Will Design for Change

A Conversation with Design Action Collective

To say that designers and artists of all kinds play a crucial and highly complicitous role in the great circus of consumer capitalism is, if by now a somewhat obvious observation, an insight that sill evades your average art school student. They are the aesthetic force at work in the mass delirium that is the American marketplace. Without designers the vast kaleidoscope of distraction would be shapeless and colorless, and without the beautiful patterns, a kaleidoscope loses its hypnotic potential. So designers, whether they realize it or not, are in a position to subvert the spectacle, to move design itself in a radically different direction.

Many young artists are so happy to be getting paid for their creative talents that the actual purpose, the wider social function of their own creativity, is an afterthought, if it ever even enters their thinking at all. Of course people should be able to do what they love for a living, but who went to art school to pursue a passion for corporate branding? I suspect that there are legions of aspiring young artists pursuing a life in the arts precisely because it offers something other than income: creative fulfillment, transcendent experience, cultural expression, self-discovery or the search for existential meaning. The notion that one could pursue these decidedly immaterial forms of value and make a living is still, for many, a utopian daydream within the current social order.

It’s easy to accuse them of a failure of imagination, and certainly there is an element of this at work, particularly amongst those with access to creative resources. What’s more difficult is to imagine, and then create, a social order that actively cultivates people’s creative potential and expands the boundaries of their imagination. A society that doesn’t smother the artistic impulse with the “dull compulsion of the economic.” But even within the current social context it is indeed possible, with a little imagination, to make a living as a designer without perpetuating the sickness, the pervasive sense of emptiness that the arts are intended to cure. With this in mind, we turn to a conversation with veteran activist-designers Design Action Collective for insights into the intersection of movements and the arts.

Design Action Collective is an artist-activist coop based in Oakland, CA that provides design services to movements for social change.

Collin Harris: How did Design Action Collective come about? What was the motivation behind the project? How many designers are in the collective? Are members working full-time and earning a living through DAC?

Design Action Collective: Design Action Collective is a graphic design studio in Oakland, California. We are a mission-driven organization formed to serve the visual communications needs of the progressive movement. We are also a worker-owned cooperative, with nine members. Design Action was formed in 2002 as a spin-off from Inkworks Press, a worker-owned print shop formed in 1973 to serve the movement for social change. When the desktop publishing “revolution” hit in the 80s, Inkworks’ electronic prepress department quickly expanded to offer desktop publishing and graphic design services. As graphic design became an increasingly important service to non-profits and activist groups, Inkworks was faced with the reality that the design and prepress work did not always mesh very well. After a number of discussions about how to provide both services well, it was decided that the design department should be spun off as its own shop.

Thus, Design Action was born. Inkworks’ two designers left and were replaced by two dedicated prepress operators. Initially operating as a two-person shop working out of a living room in Berkeley, Design Action quickly expanded its services. In 2003, we moved to downtown Oakland to share offices with The Ruckus Society and Third World Majority. Then we started adding collective members. In 2008, Design Action moved again and today occupies over 2000 sq. ft. of office space in downtown Oakland. By 2011 Design Action grew to a 9 person-shop including a dedicated web design and development team.

We still work very closely with Inkworks and each shop is now an independent worker-owned business. We serve many of the same organizations, and Design Action has been able to expand its services in the areas of web and multimedia, as well as design for other types of printing such as t-shirts and banners. We can also now support organizations with full-ad campaigns, messaging, and strategic communications-tools of increasing importance to the social change efforts. Without advocating for image over substance, Design Action believes that the social justice movement does not lack good solutions, theories or even solid working models of how a better world is possible. Yet, the other side spends billions of dollars every year bombarding people with the message that there is no alternative to the current system. So, it is important for progressives to find a way to articulate their vision—and the visual communications piece of that effort is what Design Action seeks to tackle.

At the same time, Inkworks has been able to place a stronger emphasis on the technical side of its prepress and printing—modernizing its presses and launching an online print-ordering system. So the split has been a win-win for both shops. As a collective, Design Action modeled most of its initial policies on Inkworks. We have a flat decision-making structure, and equal hourly pay. The collective candidacy period is 9 months, but there is no buy-in.

Design Action is incorporated as a California Cooperative following the model of Rainbow Grocery, the Arizmendi Cooperatives and others. Members are active in a number of different social movements, and the shop is a member of the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives, The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, and our union, Communication Workers of America, AFL-CIO. Being part of a union allows us to have a voice in the labor movement, and ensures that we continue to adhere to union standards as our co-op grows. For all of us, Design Action is how we earn our living and we have prioritized things like health care and vacation pay to ensure a sustainable work life.

A majority of Design Action members are people of color, with native speakers of Indonesian, Spanish, Hindi and Tagalog on staff. We strive for diversity in our collective as we bring in new members.

CH: you tell me about your organizational structure, values and principles? What distinguishes you from traditional design studios? Is DAC a design studio or activist collective?

DAC: Most business decisions are made by a two-thirds majority vote in a weekly collective meeting. However, certain larger decisions that affect the shop as a whole (such as hiring and firing) are made by consensus. Day-to-day project- and client-related decisions are made individually. We also have weekly production meetings where we distribute work and update each other on upcoming projects. All members share responsibilities for project management, design, production and administrative tasks. There are no divisions in job roles. We have a bookkeeper who comes in once a week, but we all have to keep up to date on our accounts, payroll and invoicing.

