Emory Douglas on Doing Design for Activism

During the 1960s and 70s, Emory Douglas was Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party and the creative force behind The Black Panther newspaper. Douglas talked with AIGA DC in advance of his DC Design Week event at Bowie State University to share his ideas of how to marry activism and design.

AIGA DC: You were an integral part of the Black Panthers. Do you think you need to be deeply ingrained in a community like that to do art around it?  

Douglas: I think artists can reflect things in their work whether or not you are directly involved with the issue or the community. But you still have to have a basic understanding of what’s going on and the issues that the community is concerned with. Because when it comes time for critique, they’re they ones who are going to have to do the explanations behind the issue.

AIGA DC: What are the ethical obligations of designers when doing this work?

Douglas: Well, the ethical obligation is to be clear. You can be provocative in what you say, but it has to be based on fact. There has to be some moral integrity to the artwork … not just blind emotionalism. Sometimes the emotion happens because of the frustration we feel with what’s happening. But you have to be able to critique and evaluate what you do as well.

AIGA DC: What advice would you give to young designers wanting to do art for activism?

Douglas: You have to develop your skills, and that comes from evaluating your work as you do it and improving it. Doing it over even when you don’t want to do it over.

They have to have study, and learn from the movements that have taken place. Not try to duplicate it, repeat what’s been done. But do the work in a in refreshing way. I mean a clenched fist has been interpreted in many styles. If you try to make it into a work of art, you have to be able to put your own stamp on it in some kind of way.  

AIGA DC: Any warnings?

Douglas: Don’t get trapped in that self-centered thing of being “the designer.” And don’t forget it’s a job. It can be fun, but it’s still a job. You have to put in the work. To be a designer you have to design. To be a social designer you have to do social design.

AIGA DC: What issues do you think need to be lifted up?

Douglas: The environment, climate change, all the fires and floods. There’s a neglect, a lack of understanding and knowledge of our representatives. That has to be integrated into our artwork as well, so we can continue to enlighten people. We have to be a thorn in the side for those who don’t believe. They don’t want to call it global warming, [but they should] at least say it’s something, and something done by human beings. It’s not something that came out of the clear blue sky. It’s reality. And we need to deal with it.

AIGA DC: What makes you hopeful these days?

Douglas: Young people! Young people make me hopeful.


Want to see more of Douglas’ work? Letterform Archive has an extensive collection of issues of The Black Panther newspaper.

Tickets for “Emory Douglas: Design & Activism” are still available through the DC Design Week website. The talk is Friday, Oct. 20.


By Raksa Yin
Published October 19, 2017