Symbols are everywhere. They hold different weight and meaning, and carry significance through varying spans of time.
In this post, we’ll explore some examples of especially powerful (and notably weak) uses of symbols in empowering social movements, and the ways in which movements’ impact can be co-opted into effective use of design for business strategy.
You may not know his name, but you certainly know his face. It’s been splashed on t-shirts, posters, and billboards, and it often serves as a rallying cry for those seeking to right a perceived injustice. Che Guevara, an Argentine national who helped overthrow Cuban dictator Batista and spurred the Cuban revolution alongside the Castro brothers, has an established place in our visual history through the graphic replication of his face. Though his place in history is, famously or infamously, firmly cemented, Che’s significance to younger generations is tied to the much-reproduced graphic treatment of his face.
Throughout history, the world has seen countless acts of revolution and protest. We have our war for independence, started right here in colonial Massachusetts; Tiananmen Square saw student protesters rallying against the harsh policies of their establishment; the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina peacefully and forcefully push for justice for a lost generation. Each of these protests has been prolific in their ability to connect large groups of people to a common cause. But, from our perspective, another unifying force is at play in all of these movements: the targeted and effective use of symbolism and design with which people are able to identify with and rally for a cause.
There are several factors at play in truly uniting a movement, but for the purposes of this post we’re going to focus on the unique and instantly identifiable quality that design has bred in many movements, to the point where the design became a rallying cry. At Jackrabbit, when we’re creating a logo, designing a site, or re-branding a client, we strive to produce similarly evocative experiences through the use of striking visual symbols and moments.
I visited Cuba a few years ago, and the first thing I saw when I stepped out of the airport was Che Guevara’s iconic portrait. In conjunction with the Castro brothers, Che helped overthrow a dictatorial government and establish a system of socialism that exists to this day – almost 60 years later. The iconic portrait of Che determinedly staring off into the distance, hat at a slight angle, has surmounted the context in which it was created; regardless of their perception of Cuba, its government, or Communism in general, people flock to the revolutionary spirit of that image. People see in Che’s gaze the determination, confidence, and uncertainty inherent in a movement. They identify with what the image portrays and interpret it in their own way, which, ultimately, is what we try to accomplish with any design.
Katniss in Thailand
Escalating protests between rival political factions in Thailand ultimately resulted in a military coup. The ruling military imposed strict regulations and harshly limited public expression, especially in the form of protest. In response, the people of Thailand co-opted a symbol of protest from the popular young adult series The Hunger Games – three fingers raised to the sky, with the thumb and pinky fingers pressed to the palm. This physical symbol became such a powerful psychological rallying cry that the military junta declared that anyone publicly making the salute would be arrested. The movement, the junta, and the turmoil captured global attention, and suddenly a fictional symbol of protest took on real-world importance. A symbol gives people something to adhere to, a way in which they can express their own personal support in a small way. To extrapolate, we want to create brands, logos, and sites with which people are excited and proud to affiliate themselves. Symbols are powerful on multiple levels – through movements like this one, we can see the extreme of their effectiveness.
Most people know about the Occupy Wall Street movement that took place a few years ago, and in some ways is still taking place. The movement ultimately suffered from a lack of cohesion and clarity of mission, but its byline remains a rallying cry. “We are the 99%” was both a unifying thought and a fact that served to emphasize the movement’s vision. The Occupy movement shows that words can serve as a powerful symbol. We see the impact of words when we, for instance, work on the UX of a website. We know that words play an important role in grabbing the attention, emotion, and engagement of a site visitor; likewise, the language used by a movement can become a symbol in and of itself.
Unlikely as it may seem, protests and their respective use of symbolism and language correlate directly with the content we create and implement here at Jackrabbit when we create a website, logo, or brand. We take our cues from our clients and their customers, all of whom are likely to be navigating the web with an ear and an eye towards global trends. Protests are the extreme form of what we hope to communicate through design and written content: we hope to elicit emotion, provoke attachment, and stimulate engagement within everything we create.
To read further, check out this insightful article on communication strategies employed by movements that can help craft strategies for businesses.