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Graphic Activism & Sustainability

The human side of sustainability.


“Sustainability” seems to be the buzz word these days. My focus, so far, has been on environmental sustainability, but I attended a panel discussion last night that opening my eyes to another angle on the whole sustainability issue.

It started with the moderator’s use of Lester Brown’s definition of sustainability: “The ability of a society to satisfy their needs without diminishing the needs of future societies.” In my mind that meant recycling and responsible use of natural resources. But the 3 panelists tackled the human side of that issue that gave me an appreciation for its complexity, and at the same time hope that lil’ ol’ me could play a part. Of course, with these kinds of events, I found that it’s more about the thoughts that spark from the presentations than the content of the presentations themselves that really impacted me, but that’s my mark of a successful discussion.

Dr. Esther Charlesworth, an urban designer, focuses her practice on sustainable reconstruction of cities after a natural or man-made disaster. The reality check came when she said basically, any city can become a Beirut if the societal “fault lines” are left unattended. These fault lines, as she calls them, are the rifts between races, religions and classes that exist in every city. Her point was two-fold:

  • (1) How do we prevent the rifts from exploding? and
  • (2) If or when they do explode, how do we rebuild that society in a manner that prevents it from happening again?

Her answer came in the form of a humanitarian group she started called Architects without Frontiers that tackles small-scale architectural projects all over the world that can have large scale human impact. They’ve been instrumental in some of the rebuilding efforts in Sri Lanka after the Psunami, but also in simpler projects like designing and implementing a shaded park area in one of the most impoverished areas of Palm Island. The message I got? The size of your impact is not dependent on the size of your resources but on the creativity of your solutions.

Creative Defiance
Chaz Maviyane-Davis is a Zimbabwean born graphic designer who’s made his mark in the field as a self-professed “Graphic Activist”. Now what does political activism have to do with sustainability? At first the link wasn’t clear to me, but as his presentation went on, the definition of sustainability mentioned above expanded. “The ability of a society to satisfy their needs without diminishing the needs of future societies” implies a level of benevolence that isn’t limited to just preserving future natural resources, but also those that are political and cultural. Success in one area can’t be achieved without the others. Within this paradigm, preserving human resources through respect, justice, education etc. helps to propagate the proper use of the planet in future generations.

Chaz’s recipe for maintaining relevance as a designer in all this was roughly laid out like this:

  1. Analyze your society’s values. Not what it says it values but what it actually considers important based on the attention it gives those things, (consumerism, forced homogeny, perception manipulation to name a few that are especially prevalent in my profession)
  2. Create (or discover) a sustainable ideology that provides an alternative.
  3. Create a visual language that forwards those values. Easier said than done, but we’re professionals, we’re supposed to be good at this… right?
  4. Using your visual language, disseminate those values through whatever medium is available. Chaz’s primary media are posters and editorial illustrations (some examples are included below) but, as he mentioned, the advent of social networking on the web has given rise to at least one truly level playing field as far as broadcast platform is concerned.




I encourage every designer who, like me is a little apprehensive about where to start marrying my values and my profession, to not only take in his imagery but also his example. The reality is his simple but poignant expressions of graphic activism may not single handedly change the world but, as Chaz puts it, “should that stop you from trying?”

An African proverb puts it well, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.” Selah.


Andrew Davies

Drew's degrees in Illustration, 2D animation and Broadcast Design, and his volleyball skillz mean he can get your design done and play well with others at the same time. He’s the Creative Director at Paragon and will call you out if you start hanging out with shady-looking fonts and messing around with whacked-out color palettes.