Unlike other design studios, we all came to this work through a dedication to social justice and our shop’s democratic structure models those values. Many of us have experience working as community organizers and in nonprofit organizations so we understand the needs of the movement well. As part of the movement for peace and justice, Design Action supports all efforts to bring about progressive social change by providing high quality graphic design and visual communications services to progressive organizations. With this in mind, our “Points of Political Unity” give direction to our work.

We make a sincere effort to support other political designers and cooperative shops by referring projects to one another instead of undercutting each other through competitive bidding.

Design Action Collective exists at the intersection of activism and communications work. Many of us have community organizing projects we are involved with outside of Design Action. Whenever possible, those projects are connected back to the shop.

CH: Maybe talk about your selection process, in terms of for whom you design and why? Do you turn down work? What’s your internal process for planning, developing, and finishing a project?

DAC: All Design Action Members do our best to stay connected with people we love working with and reach out to new folks we want to collaborate with. We give workshops and presentations at conferences like the U.S. Social Forums, the Allied Media Conference, South by Southwest Interactive, as well as national and regional worker-coop conferences. Most of our clients seek us out because of our politics and our reputation of doing dedicated design work for the social justice movement. We all share in the roles of “intake” — answering the phones and responding to email inquiries and we trust each other to decide what projects are a good fit both from a political perspective and with regards to our services. Sometimes we’ll get a job inquiry that require specialized skills and we can propose a process that involves bringing in an outside consultant.

We rarely turn down work. But the factors we must consider are a) does this project fit with our political points of unity? b) does this project fit within our services and can we bring in other consultants if necessary? c) does this organization have a budget that will cover our design/development costs or are we willing do donate time on this project?

Our internal process for sharing work involves weekly production meetings and department meetings. We share our projects according to skill and interest and do our best to make sure the workload is distributed evenly among all Design Action members. Sometimes we work individually and sometimes we work in teams depending on the scope of the project. When time and budget allows, we’ll gather the whole shop together for developing concepts and messaging strategies that will be implemented in web and print materials for a given campaign.

CH: Did you start out exclusively designing for activist and social justice groups or did you have to build up to that point? What allows you to design for groups and projects that are often notoriously underfunded?

DAC: Design Action began with a clear mission to design for social justice and activist groups. Our founding members recognized the communication needs and were dedicated to help build a broad and effective progressive movement.

Design Action operates on a sliding scale. We strive to match our design process with organizational resources. This means we must be creative in how we manage the scope of projects. We are grateful to have a diverse range of clients with various levels of funding resources so we can afford to serve grassroots community groups while also working on national and international campaigns for large NGOs.

CH: Many collectives, co-op’s, and alternative projects of all kinds thrive through mutual aid, the sharing of workspaces and resources, collaboration, relying on community and so forth. What’s been your experience?

DAC: In Design Action’s early years, we shared office space with a direct action training organization called the Ruckus Society. Ruckus not only enabled us to have office space in Downtown Oakland, they also helped us stay even more connected to social justice work. The office was often buzzing with news about action planning around various issues so we were aware of the tactics and strategies that organizers were discussing. This was a constant reminder that we were part of a large community of activists and we were playing an important role in campaign work. Eventually, as we hired new members, we needed to move to a bigger space. But the relationships developed during that time in the Ruckus building are still strong.

We also see Design Action as a “sister shop” to Inkworks Press. We continue to refer projects to each other.

Design Action is part of the Network of Bay Area Worker Coops and the U.S. Federation of Worker Coops. So we are connected to many other worker-owned cooperatives where we have been able to learn from one other and discuss ways to successfully run coop businesses.

CH: What advice would you give to aspiring artists and designers who want to take design in a more radical, engaging direction, to liberate their art from the values of Madison Avenue and the economic logic of capitalism?

DAC: Many students do not realize one can make a living doing this work. We are often encouraged to find corporate jobs and then do pro bono work on the side. It is Design Action’s hope that aspiring designers and web developers will realize that there is a huge community of people who have dedicated their careers to social justice work and are still able to support themselves and their families. We have given presentations at high schools and colleges and started internship and apprenticeship programs so students have an opportunity to come learn with us.

In 2004, Design Action helped organize the Designs on Democracy conference in Berkeley, CA. Designs on Democracy was a landmark gathering of progressive graphic designers, communicators, web developers, new media creatives, cultural workers and marketers. Participants explored tools and strategies that support movement building and strengthen relationships and institutions that serve organizing for social justice. Image-makers and message strategists from diverse movements came together to learn from one another and build a basis for future collaboration. As for artists searching for a way for way to liberate their work from the world of corporate design, this event was a great introduction to the possibilities of forming artist collectives and sustaining media work that is dedicated to social justice.

When this work is approached with an attitude of creative problem solving and we are motivated by issues we care about, then without trying to compete with each other, we can help each other achieve a lot.

CH: MOSS is intended to be an incubator for movement culture in all its forms. What role can designers and other artists play in the resurgent culture of rebellion that is emerging here and around the world?

DAC: Design Action members have all come to this work from different backgrounds. So even in our own 9-person shop, we are constantly learning from each other. We recognize that the stories of our diverse histories and cultures are often co-opted or told for us. And we seek to help people tell their own stories. Graphic design and other media can help bring a unified voice and help us identify with diverse struggles for social justice. We believe that this kind of cultural work should be accountable to the campaigns lead by the most impacted people, which is why Design Action is always collaborating with organizers and community leaders. We have a responsibility to help undermine oppressive narratives and articulate visions for the future.

Collin Harris is a freelance writer and activist based in Portland, OR. He is launching MOSS Media in 2012, a grassroots media project using movements, music, and media to expand the boundaries of cultural possibility in the 21st century. Read other articles by Collin.