What makes an effective protest sign in the era of marches and memes?

Published March 28 2018

ST. PETERSBURG ó While protesting is an intrinsic part of American culture, protests have had a huge resurgence in the past couple of years, with events like last yearís Womenís March and this weekendís March for Our Lives.

These movements inspired award-winning graphic designer Bonnie Siegler to consider the history of protests, so she compiled her research into a book, Signs of Resistance: A Visual History of Protest in America. The book is comprehensive, beginning with examples from the Revolutionary War right up to memes of President Trump and photos of marches. Siegler, whoís based in New York and whose design clients include HBO and Saturday Night Live, will appear at the Museum of Fine Arts on Thursday to discuss her book with executive director Kristen Shephard.

The Times caught up with Siegler on Tuesday to talk about the visuals of protest.

What was the impetus behind this book?

It was Trumpís election and everything that was going on. I was personally thinking about what I could do, how I could help, so I started looking at the history of protests, just to inform myself about what people have done in the past. In my lifetime, there hasnít been a situation like this, but there have been in the hundreds of years before that so I started. Then I ended up giving a talk at an Adobe Max conference about what Iíd found and that turned into this book.

Have you always been active politically and participated in protests?

I had two fundraisers for Obama and one for Hillary Clinton, called Laugh Your Pantsuit Off. I thought I was active when we were trying to get Obama elected, but not like now.

Did you attend any of the March for Our Lives rallies?

Unfortunately no, but I did go to the Womenís March in D.C. last year and marched again in New York in January.

What are the elements of an effective protest image?

There are two different threads. One is, a striking image ó we remember images more clearly than words. A strong image, and a few words, that keeps coming up, over and over. But another thing is the parody of starting with something that is recognizable, that has emotions attached to it already, and changing it in some way, in the image or words or both. You immediately attract attention because itís recognizable, but somethingís wrong with it. Which is why I included images of Uncle Sam images and Rosie the Riveter and other examples of using that familiar reference point but changing the meaning to what youíre trying to say.

Most of the images I used in the book are from professional artists and designers. But the homemade signs are so moving because their passion comes through so clearly. I saw a sign from March for Our Lives that a child had written in his handwriting: "I thought you were pro life." And thatís a question a kid might ask, like they really donít understand. Which makes it an amazingly powerful sign. Not so much the layout, but the message.

Was that sign your favorite from the rally?

I also liked a sign that said "I just want to live in a world where guns are harder to get than Hamilton tickets."

Iíve noticed that humor is a tool in getting the messages across, too.

Absolutely. And that didnít really start until Vietnam. But itís effective because then you share something immediately, a laugh or a giggle or a smile. The message might get through like that. If youíre just mean or angry, people on the other side or who might be swayable wonít pay attention to what youíre trying to say. So humor works really well.

Since there are so many protests these days, and because we live in a highly visual culture with memes popping up daily, do you see continuing this book?

Iíd really love to. Iíd like to address the movements that were left out of this, just by virtue of space. This doesnít include climate change, LGBTQ rights, so that was the most painful part for me, was leaving these out. So Iíd like to do that and then we can update the book, too.

Contact Maggie Duffy at [email protected]