Over the course of my career, I’ve worked on and studied how to use marketing, advertising, and communication to create change and spark action both in corporate and non-profit sectors, but I have not done much work in the field of activism.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I witness a series of protests happening around the globe, wearing my marketing critique hat while reading the protest signs, and wondering where the worlds of advertising and activism converge.
Marketing takes a lot of work, but in the end it boils down to finding the most strategic, most insightful, and most compelling combination of words and images that will get people to act. Seems to me there is an opportunity to make clearer statements and have greater impact in activism by applying some planning and design strategies from the advertising world.
So, I unveil to you – 4 steps for designing impactful protest signs!
PROTEST SIGN PLANNING
Before protest sign creation begins, it’s important to first plan out what you want to say, and how you want to say it.
1. First, clarify the reason(s) why your group is joining the protest.
It’s important to get specific here and define the purpose and objective for the protest (if you’re the organizer) or for your involvement in the protest (if going solo or with a group). This can be accomplished by answering two questions:
- What does this protest mean to me/us? [Purpose]
- What would I/we like the protest to achieve? [Objective]
If you’re attending a protest with a group, it’s ideal if everyone has a shared purpose and objective they’d like to see. If that’s not realistic, then try to agree on 2-3 for the entire group. Being clear on the intention and goal of joining makes the message development step much easier.
2. Determine the message approach for the protest signs. There are three general message approaches you can use for protest signs:
a) The call-to-action approach: this is where you state what you want X-person or Y-government to do; what action they should take or stop taking.
b) The make-a-stance approach: states why you’re there and why the issue matters to you.
c) The get-attention approach: utilizes humor, wit, recent events/pop culture, shock value, etc. to get noticed and stand out.
If you’re attending a protest with a crowd, then it’s good to have a mix of all 3 approaches. However, the “get-attention” approach should be used most sparingly – you only need a few but they need to be damn good. If you’re attending solo, then pick one of the message approaches to use. Yes, just one… don’t try to cram all 3 approaches into one sign.
PROTEST SIGN CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT
Now that purpose and approach have been defined and selected, it’s time to move into developing the concept of your poster. This should be done initially on paper or on the computer – do not use your protest sign material yet, even though I know you’re itching to create it already!
3. Draft messages for your signs. There are different types of messages you can use depending on which message approach you chose in step #2. For example:
» If you chose the call-to-action approach, then you want the message to be very clear and direct on what you want your audience (a person or organization or entity) to do, or to stop doing. From recent protests in the United States, example would include:
- “Keep your laws off my body”
- “Keep abortion legal”
- “Let them in”
- “No ban. No wall.”
These should be kept as simple as possible with the least number of words it takes to get your point across.
» The “make-a-stance” route presents more of an opportunity to share your personal beliefs and perspective on the issue. This is not necessarily stating a call-to-action for something to get done, but it promotes a belief system you want to see demonstrated. Examples from recent protests include:
- “Women’s rights = human rights”
- “We welcome refugees”
- “Fighting for the rights our mothers won”
- “We are a nation of immigrants”
These signs often require a few more words than the call-to-action approach, but it’s still ideal to be as concise as possible without losing the power of the statement. And if you go this route, then plan your poster board size accordingly!
» The “get-attention” approach is often used to blow off some steam or get press/media attention so the protest will get covered. This ranges from “pussy grabs back” to “orange is not the new black” to, one of my favorites, “Why do people say ‘grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive! If you really wanna get tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding!”
This approach typically uses many words and are complemented by visual depictions. The reason I suggest keeping this approach to a minimum is, although they’re funny and attention grabbing, they are not necessarily working to effect change. Creating some of these types of signs can serve as a healthy outlet, but I suggest sticking mainly to “call-to-action” and “make-a-stance” categories to have a consistent, powerful message be heard.
An important note on consistency.
If attending a protest as part of a group, have 1-2 messages per message approach total for the whole group. There is huge power in repetition and consistency – which is a method that all advertisers use to get their messages across – even if it means a trade-off in uniqueness. In the most ideal scenario, protest organizers would share the protest’s key messages on invitations, social media and websites so people can lift those exact messages and use them (and even print out pre-made materials at home).
PROTEST SIGN DESIGN
Now that you’ve developed the message(s) to communicate in your poster, it’s time to design the actual poster! Yes, this is the fun and creative part – and I know you’re getting increasingly excited – but that does NOT mean you should rush this step! Good messages can become even stronger when they’re well designed and easy to read.
4. When designing your protest sign, there are several things to consider:
- Sign size: What size sign is available for your message? Does the sign size impact how many words you can use (meaning, will you have to make the font size really small just to fit it all in)?
- Visual or text only: Do you want to include a visual with your message, or does it only require text? If including a visual, then how will you draw/paste it onto the poster?
- The visual should either complement or emphasize the text included, and should be easy to understand.
- Color: What colors are most appropriate for the protest, the venue, and the message? For example, the Women’s March included a lot of pink signs so that would be a good color to use.
- For text, it’s best to use dark colors (black or dark blue) so it can be seen from far distances.
- Font: Fonts not only convey different meanings but they also vary greatly in legibility. Be sure to use a font that is easy to read and reinforces the message you’re sending.
- Spacing: Way too many protest signs feature big words that get squished into the edge of a sign. Take the time to plan out the spacing of your sign before putting pen to paper to ensure it all fits in.
- You can even emphasize some words over others by making them larger, thicker, using different colors, or underlining them.
- Busyness: Although it’s fine to take up all the room on the poster (no need for white space in these ads), it’s still ideal to keep them simple and not so busy that it becomes hard to read the message.
To complement the posters, develop 1-3 chants to use throughout the entire protest that are consistent with the messages.
Now you and your group are equipped with consistent, impactful, clear messages (and chants to boot) to go out and fight for any cause you believe in. Power to the people (whoever and wherever you may be).