Tilden Bissell contributed visual research for this article.
In the days immediately following the death of George Floyd on May 25, you might have seen your Instagram feed transform from a litany of vacation selfies and food pics to a stream of calls to action, with information on where to donate funds and which local politicians to dial up. Perhaps you saw “Go Harder for Breonna Taylor” in pink text, floating on a background of cartoon clouds, or “Virtual Protesting 101” against wavy, psychedelic colors.
Rather than sharing photos from protests (which could inadvertently help law enforcement employ facial recognition technology to locate protestors) activism-minded Instagrammers found it much more conducive to the current Black Lives Matter movement to post images containing vital data on allyship and news—or, simply, as a way to express some difficult emotions. These graphics, usually featuring stylized text set on an eye-catching background, were not only an effective way to disseminate information, they were chic and beautiful.
Alongside the shift in social media mores, the design community experienced its own reckoning. Artists started creating new works that were easy to share on Stories and feeds—they’d post carousels featuring lists of Black-owned businesses to shop, and tougher, more nuanced conversations on topics like reverse racism and anti-racism.
For 19-year-old Quentin Swenke (known by his Instagram handle Futura Free Design), the impetus to post his initial graphic was entirely personal.
“I was lost, and didn’t know what to say,” Swenke says, speaking on the phone from the home of his friend and business partner, another graphic designer named Dominique Roberts. “So I made a graphic based on what was on my heart at that time: ‘We cannot stay silent about things that actually matter.’”
The post blew up, propelling Swenke’s follower count from around 300 to 50,000 in a matter of days. Swenke went on to create the aforementioned “Go Harder for Breonna Taylor” post, which was shared hundreds of thousands of times, notably by Demi Lovato.
“We saw what happened with Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, so many people over the years,” Swenke said. “It was the last straw for me as a designer, and it was a wake-up call—my design must have activism built into it.”
Roberts, 22, (with whom Swenke is creating a company called The Uncomfortable), was working a retail job at Nordstrom and attending classes at Southeastern University before COVID hit. She’d never had formal training or schooling in graphic design, but enjoyed making “little graphics here and there.” After the protests began, she posted a simple image: red lettering against a white background that read, “Don’t ignore something because it makes you uncomfortable,” with carousel images that followed, detailing concrete steps to take against racism.
“I realized that people were going to see the tragedy that took place and there would be two options: either people were going to say, ‘Wow, that’s really sad,’ and move on with their lives, or people would be so enraged that they would feel the need to do something,” Roberts explained. “And usually, the people who take the route of doing something become overwhelmed and paralyzed. They don’t know what to do.”
Simplicity was key in Roberts’ approach, and is an idea that was echoed by all the people interviewed for this article. In order for the assets to be truly usable and helpful, they had to be straightforward.
“It dawned on me that things I thought were first nature, a lot of people didn’t know,” Roberts said. “That is totally fine. But I wanted to be able to make things so people could have a place to go to see what to say to their senator when they call, and how to take those action steps.”
San Francisco-based food packaging illustrator Eiselle Ty said having a voice factored greatly into her motivations to start posting graphics. Ty’s images—done in a subdued but still splashy color palette of forest green, taupe, red and cream—have taken on a uniform template: topics like white savior complex and intergenerational trauma are separated into categories like “Vocab,” “Resource,” and “FYI.” Each post is framed by the words, “No Justice, No Peace.”
“I’ve always been really cognizant of the fact that I was a brown girl in the field of design,” Ty said. “The art I’ve done previously always went against what a Filipino girl should be doing.I had this inkling in the back of my head of, ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about, therefore I should not speak up about it.’”
Blackout Tuesday pushed Ty over the edge. Scrolling through the hashtag’s page, she saw thousands black squares clogging feeds with nothingness. The dearth of information—something so necessary at that moment—irked the 25-year-old.
“I was like, people definitely missed the mark and they should know,” she said. “I’m going to do the exact opposite and post a bunch of information. That was an a-ha moment. Why did I shut myself up for this long? All of a sudden, I’d found a voice and something to work for.”
Gen-Z newbies bursting onto the scene aren’t the only people contributing to this shift in graphic design—executives like Madison Utendahl, founder and chief operating officer of the agency Utendahl Creative, are also using posting assets on their platforms.
Utendahl, whose career began at HBO on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, has shifted her entire business approach since the protests began. With her team of copywriters, designers, and strategists, Utendahl created a new Slack channel where the team can “dump in articles all the time,” that will ultimately become the content posted on the Utendahl Creative Instagram, along with her personal account.
The group created a post called “July 4th vs. Juneteenth” that went viral—Kendall and Kylie Jenner both shared the graphic on their own social media. Simple, white text blared out against a royal blue background—standing in contrast to some of the brighter, more look-at-me pieces that some designers employed, in efforts to get their messages out with more urgency. But Utendahl maintains that there is no single aesthetic that has pervaded this movement among graphic designers.
“If anything, I’ve been overjoyed to see the wide variety and diversity of content type,” she said. “We have been living in this phase of homogenous design—the same sans serif fonts, Millennial pinks and baby blues, designed by the same four agencies. We’ve trivialized design by making it so robotic, and not believing in originality.”
“It’s an overwhelming decision to make, to select a visual image or a photograph that is representative of your statement, because of the biases and inherent implications that come with photo realism,” Utendahl added. “You can tell stories with just typography and color, and it is a loss if you don’t think you can.”