Why typography still packs a punch when it comes to protesting

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It’s rare that now isn’t the right time for an exhibit on the power of protest, but with the recent overthrow of Roe v Wade in the US (making abortion effectively illegal in many states), that sense of urgency, anger and grassroots uprising seems particularly relevant.

The history of protest is difficult to document: the idea of ​​a singular, ego-tinged “artist” or “creator” becomes almost redundant if a graphic is to work for a collective struggle or speak out for the oppressed, after all.

The protest is particularly leveling the playing field of typography, something that is being celebrated in an upcoming exhibit at the Letterform Archive in San Francisco. The show, titled Barré: Typographic messages of protestmerges politics and branding, demonstrating the power of letters to communicate, mobilize and effect change.

Atelier Populaire, Yes to the Revolution! (Yes to the revolution!), 1968
Barré: Typographic messages of protest
Martin Venezky for Appetite Engineers, Art for Aids poster, 2001

The “craft” of protest is interesting when you look at it through a typographic lens: typographers have a certain reputation for order, obsession with detail and perfectionism – traits that seem quite at odds with demonstration actions . When a banner needs to be done in hours, that’s maximum impact perhaps through humor, bright colors, punchy text, or sheer scale it’s not about perfect kerning and painstakingly creating three sets of fun alternatives.

This is only the second exhibition to be held in Letterform Archive’s permanent SF space, and it was curated in conjunction with graphic design studio Polymodewho has previously worked with clients such as the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, MoMA, New Museum, Phaidon Press and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.

Silas Munro, partner at Polymode, and Stephen Coles, associate curator and editorial director at Letterform Archive, led the selection of Strikethrough, bringing together more than 100 items including placards, badges, posters, signs, T-shirts and other ephemera ranging from the 1800s to the present day. The exhibits draw on existing and newly acquired pieces from Letterform Archives’ own collections.

Barré: Typographic messages of protest
Unknown designer, typographic book cover Social Justice in Mexico (Justicia Social en Mexico), 1935
Barré: Typographic messages of protest
Unknown designer, Feminist Majority Foundation reissue of the 1979 protest sign for the ERA Yes movement, 2021

The show is divided into five sections, each based on a different way to express dissent: Vote!, Resist!, Love!, Teach! and Knock! These categories aim to “draw a typographical chant of resistance”, as the curators put it.

Munro and Coles began working together on Strikethrough in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, with the goal of “presenting typographic anger and agency as seen on the streets, on the printed page and even on the bodies of the demonstrators”. The show serves in part to position these actions and this particular band of protest in a historical and forward-looking lineage that reveals the intersection of anger and image-making.

Protest proves to be a relevant tool for bringing together some of the greatest political and social stories of the past two centuries. The pieces on display range from 19th-century anti-slavery posters to the striking and colorful Atelier Populaire posters (or “posters”) that were quickly printed during the 1968 civil uprisings in France.

Then there’s the Black Panther newspaper, an icon both graphically and politically; and examples of hard-hitting and chilling designs created around the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Curators deliberately avoided any kind of hierarchy around professional creatives and “non-designers”. There is also little distinction or judgment around the medium that carries a message: analog print missives, digital type and augmented reality have equal credibility.

Barré: Typographic messages of protest
Hunter Saxony III, aka The Last Black Calligrapher in SF, Untitled print (from the Nia Wilson/Say Her Name/No Silence series), 2020

The exhibition is accompanied by a hardcover exhibition catalog produced by Munro and designed by Polymode, which tells the story of protest graphic design in 250 images. The catalog offers custom fonts by Tré Seals of Vocal Type and Ben Kiel and Jesse Ragan of XYZ Type.

Strikethrough is also complemented by a bespoke mobile app dubbed Mariah, which seeks to “challenge systems of power and make the invisible visible” using AR. When users point their phones at historic protest sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mariah tells them more about the area and its connection to the exhibits. Those furthest away can also enjoy the show through an online exhibition, which can be previewed now.

Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of Protest opens July 23 at Letterform Archive, San Francisco, and online; exhibitions.letterformarchive.org

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