ANATOMY OF DESIGN
Activist design—those posters, billboards, books, and so on that force the viewer
to emphatically react to a social or political message—is not as easy as placing
some smart words and startling pictures together on a layout. Many are the
designers with good intentions who produce ineffectual though socially virtuous
missives; few are those who overcome the impulse to overdesign,
overconceptualize, and overinternalize their work so it can be both exemplary
design and functional activist communication. But for every dozen misguided
pieces calling for an end to war, poverty, and inequality, one or two hit the
mark by forcing the audience to think, reflect, and even act.
Anisa Suthayaly’s poster, curiously titled “Beautiful Decay,” features
former American third-party presidential candidate H. Ross Perot’s cautionary
words: “The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is
the man who cleans up the river.” While this poster is not as immediately
readable as some, it nonetheless forces the reader to engage directly with the
message. The pristine beauty of the forest stream in winter is not merely a
prosaic snapshot but a distinct backdrop for environmentalist concerns.
Suthayaly’s typographic intervention does not pollute the image with
unnecessary design-isms but rather serves as an entry point for those who
choose to receive the message—and maybe do something about it too.
The graphic concepts employed here are engaging but not so
unprecedented—or novel—that they are totally unfamiliar, and therefore
offputting to the viewer. While the photograph is clear and understandable, the
typography alters the meaning and message, transforming a calm, unthreatening
scene into an active landscape invaded by alien objects. Of course, placing type
amid rocks and in water has been done before, in fact, before the age of
computer manipulation designers photographically achieved this result by
actually stenciling or painting letters in real environmental space. Moreover,
composing the words in perspective is an extremely common trope that goes
back to 1930s B-movie titles and made famous by Dan Peri’s perspective-
defying title sequence for the original
Star Wars movie. Type has also been
used to define (and form) the shape of buildings and other iconic structures
(see Ivan Chermayeff’s poster for the Guggenheim Museum, where the
contoured typeset words are a visual pun simulating the emblematic shape of
the Frank Lloyd Wright edifice).
While not a pun or metaphor, the central and most conspicuous word in
Activist, is what makes this scene more than a mere greeting
card. It stands upright, totem-like, in the center of the image, appearing to vibrate
as darks shift to the light values, and the eye is forced to grapple with a
command to do something. The technique of overlapping letters in translucent
grays, whites, and color is a common printing technique that suggests speed.
Here the motion implies movement in many directions—by the activist as well as
environmental polluters. That idea that activists can, however, turn the tide of
decay is implicit throughout this eloquent image.
Designer: Anisa Suthayaly
2004 “Activist Page”, art for magazine series
ad: Anisa Suthayalai s: Default c: Beautiful Decay magazine
Art for Activist Issue.
Vertical overlapping title
Type in environment
Type emphasizing perspective in photography