Design and Illustration as Activism | an Interview with Rosalyn McLean and Prith Paramsothy

How might design and illustration be used as an activist tool? In this interview, we speak to !GWAK Residents Rosalyn McLean and Prith Paramsothy about the changing role of social media, accessibility and the future prospects of design activism in a digital, distanced age.

LEFT: Work by Rosalyn McLean; RIGHT: Work by Prith Paramsothy

MN: Design activist Edel Rodriguez said: “You can’t avoid an image, but you can avoid an essay and just not read it”. What do you feel are the benefits of design and illustration activism? What does it allow you to say? What do you feel are the limitations?

RM: Design plays a massive role in activism, whether it’s coming from small grassroots campaigns to big-name branding and advertising. You look at companies like United Colours of Benetton and the campaigns they ran in the late eighties and nineties, particularly the campaign in 1992, that, controversially, took on causes like the AIDS crisis, and you can begin to consider the impact design has when opening up a dialogue and presenting information to the world - but can branding be used to bring light to certain social issues? Or is it a company using the trauma of a marginalised group for profit? Do we believe what campaigns are telling us? Or are they perpetuating ideology to the benefit of capitalism? I think when we look at large scale advertising campaigns and the way design is used in a commercial way, it’s natural that it offers itself up for criticism, but what it also does is spark debate. Compare that to street artists that create murals and graffiti with political messaging - that art sparks conversation in a smaller community, as well as society through a community.

There’s a John Berger quote that comes to mind when thinking about design and its role within activism: ‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.’ We are the child. Not everyone can sit and debate politics - and not everybody wants to, because it was made to be inaccessible. Yet, what we can do is look at something and create an understanding of what we think it is telling us - like people did with that Benetton advert - and I think that is where design becomes increasingly important in activism.

PP: The benefit of design and illustration activism is how to the point you can be. A picture speaks a thousand words - I find that it’s easier to understand someone’s viewpoint through imagery than text. I struggle with wording my feelings, and often want to make work in response to current affairs, but feel unsure about how I can relay my feelings in an effective way. I know that through art I can confidently portray my thinking in a way that could be understood far easier than reading a statement I’ve made about a certain matter.

Work by Prith Paramsothy

MN: The past few months have seen a stark rise in the number of shareable infographics on social media - do you think social media aids or hinders design/illustrative activism?

PP: I had always had more of a hate relationship with social media in the past mainly due to its lack of representation with regards to race. I also didn’t like how influencers had the power to force beauty ideals down on to people. As the BLM movement began to rise over this summer, I noticed a huge change and saw how beneficial social media can be. There’s so many different types of people on social media, and, for once, I was able to see and understand things from other people’s point of view. It’s so much easier to learn and spread information, and though sometimes the information can be false, I do feel that social media has been beneficial in helping change occur - it can be used to notify people on protests or events have that happened, whether the media chooses to not report on it.

RM: What social media does is offer a diversity of experience. Particularly through creatives on Instagram, I’ve been able to learn from people that are bringing in different perspectives to broader conversations, and also bringing light to certain issues from points of views that I’d never considered. I think, particularly if you’re coming from a position of certain privileges, it aids education, in that you get to listen to people that have been through things that you could never personally understand, or that have even lived your same experiences, but struggled through it in different ways for different reasons. From that same angle, it gives you your own platform to teach others about your perspective and point of view. However, what does hinder activism on social media is that we often interact with people that have similar opinions to us. It becomes an echo chamber where we all agree with one another. A consequence of that is that we are circulating all this information that offers such diversity of thought and reasoning, but isn’t necessarily reaching the people it really needs to.

Work by Ros Mclean

MN: Thomas Markussen said: 

‘On the one hand, design activism has a political potential to disrupt or subvert existing systems of power and authority, thereby raising critical awareness of ways of living, working, and consuming. On the other hand, design activism shares an aesthetic potential with art activism in its ability to open up the relation between people's behavior and emotions—between what they do and what they feel about this doing. In creating this opening, design activism makes the relationship between people's doing and feelings malleable for renegotiation.’ 

Do you think that the personal/emotional communication aspect of art plays a role in the activist work you create? What are the advantages of this?

RM: I find emotion always plays a part in activist work, at least for me. You’re creating something for a cause, and when something is close to your heart, you often can’t understand why it hasn’t been taken seriously already. I found that when creating my Black Lives Matter publication. It was hard to understand why it was something that was needed, because it’s hard to understand why racism exists. It’s the same for most social causes where life and wellbeing is involved; you start to think, why does no one care that the planet is dying? Or that children are starving, or whatever it is we’re fighting for. I think at times activist work can become disheartening, but it’s the personal connection of these projects that makes them so authentic and impactful. You want to be a part of a revolution and that offers a drive and an ambition, and, ultimately, a belief that maybe this is the time that things will finally change.

