How to Make a Kickass Protest Sign
Get your point across in a limited amount of space and attention span.
Sooner or later, if you have a conscience and care about what happens to you or someone else, you’re going to get mad enough or frustrated enough to stand up for something important. Maybe you’ll be on your own, bravely standing by yourself in public. Or, maybe you’ll be joining up with people who believe in the same thing, marching together as one.
No matter what our message, we have to get it across. Putting together a protest sign, whether for our lonely self, or for a million people, is going to help us organize your message. Why? We have to make a big, loud message with a very limited amount of audience attention, and a limited amount of display space. Good thinking and good planning will help us smash down bins of wordy coal into diamonds. A protest sign brings it all together.
Here’s the most important things that make a good protest sign:
- Catchy, memorable slogans
- Lettering with feeling
- Striking, bold colors
- Vivid symbols and images
Let’s take a look at each.
Catchy, Memorable Slogans
Although this classic sign from The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear has a cute point, street protest is not nuanced dialogue. It’s shouting in the street. It’s a demand for change. We’re going to need a bold, energizing statement. We’ll need a simple slogan that everyone can shout in unison. It will need to be read from a distance. We won’t have much room. So let’s spend a little time and work out one for the history books.
Let’s start with a better example. Take I AM A MAN, from the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.
In the midst of racial violence between strikers, police, and strike breakers, the Reverend James Lawson addressed the strikers with a sermon, including these stirring words:
“For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person. You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity.”
That sermon created the inspiration for the simple, plain, and powerful words that spelled out the message that the protestors carried. But what endured was the message that they carried into the streets at Memphis: I AM A MAN.
Say it With Feeling; Letter it With Feeling Too.
We’ve all had that person at work who WRITES IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Turns out they have an inner protestor, slowly dying inside, languishing in the wrong profession. Out on the street, capital letters are a must. How else are we going to show people we mean business? Like we said before: street protest is not dialogue. It’s shouting.
While we’re discussing lettering, look at the kerning on the letters T and A of BRUTALITY. For the unfamiliar: kerning is the process of adjusting the spacing between characters with unique spatial features to achieve a visually pleasing result (e.g. the overlap between AV), and the overall tracking, which is spacing letters to fit the allotted space provided. A good eye for kerning and tracking allows us to squeeze in that pithy slogan without everything looking smushed.
Slanted fonts indicate motion. And motion indicates change. If we want change, and we want it now, let’s slant our lettering. It gives extra energy to our already powerful message.
Striking, Bold Colors
In flora and fauna, red, yellow, orange indicate warning and danger. When we combine these colors over black and white, we can create very energetic, attention-getting images.
Vibrance and saturation matters, too. Even pink could be a powerful color, as the designers behind Act Up and Silence = Death came to realize.
Avram Finkelstein, one of the founders of Act Up and a principal behind the design of Silence = Death reflected:
“Changing its color from pale pink to a more vivid fuchsia, Pantone 212 C, seemed an acceptable reinvention that reflected graphic trends and suited the poster’s aggressive tone.”
Our sign doesn’t even have to be a bright color. It just has to be striking. Consider Design Action Collective’s Josh Warren-White, commissioned by Black Lives Matter.
Its original rendering was in fact on a yellow background. However, conscious of the need to be inexpensively and broadly reproduced, Warren-White and Design Action Collective stayed focus on the client need: everyone, especially people with limited budgets and skills. Nothing was lost. The message is simple, stark and powerful. And most importantly: if we are going to lead a movement with a message, we have to make it portable and accessible. The Anton font was available for free online, making it available to anyone with the most basic and inexpensive of design tools. And black and white is the least expensive to print. Warren-White recalled:
“Being easily replicable was the main goal since we know within movements people don’t have budgets to do professional printers…we wanted something that people could pick up and use in myriad ways.”
Finish Up: Add a Memorable Symbol or Image!
Symbols allow us to communicate ideas in the relatively limited space of a placard. In fact, the word symbol derives from the Greek symbolon (σύμβολον), which is an amalgam of syn- together and bole, a throwing, a casting, the stroke of a missile, bolt, or beam.
Here’s a symbol for a cause and a change that nearly everyone in the world recognizes:
One of the most iconic and universally recognized symbols of protest is the peace symbol. Those who are familiar with semaphores will enjoy the visualization of two different semaphore motions, the ’N’ and the ‘D’. Combined, they form Gerald Holtom’s iconic peace symbol.
Holtom thus creatively and visually threw the two words Nuclear Disarmament into a manageable space onto lapel pins, flags, placards, and other material. Why didn’t he just go with the letters N and D? He reflected:
“I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it.”
In practice, it allows protestors to represent the basic theme of peace, while still providing them enough space to add their own message specific to their context.
Putting it All Together
This masterpiece from the 2017 Women’s March is a favorite of Jessica De Jesus, who has a great visual design practice and a lot more suggestions on how to make a great sign. Here, the tallish lettering adds even more strength to the message. And hey. Check out the uh — kerning — on this one.
With a little consideration, patience, and application of these simple but powerful things, we’ll have an effective, standout presence for the change and justice we seek.
For more reading, check out the following excellent recollections of the examples we reviewed here:
Fast Company: Black Lives Matter, the Brand
Jessica De Jesus: NeonHoneyTigerLily