Why typography nonetheless packs a punch on the subject of protest

It’s rare that it isn’t a fitting time for an exhibition about the power of protest, but with the recent overturning of Roe v Wade in the US (making abortion effectively illegal in many states), that sense of urgency, anger, and grassroots uprising feels particularly pertinent.

The history of protest is hard to document: the idea of a singular, ego-tinged ‘artist’ or ‘creator’ becomes almost redundant if a graphic is to work towards a collective fight or speak up for the oppressed, after all.

Protest particularly levels the playing field of typography, something that’s celebrated in a forthcoming exhibition at the Letterform Archive in San Francisco. The show, titled Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of Protest, merges politics and mark making, demonstrating the power of letterforms to communicate, mobilise, and make change.

Atelier Populaire, Yes to the Revolution! (Oui à la révolution!), 1968
Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of ProtestMartin Venezky for Appetite Engineers,  Art for Aids poster, 2001

The ‘craft’ of protest is interesting when you look at it through a typographical lens: typographers have a certain reputation for order, detail-obsession, and perfectionism – traits that seem pretty at odds with the actions of demonstrating. When a banner needs to be made in a matter of hours, it’s about maximum impact — maybe through humour, bright colours, hard-hitting text, or sheer scale — it’s not about perfect kerning and painstakingly crafting three sets of fun alternates.

This is only the second show to be held at Letterform Archive’s permanent SF space, and it has been put together in collaboration with graphic design studio Polymode, which has previously worked with clients including Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, MoMA, the New Museum, Phaidon Press, and Pulitzer Arts Foundation.

Polymode partner Silas Munro and Letterform Archive associate curator and editorial director Stephen Coles helmed the curation for Strikethrough, bringing together more than 100 objects including placards, badges, posters, signs, T-shirts, and other ephemera spanning from the 1800s to the present day. The exhibits draw from existing and newly acquired pieces in Letterform Archives’ own collections.

Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of ProtestUnknown designer, Social Justice in Mexico (Justicia Social en Mexico) letterpress book cover, 1935
Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of ProtestUnknown designer, Feminist Majority Foundation reissue of the 1979 protest sign for the ERA Yes movement, 2021

The show is divided into five sections, each based on a different way to voice dissent: Vote!, Resist!, Love!, Teach!, and Strike! These categories aim to “chart a typographic chant of resistance”, as the curators put it.

Munro and Coles began working together on Strikethrough in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, aiming to “showcase typographic anger and agency as it is seen in the streets, on the printed page, and even on the bodies of demonstrators”. The show serves in part to position those actions and that particular swathe of protest within a historical and future-facing lineage that uncovers the intersection of anger and image-making.

Protest proves to be an apposite tool for drawing together some of the biggest political and social histories of the past two centuries. The pieces on show range from 19th century anti-slavery broadsides to the striking, colourful Atelier Populaire posters (or ‘affiches’) that were rapidly printed during the 1968 civil uprisings in France.

Then there’s the Black Panther Newspaper, an icon both graphically and politically; and examples of the punchy, chilling designs created around the Aids crisis in the 1980s. The curators have deliberately eschewed any sort of hierarchy around professional creatives and ‘non-designers’. There’s also little distinction or judgement made around the medium that carries a message: analogue printed missives, digital type, and augmented reality are given equal credence.

Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of ProtestHunter Saxony III, a.k.a. The Last Black Calligrapher in SF, Untitled print (from the Nia Wilson/Say Her Name/No Silence series), 2020

The show is accompanied with a hardcover exhibition catalogue by Munro and designed by Polymode, which uses 250 images to tell the story of graphic design in protest. The catalogue features custom typefaces by Tré Seals of Vocal Type and Ben Kiel and Jesse Ragan of XYZ Type.

Strikethrough is also complemented by a bespoke mobile app dubbed Mariah, which looks to “challenge systems of power and make the invisible visible” using AR. When users point their phones at historical sites of protest across the San Francisco Bay Area, Mariah tells them more about the area and how it relates to objects within the exhibition. Those further afield can also enjoy the show through an online exhibition, which can be previewed now.

Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of Protest opens on July 23 at Letterform Archive, San Francisco, and online; exhibitions.letterformarchive.org