In a sense, design as protest is a matter of branding. It is a means of broadcasting a message and drawing people in. In rare cases, actions like blocking a road or projecting controversial images onto a building, or taking urban wayfinding into a community’s own hands are designed to be ends in themselves. More often, they’re attractive, often jarring, aesthetic interruptions that force the broader public to stop and consider something new. They’re billboards advertising a product you’ve never heard of. They’re movie trailers, inviting you to a feature film that will change the world.
In another sense, when we talk about design as protest, it applies to the unique design of the protest itself. It’s about organizers using the urban landscape as a tool in service of their message. This approach requires a fundamental understanding of history, urban context, and the way cities work to be intentional and effective.
Over the course of the last year, with the rise of Black Lives Matter, the United States has seen countless examples of these interventions — both of organizers adding material to the urban landscape and of groups using its inherent elements as instruments themselves. And while the cityscape is available to anyone as a canvas for transformation and message delivery, those who are intimately familiar with its design, contours and flow are in a unique position to facilitate effective interruptions.
This week, the National Organization of Minority Architects is holding its annual conference in New Orleans. On Wednesday, Next City will join NOMA in hosting a one-day workshop for community organizers, architects, artists and activists dedicated to these ideas. We will be exploring how design and place-based interventions can drive social change. What follows are examples of New Orleans designers and artists doing just this. These precedents aim to serve as an invitation for urban planners, designers and architects to join the conversation and consider with us the use — and misuse — of public space in the service of transformation. […]