Design reflections on the BLACK LIVES MATTER street mural in Washington, D.C.

Over the last decade, I can think of no other single design that has had a more tangible, pervasive, divisive place in the visual and ideological landscape of the American public than Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” red hats. I wrote about how that hat and it’s lack of design thoughtfulness exposed some blind spots in my design thinking and practice.

Another recent design “event” has the potential to shift my paradigm yet again.

This past weekend, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in massive capital letters painted on the street leading up to the White House.

The design itself is simple, bold, clear, timely and relevant. Using the existing Black Lives Matter movement name and branding, the design was applied with yellow street line paint on black asphalt background. Nothing fancy in terms of type choice (I’ll let other designers debate type choice and kerning), but it is easily readable (from space even!) and appropriate for the application.

The fact that the Mayor had the mural commissioned and executed so soon after of federal, state and local law enforcement authorities were used to displace protesters on President Trump’s photo op walk to St. John’s church, made the design all the more powerful and relevant.

And, like the portability of putting “Make America Great Again” on hats, painting BLACK LIVES MATTER on the street—a place where protests have been occurring throughout the country–was either a stroke of connective design genius or just a second order consequence, I don’t know.

But let’s not get hung up on critiquing design. The more important issue, and the one that clients often overlook, is whether the BLACK LIVES MATTER street mural strategy effectively communicates to the intended target audience: the general public and the powers that be—especially President Trump.

There are multiple messages, audiences and motives behind the Black Lives Matter D.C. street mural, so things get complicated quickly assessing effectiveness.

Washington D.C. has always had an identity crisis hosting the seat of Federal power yet not holding the position power of a state. Added to this living in the shadow of a bigger brother insecurity, is the running historical feud between Washington D.C. mayors and United States presidents, especially the current set of mayor and president. Mayor Bowser’s BLACK LIVES MATTER mural painted on the street leading directly to and pointing directly at the White House can only be seen as a direct challenge to President Trump’s attempts to exert federal law enforcement power and influence within Washington D.C. So far, no response from Trump whether or how he received her “message.” President Trump isn’t one to let personal affronts go by, so I’m sure we’ll see a response to the street design sooner rather than later.

What did the BLACK LIVES MATTER street mural communicate to the public? The answer depends on who you ask. The segment of the public already empathic or supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement found the mural inspiring and poignant.

The segment of the public already opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement, have had said very little about the street mural. I suspect they view the street mural the same way liberals initially viewed Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats—with dismissive disdain.

Yet the most surprising response to the mural has been from the local D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter who deemed the mural a “performative distraction from real policy changes” designed to “appease white liberals.” That group goes on to criticize the Mayor for past policies and funding of the D.C. police force. Even an anonymous Black Lives Matter protester wrote “f*ck the mural, change the system” on the mural itself.

Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.

I think those that oppose the street mural either out of disdain for its message or a focused desire to see tangible systemic revolution, miss its potential power and effectiveness as a communications strategy for change. The BLACK LIVES MATTER street mural design may prove to be as iconic as Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats. Here is why.

First, the simplicity of the design (painting letters down a street) makes it easy to replicate on any street in the world. Almost everyone has access to a street and cheap paint. Easy access to the platform (the street) and low-cost design materials (paint) makes the street mural an ideal form of protest and a powerful way to agitate for change.

Second, street murals are semi-permanent. In a 24-hour news cycle world, painting massive letters down the street of your city isn’t easy to undo. Ask the protesters who are pulling down Confederate monuments, some of which are over 100 years old, how difficult it is physically and politically to remove symbols once they have been officially placed there. Thus, the street mural’s message won’t get buried in a digital feed. If you live and work in the city, it’s size and semi-permanence mean you can’t help but be constantly reminded of its message. And we already know permanent public monuments become powerful symbolic reminders in society for generations.

Third, regardless of reactions from all sides of the political spectrum on the BLACK LIVES MATTER street mural—it created a reaction from the public—and that is what you want design to do if you want to move the status quo. To cause no reaction with your design is to be largely ineffective because you are essentially invisible. There are times you want design to be invisible, but design for change must move the needle of the audience in a direction to be impactful. Hopefully, the reaction will start conversations around the message and force society to seek to address systemic problems.

I will take a closer look at design strategy for change versus optimization in a future newsletter, as well as how the lack web design’s permanence both helps and hinders its ability to create lasting change.

Until then, I’m listening. Hit reply and let me know what you are thinking,

Frank

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