• Rebel, Image by ST–DUO

Is this the time for activism and rebellion?

Published: Monday 10th August

These insecure times give way to change. A rebel resists the ruling authority. An activist tries to set a political or social movement in motion. In what way can a designer be of value in rebellion or activism? And in what way is rebellion or activism of value to design?

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In the first studio session, social designer and design researcher Myrthe Krepel (SMELT) speaks with graphic designers Sophie Balch and Tijn Kok (ST-DUO), artist and researcher Julia Janssen and conceptual designer Dion Soethoudt (Studio Soethoudt). None of them consider themselves an activist or rebel, but they do see rebellion and activism in each other.

• Tim Meijer

Rebel, activist, design activist, rebellious designer or rebellious personality?

Dion is seen as a rebel by the rest of the group. “I work with a lot of small cultural details that are not noticed by everyone. I do notice them and I enlarge them or make them smaller. I play with them.” He would not identify himself as a rebel. “I remain an individual, so I find it difficult to support movements because they always include things that I disagree with.” Dion’s designs start with his own interests and his own interpretation of special. “If I want something to change and I think that’s important, it is often the case that more people share that same opinion.” And if it shows to be just for me, then that’s also enough.” He considers freedom of great value in his work and in his existence. From that freedom, in which we see rebellion, he tries to portray a different perspective of the world.

Julia centers her work around a clear objective. “With my work I try to make people aware of the impact of digitization on our society.” She does not call herself a rebel or activist because she wants to focus on the objective of her design. “I genuinely believe in a certain goal and theme that I find important, which it is not necessarily about activism or rebellion, but about being able to touch all the factors that initiate a movement.” As she uses her design as a tool to make the complex data economy accessible, her work is a call for change. The theme is enormously complex and can be approached from various angles such as technology or legislation. She believes it is important to talk to parties working on the same theme, but deliberately refuses to join those parties in order to maintain her independent position.

• Tim Meijer

Sophie and Tijn do not see themselves as rebels, but use a rebellious attitude in their work. “Our focus is to design authentic identities for visionaries with a passion-driven commitment to making an impact.” They love working with rebels and activists, but hold a critical attitude towards the values and goals of the other parties when entering new collaborations. Are the values that the client wants to project consistent with the core values of their organization? For example, they rejected an assignment on a festival around the Black Lives Matter movement. The employees of the organization were all white, as were the designers chosen for the assignment, ST-DUO in this case. Tijn: “So we kindly declined, but also returned the question. Why did you choose us? Are you aware of the choice you are making?” Not only with their work, but also by critically questioning collaborators they hope to bring about change.  In general, designers have a critical and reflective attitude. They continuously investigate how things can be done differently or better. In that sense, a designer is always rebellious. Sophie: “Looking at things differently is definitely a quality of a designer. You have to look at things differently to prevent creating something that already exists.” Furthermore, the independent position of a designer creates a certain freedom that others cannot always afford. Julia: “For example, I can speculate or form hypotheses, something a lawyer is not allowed to do.”

Value in creating social change

Awareness around themes such as climate change, racism and the impact of digitization is growing slowly. But how do you get people to act on it? How do you ensure a larger group of people to embrace the message? When urgency is not high enough, change will not happen. In this stage, designers can add value by addressing the importance of the message. Dion: “As designers, we are excellent in starting a conversation and visualizing the problem.” Vision is defined by Tijn as, “the best weapon of a rebel.” Tijn: “A vision shows a piece of knowledge, a piece of history, as well as a piece of formulation. Combined it really defines the message.”

Dion, Julia, Sophie and Tijn all agree that designers can play a role in social change: offer a new perspective, start a dialogue, make complex themes accessible, make a tangible message. Even so, they are critical of the design world itself. When showing new perspectives is an important element of design for social change, how to make sure that there is a diverse range of perspectives within the design world itself? For example, the design world is still very white. Even the participants of Driving Dutch Design are almost all white. Our idealistic attitude stands in the way of making the design world more inclusive.  As designers, we can choose our ideals above the money we earn, but this way we maintain a profession that is not attractive to choose from a disadvantaged situation.

If designers have the power to shape a different worldview, it comes with great responsibility. In our work we must be critical and reflective towards the assignment, the context of the subject and towards ourselves. How much impact does the design really have? What are things that designers cannot do? On which subject do we need collaborations to bring about real change? Because we can not do it alone. And how do we ensure different visions and voices are present in the design world? How can we make the design world more accessible?

Text: Myrthe Krepel in conversation with Sophie Balch, Julia Janssen, Tijn de Kok and Dion Soethoudt.
Originally published by Dutch Design Week magazine.

Intrigued by this Studio Session? Listen to the full podcast here.