Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of Protest
Published to accompany an exhibition at Letterform Archive curated by Silas Munro, this is one of the first books to focus on how protest is visually represented through typography.
Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of Protest
(Letterform Archive, 2022)
The focus of Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of Protest is the United States from the nineteenth through the twenty-first century. We get profiles of notable designers, activists, and groups like Emory Douglas, Carlos Cortez, W.E.B. Du Bois, Atelier Populaire, Fierce Pussy, and others. It includes beautifully reproduced facsimiles and images, and the publication features type lockups by Tré Seals. Letterform’s editorial director and associate curator Stephen Coles contributes an essay that does a run-through of the technologies used to create the work compiled in the book, from transfer type to xeroxing.
Others have offered analyses of design from the perspective of activism or education rather than capitalism: the work of Marina Garone, Rafael Uzcátegui, Liz McQuiston, Ruben Pater, Matthew Wizinsky, Danielle Aubert, Dina Benbrahim, and E. Carmen Ramos comes to mind, and the Palestine Poster Project Archives is also worth mentioning. In-depth research on the connection between cultural production and social movements has been done by Interference Archive, in the form of affordable printed materials and digital resources so as to guarantee larger circulation.
I cannot begin to imagine the challenges Strikethrough’s editor, designer Silas Munro, faced in trying to “expand the [Letterform] archive’s existing collection of graphic design with acquisitions from outside the white, Euro-American, and often cis male constructs of type and design history.” It’s also worth noting that he not only put together this publication in the middle of a world pandemic, but designed it too. But it would be naïve to think that a single person or a small group could, with one volume, fill in the gaps created by years of censorship of an entire field, especially when those gaps result from a deeper structural issue like institutional whiteness.
I can’t help but wonder what this book might have looked like with a narrower scope—dealing, for example, only with graphics created around the Civil Rights movement, Black Lives Matter, and protests against police brutality—and not only because these are areas of expertise for some of the scholars involved in the publication, but because this material needs even more room to develop. Reading artist introductory Colette Gaiter’s text, I am reminded that the Civil Rights and free speech movements relied on mediums other than printed posters because of the lack of access to presses—the Black designer’s experience has often been conditioned by a lack of access to certain technologies—but this diversity of materials can present challenges to research.
The work of Tibor Kalman, Milton Glaser, and Herb Lubalin, who are all included in this book, is certainly significant, but it’s already familiar from other publications, design curricula, and pop culture. While I understand the impulse to show off the strengths of Letterform Archives’s collections and encourage further research, there are other subcultures and countercultural movements more acutely in need of representation in design history. Letterform Archive has taken important steps in this direction; it was the first institution in the US that not only accepted my donations of work from Venezuelan design archives, but also shared the work on social media, helping spread the word about Latin American design. It made me incredibly happy to see Spanish-language design work on their social media, but it also underscored for me how rare it is to see our stories, which grow within the margins, being acknowledged.
In fact, in its commendable effort to include many, this book ends up under-serving a lot of communities—failing, for example, to represent Afro-Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx work properly. There’s a profile of Favianna Rodriguez, and the publication acknowledges Juan Carlos Vidal, Néstor Latrónico, Melanie Cervantes, and Jesus Barraza, but Latin communities have a long history in the US and in the rest of the world, with a rich tradition of protest graphics. It seems like a missed opportunity to publish a book in California, where more than 30 percent of the population is of Latin descent, and more specifically, in San Francisco with Asian Communities. There is not a substantial section on, say, Chicanx type aesthetics, stopaapihate campaigns, or posters from Los Siete de la Raza.
As a Latina in the US, I find myself wishing this book had engaged more deeply with this international conversation, since it claims to cover the United States “and beyond”—telling the story, for instance, of how concrete poetry in LatAm influenced the complexity of typography as an element in literature and art, or the protest signs of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo protests in 1970s Argentina. Or Cecilia Vicuña, or Vanessa Zúñiga Tinizaray’s work with indigenous communities. Or how the traffic signals and scraps of cardboard used as shields to protect civilians from the military’s bullets in the 2017 protests in Venezuela also carried messages expressed in lettering and typography. Or the French and Spanish vernacular graphics of Haitian rights protests in the Dominican Republic. Or the protests of indigenous communities in Brazil against Bolsonaro, in the form of signs made not only of wood, but also stone (this use of locally sourced materials representing, as Gui Bonsiepe would say, an intersection of design and identity). In fact, the mere survival of vernacular typography and lettering can be seen as a sign of protest—in Mexico City, for example, where local authorities in Cuauhtémoc are trying to erase the rich tradition of gráfica popular. I could go on forever.
This book is a worthy effort that offers specific takes on the subjects it covers, builds up the bibliography of a field that’s often neglected, and will make the kind of work it covers more discoverable. Strikethrough is an important reference that will leave a mark, but it’s only a beginning; there’s so much material out there, waiting to be acknowledged.