PP: Emotions definitely play a role in art and what’s being created. As a South Asian creative, I often struggled with understanding my identity, and I think that explained why, for a long time, I avoided making political art because I didn’t understand that there were other ways to express your feelings besides words. The older I got, and the more time I spent learning about punks and satire, I was able to understand that art can be used as a tool to express feelings - whether it be distress or pride. Through art, I’m far more methodical with my thinking, and am able to relay a message in an appropriate manner, rather than letting my anger take over. With issues, especially ones that involve the government, I sometimes think my passion outweighs my rationality. Art helps me find that happy balance of creating work that can be seen as activism, but is also respectful to some extent.

Work by Prith Paramsothy

MN: Ros - could you tell us about the process of making your ‘Say Their Names’ zine? What role do you think zines play in artistic activism?

RM: Creating Say Their Names was a very archival process. I decided to create it after attending the Black Lives Matter marches in Norwich, as such poignant moments felt fleeting. It was inevitable for the turnout at the marches to die down, so I wanted to hold these moments in history by collating as much content as I could and documenting it in a publication that wouldn’t disappear with time.

I spoke to people involved with the Norwich Movement and they gave me written content to use in the publication. I collated images and spoke to photographers that were documenting the marches and protests, and essentially tried to capture a part of the conversation that is happening here in Norwich.

Zines have always played a massive role in creative activism. Punk and fanzines were at the forefront of an anti-fascist, anti-government fight in the late 70’s. Fanzines like Temporary Hoarding were a direct response to the racist, xenophobic rhetoric of the far-Right and The National Front. Yet, all that was used to create it was paper, a photocopier and marker pens - things that most working-class people can gain access to. When you pair that attainable, unrestricted creativity with the drive to create change, suddenly there’s a grassroots movement where working-class and minority people have a voice and can assert an authority that was once inaccessible to them.

Work by Ros McLean

MN: Do you ever feel a tension between crafting your own artistic individualism and creating political work?

RM: I find as a female, Black creative, I feel this sense of duty to use my skills and dedicate my practice to highlighting discrimination and educating others on racism or sexism or whatever injustices need bringing to light. Sometimes ,it feels like it has overshadowed my other creative pursuits and diverted my attention away from my main practice, because I’ve begun to feel a pressure to create something with great meaning, but ultimately I create what feels relevant to me. It’s that hard task of compartmentalising the different facets of your creativity, and when and where you will direct certain energies at certain times. It’s definitely not a tension I’ve got the knots out of just yet!

PP: Being a South Asian female creative, I understand that I'm coming from a particular viewpoint, but most of the time I struggle with creating my own artistic individualism. I go through huge phases of artist block, with big uncertainties on what I should be creating. With so much that's going on in the world, I'm never sure whether I should create work in response to it, or stick to my own work. I want to be vocal but I get anxious thinking about possible hate I could recieve because of my opinions. 

MN: Prith - you depict many activist icons in your work, such as Marsha P. Johnson and Angela Davis. How do you choose to contextualise them? What do you hope to achieve in your work?

PP: After the death of George Floyd, I felt a bigger shift, especially online, with how serious people wanted a change - for Black people, but also people of colour as a whole. Conversations were being had that I never thought I would be alive for, microaggressions were being spoken about on the news, and I felt that finally social media was being used for good - spreading awareness but also for educating purposes. With this happening, I had this strong urge to contribute, so decided to start a series looking at leading figures in the Black community. I enjoy learning about people that have made a difference; it definitely inspires me to be better, so I hoped my series would do just that - especially during a very poignant time.

Work by Prith Paramsothy

MN: What do you see in the future of design and illustration activism?

PP: I see design and activism continuing to go hand in hand in the future. Art isn’t just about making something pretty or replicating an image, it's becoming a movement. Similar to the Punk and DIY era, I see it being used more and more as a method to inform and reflect on what’s happening in current affairs - whether it be through advertising, satire or art work on social media. I’m enjoying the anarchy. I hope it continues.

RM: I think we are part of a grassroots uprising in the arts. We are of a generation that is no longer accepting how inaccessible the art industry is, and we are actively breaking those glass ceilings and pulling up our peers to work alongside us. The sense of community and comradery I’ve seen and experienced from other creatives has been inspiring. We are no longer accepting the status quo. We no longer want to be a part of a monolithic industry; we want diversity and representation, sustainable and conscious design ethics, accessibility and opportunities. The future of design rests on the power of activism, design for good is no longer a separate entity, but rather what all design should be, and will be.

Work by Ros McLean




‘They Bring Activism To A New Level’: A Radical Roundtable With Female Zinesters - Sara Century

How Can Illustration Be Used as an Effective Tool for Activism? - Ayla Angelos

Design’s Role in Activism Can Go Deeper Than Posters and T-Shirts - Dori Tunstall