How Design Inspires People to Act: Design+Social Justice Symposium

  • December 21, 2015
  • By Kathe Andersen     
A Symposium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln examined how graphic design is a tool to inspire people to act.


The graphic design program in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Department of Art and Art History hosted a symposium in September titled “Design + Social Justice” to highlight the visual communications, stories and portraits of revolutionary social movements and examined how graphic design is a tool for organizing and inspiring people to act.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Assistant Professor of Art Stacy Asher. “It’s been very exciting. I enjoyed seeing our students active and engaged with the work.”

The graphic artifacts exhibited during the symposium represented the role of art as a revolutionary force and how art and design can communicate about a need for social change. The symposium also examined the role of graphic design in creating messages that promote civil and human rights, preservation of the environment and advocacy of equal opportunity.

The featured guest speaker and visiting artist was Emory Douglas, a former Minister of Culture and artist of the Black Panther Party. Last May, Douglas received The Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the most distinguished award in the field of graphic design. His work was on display at the university’s Sheldon Museum of Art, and he was in residence in the Department of Art and Art History. His public lecture during the Symposium drew an overflow crowd to Sheldon’s 300-seat auditorium.

Also attending the Symposium were photographer Suzun Lucia Lamaina, a former colleague and student of Farm Security Administration photographer John Collier. Lamaina presented an exhibition of current portraits of former members of the Black Panther Party at the university’s Love Library. Assistant Professors of Art Aaron Sutherlen and Asher are designing a book of these portraits and the members’ stories titled “Revolutionary Grain: Celebrating the Spirit of the Black Panther Party in Portraits and Stories,” which will be published in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary of the Black Panther Party in October 2016.

An exhibition of underground newspapers from the 1960s and 1970s from the collection of Black Panther Party Historian Billy X Jennings were also on display at Love Library.

Additionally, a collection of graphic design activism for a variety of exhibitions, organizations and causes by Justin Kemerling, an independent designer, activist and collaborator in Omaha, were on display at Love Library, too.

Sutherlen and Asher also held screenprinting workshops during the symposium, which were attended by more than 100 Lincoln Public School students.

Asher said they collaborated with many different departments and programs on campus for the Symposium, including Sheldon Museum of Art, Love Library, the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, History, Ethnic Studies, Sociology, the Center for Civic Engagement and more were all participating or provided support for the symposium. The symposium also received a grant from Humanities Nebraska.

“It really was the collective,” Asher said. “There were a lot of people who shared the vision and made it happen.”

Sutherlen said the symposium helped expand people’s view of the role of graphic design.

“A lot of people don’t think about graphic design, or art even, as ways of engaging with these other colleges that are outside of creative fields,” he said. “So this was a really good experiment for us to see that could work and make that apparent. That’s something we need to keep going.”

Sutherlen liked exploring the issues the symposium raised through graphic design.

“I liked knowing that design was being examined as a means of exploring a message and championing a message,” Sutherlen said. “To see the Journalism or Ethnic Studies students, who are so engaged in the topics, see how design plays such an important role in promoting an idea was very valuable. We know there are things being written or discussed, but to show it from an artist’s or designer’s vantage point was exciting.”

Sutherlen and Asher would like to digitize the underground newspapers so they can be used by more people.

“The Symposium gave us an opportunity to examine and explore and figure out how to best get these artifacts into a place that others can use them and learn from them,” he said. “We’re setting goals for next year, not just for exhibitions and the lectures related to the exhibition, but how do we archive these pieces and make them usable for people to do research and use them as historical artifacts and not just disappear into the ephemera of other memorabilia that disappear?”

Sutherlen said students can often get “hyperfocused” on their own college and in their own world of art or design. He wants his graphic design students to be aware of all the diverse things going on at the university and in the world and to participate in them.

“We’re starting to see our students reach out,” he said. “They see that design is important and can be an important aspect of a research topic. It shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s about understanding how design can help solve a problem. Designers have a unique perspective on these problems and can be very valuable to the team.”

Link to Full Source: Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts