of racial violence between strikers and strike breakers, and between strikers and local police, the Reverend James Lawson addressed the strikers with a sermon, including these stirring words: 

"For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person. You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity."

That sermon created the inspiration for the simple, plain, and powerful red letters that spelled out the message that the protestors carried.


Symbols allow the protestor to communicate ideas in the relatively limited space of a placard. In fact, the word symbol derives from the Greek symbolon (σύμβολον), which is an amalgam of syn- together and bole, a throwing, a casting, the stroke of a missile, bolt, or beam. 

 One of the most iconic and universally recognized symbols of protest is the peace symbol. While the symbol itself is an apparent abstraction, those who are familiar with semaphores will enjoy the visualization of two different semaphore motions, the 'N' and the 'D'. Combined, they form the peace symbol.

The author of this symbol, Gerald Holtom, thus creatively and visually superimposed the two words Nuclear Disarmament into a manageable space onto lapel pins, flags, placards, and other material. Why didn't he just go with the letters N and D? He reflected:
"I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya's peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it."
In practice, it allows protestors to represent the basic theme of peace, while still providing them enough space to add their own message specific to their context.  


Although many colors are culture-specific, the color green transcends all culture through its association with vegetation, and hence, the environment.

Ironically, much of the traditional commercial production of the color green requires toxic chemicals to preserve the vitality of the natural color (it oxides into brown) or to artificially combine blue and yellow into green hues. A protestor might want to reconsider color for the sake of their own cause. 

The color pink is well known for its association with women's issues, notably breast cancer. In the early aughts, Code Pink's women-led efforts combined anti-war stances and positions that, while often controversial, were memorable and created a strong association between color and protest. The color pink was also used by the PussyHat project during protests of Donald Trump's swearing in as the 45th president of the united states. Their pink hats created a ubiquitous color for marches across the nation by women who reminded Trump of the strength of their coalition. 


A good sign employs a font that allows the protest sign maker to find a way to balance kerning and tracking to squeeze in that pithy slogan. For the unfamiliar: kerning is the process of adjusting the spacing between characters with unique spatial features to achieve a visually pleasing result (e.g. the overlap between AV), and the overall tracking, which is spacing letters to fit the allotted space provided.

The example below is far too distracting to be a good lesson, but once you stop laughing, take a moment to also appreciate this great example of kerning and tracking. 

A good artist with a sharpie can use his or her artistic license to create lettering that suits their purpose. For those who are going to use software instead, selection of fonts is key. Patrick St. John offers ten, here. 

For other great links and articles on the topic, try these: 

Vice: How to Make a Protest Sign That Isn't Garbage

Core 77: The Graphic Designs of Protest Signs

1 comment:

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