Signs of Resistance: A Visual History of Protest in America

“It is the responsibility of the patriot to protect his country from its government,” said Thomas Paine, the 18th century English-born American political activist, philosopher, and revolutionary. So begins Signs of Resistance: A Visual History of Protest in America by noted designer and educator Bonnie Siegler. In hundreds of iconic, smart, angry, clever, unforgettable images, Signs of Resistance chronicles what truly makes America great: citizens unafraid of speaking truth to power.

The author describes this book as “a collection of visual expressions of resistance throughout American history. They include broadsides, postcards, posters, greeting cards, sculptures, paintings, ads, book covers, magazine covers, handmade signs, projections, and the back sides of scrap paper. They were created by artists, designers, and everyday men, women, and children (!) who might not have had a lot of creative background but certainly had a lot to say. People used the weapons they had at their disposal: paper and pen. Their only ‘client’ was their conscience. Every protest image was made because someone felt compelled to act out of a belief in what they felt was right.”

Two hundred and forty images – from British rule and women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War; from women’s equality and Black Lives Matter to the actions of our forty-fifth president and the Women’s March – offer an inspiring, optimistic, and visually galvanizing history lesson about the power people have when they take to the streets and stand up for what they believe is right. Here is just a sampling of the many fantastic images with captions from the book:

The Chinese exclusion act was passed in 1882, and was the first law restricting immigration in our country. Even Chinese immigrants who were already in America were required to get certifications to reenter if they left the country. This poster, which celebrated the passing of the act, is noticeable as much for its many different styles of wood type (nine by the author’s count) as it is for its sad and shocking sentiment. 1882.

 

Though Uncle Sam had appeared in various cartoons dating back to the mid-18th century, this rendering of an old white man (Flagg used himself as the model) clad in red, white, and blue was the face and figure that would endure. The U.S. take on “I Want You” was created to encourage men to enlist, and it quickly became one of the most beloved (and parodied) images in history. James Montgomery Flagg, 1917.

 

Death, not so subtly represented here with a skeleton, literally breaks through the original Uncle Sam poster with only the hat and a single eye remaining. The result is a powerful piece of antiwar propaganda. 1972.

 

Seymour Chwast created this poster using a green-faced Uncle Sam to protest the bombing of Hanoi. Witty, dark, and wry, with an ironically patriotic image, it was one of the most memorable posters of the era. 1967.

 

This poster was made for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services to encourage people to use condoms regularly. Not only was it wildly popular, but the poster was also remarkably successful in spreading the word because everyone wanted to hang it up. Art Chandry, 1994.

 

The words come from a Vietnam-era Edwin Starr song, but what makes this work so effectively is the not-so-subtle double read. Marty Neumeier, 2004.

 

The Gorilla Girls is a group of anonymous, feminist art activists. They use facts, humor, and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias in contemporary culture. Initially they paid special attention to the art world, but eventually they broadened their focus. Guerrilla Girls, 2005.

 

This sign at the Women’s March was especially poignant, even though it had been used over the years by other groups seeking social justice. The original version of this was written by Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos, a leading voice for the gay community. Photograph: Bonnie Sigler, 2017.

 

This caricature gets its power from its rawness. There’s a black hole where President Trump’s mouth should be, and instead of his face, we have a statement he has used in reference to the free press, in orange type. Edel Rodriguez, 2017.

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Bonnie Siegler, voted one of the fifty most influential designers working today by Graphic Design USA, runs the award-winning design studio Eight and a Half. She is best known for her design work for Saturday Night Live, the Criterion Collection, HBO, Late Night with Seth Meyers, StoryCorps, Participant Media, and Newsweek. She has taught at the School of Visual Arts and Yale University, conducted workshops at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Rhode Island School of Design, and judged design competitions all over the place. She is also the author of Dear Client: This Book Will Teach You How to Get What You Want from Creative People.

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Posted on: September 12, 2018

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community.

2 Comments on Signs of Resistance: A Visual History of Protest in America

  1. Ya had to make it political with the last image.
    I come to Creative Pro to get better at what I do, not to have your political opinions shoved in my face. Thanks for ruining what could
    have been an interesting article and today’s visit.

  2. Sorry you felt that one image ruined your visit. The whole book is political in nature, with an emphasis on progressive causes, as noted in the article. As for the image of Trump, yes it is a striking and provocative piece of work, which is why I allowed it to be included—not because it’s critical of this specific President. It would’ve been easier for me to simply cut it and go about my day, knowing that no one would be offended by historical images which have been rendered uncontroversial by the passage of time. But they were controversial when they were created, and that’s why I thought it was essential to include the current image from the book.

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