In recent years and particularly over the past few weeks, our news feeds have become flooded with protest imagery from around the world. We are living in a time where social movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter have reached boiling point and protests are one of the most important modes of expression for these movements. Architects and designers are in the position of having skills that can impact the effectiveness of protests on multiple levels. Whether it be through the branding of a social movement, the design of temporary `protest architecture’ or on the city scale of designing public spaces that allow citizens to gather and exchange ideas, designers should all be asking themselves what their professional contributions will be to the social movements of our time.

The Act of Rebellion 

Extinction Rebellion is an example of a social movement that has realised the effectiveness of cohesive design in growing its support base. The movement was founded on the understanding that 30 years of climate activism has been unsuccessful.1 As a result, the group has branched out from simple debate and protest and used civil disobedience strategies to bring attention to its cause. Civil disobedience, a term made known through the 1849 essay by Henry David Thoreau, is based on the belief that just because something is made law does not make it necessarily just.2 A failure of governments worldwide to protect their citizens from the encroaching dangers of climate change is an injustice that Extinction Rebellion protesters believe should be brought to light through non-violent, rebellious acts and they have done so with some success. In 2019 Extinction Rebellion protesters brought areas of London, Sydney and New York to a halt by disrupting traffic, resulting in the arrests of many protesters. These events brought publicity to Extinction Rebellion and in the UK where the group originated, one of their three key demands was met by the government – the declaration of an environment and climate emergency, making it the first country to do so.3

The Role of Graphic Design 

Extinction Rebellion uses cohesive branding to link its 1,119 local groups across 68 countries. It operates as a holacracy allowing for self-organised groups that anyone can form or be a part of as long as they adhere to the principles of the organisation.4 Available on Extinction Rebellion’s website is a poster generator that uses its signature font, a library of imagery provided by artists and a palette of ten specific colours that anyone can use for free to spread the message of climate justice. The type used is based on wood block lettering and the imagery of animals and plants also has the appearance of being hand printed. This aesthetic is influenced by the Situationist International Movement of the 1960’s and the posters created as part of the May 68 event that took place in Paris that year.5 During this period of civil unrest throughout France, the École des Beaux-Arts was a creative hub where students combined design and activism to create posters and plans for vandalism to spread their message.6 Extinction Rebellion’s adoption of this style, with the combination of a bright colour palette that is careful not to reference other social movements results in a unique and well-coordinated brand for the global organisation. The Extinction Rebellion logo supplied by an anonymous street artist known as ESP is also not copyrighted and simple for protesters to replicate.7 Talking to Dezeen, a member of Extinction Rebellion’s art group, Clive Russel, said “we needed to create a movement that looks radically different to all eco movements previously, because they failed.”8 

Comparison of screen printed poster from May 68 and Extinction Rebellion poster.

By using artists and designers to create imagery for the organisation, Extinction Rebellion develops a distinctive appearance that allows its many groups to present a coordinated  aesthetic with the help of the internet. Given that a lot of activism now takes place, not only on the streets with spontaneous placards but also online, graphic design is an important tool in making statistics legible and shareable across platforms.9 This can be seen presently with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining enormous support online, partly thanks to information that is easily shareable via Instagram and twitter. Designers who are looking to make a difference to any social cause should collaborate with activists in spreading their messages. Additionally, if they are financially able, they should be mindful of the brands that they accept commissions from and the values that they stand for.  

Protest Architecture 

In the act of protest, it is not only the creation of posters and branding that designers can contribute to. Recently we have seen architects begin to imagine and create a form of architecture distinctly for protest. Protest architecture, by necessity is moveable, adaptable and has the function of spreading a message while also providing protesters with shelter and amenities. In his 2004 research article `Dissent Space in Australia’, architect and researcher Gregory Cowan notes that protest architecture by this nature is the opposite of the traditional western stately buildings that are often the backdrop to protests taking place.10 Protest architecture is not driven so much by construction and materials, as it is by people and ideas. An early example is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy that has stood outside of Old Parliament House in Canberra since 1972 as a permanent protest occupation. The contrast of colourful tents and hand painted signs against the white Canberra Parliament Building is significant in portraying the conflict of interests between the Australian Government and Aboriginal People.11

U-Build seating at an Extinction Rebellion protest in London.

During the London Extinction Rebellion protests that took place in October 2019, a modular architectural system of plywood boxes was used by protesters to create speaking platforms, towers, seating and poster displays. The system of lightweight boxes called U-Build was created by Studio Bark architects and the design gifted for use by Extinction Rebellion.12 Architecture students came up with a simple bolt system for the boxes to be easily disassembled and reassembled during the protests, also providing design for formations to be used. Holes cut in the side of the boxes made them easy for protesters to carry and hold onto for protection, also helping them resist police’s attempts to remove them. During the October demonstration a tower of U-Build boxes required heavy machinery to be removed by police at Trafalgar Square.13   

Spaces for Exchange and Rebellion 

Since the times of the Ancient Greek agora, public spaces have been core the functioning of democracy. Places where citizens can gather such as parks, city squares and promenades are the settings of key political and social events. When considering the design of these spaces, planners and architects have much to consider. Not only must they carry traffic, pedestrians and be adaptable to different community events, they must also consider the safety of these gatherings. In her Ted Talk ‘Spaces for Protest, Places for Peace’, landscape architect Gina Ford describes how trees, street furniture and cleverly disguised bollards are important tools that her profession uses to consider the safety of the community in public spaces.14 While she recognises that this is important, she ultimately tells designers that they should design for exchange and not fortification. The fear being that if we are too concerned with protecting citizens from threats such as terrorism in public spaces, we risk spaces that lack the very features that make them enjoyable and appropriate to gather in. While her presentation took place in 2017, with the blatant police brutality seen at Black Lives Matter protests in America this month, one wonders if perhaps safety is of greater concern today.  

While fortifying our public spaces may not be the answer, perhaps smaller scale protest architecture can aid protesters in protecting themselves. The U-Build system used in London was successful in drawing attention to the Extinction Rebellion message but there is room for innovation in this area of design that focuses on the protection of protesters. Already there have been speculative designs that aim to do this such as BOZAR’s series of inflatable protest architecture and the Protest Activities Dwelling (PAD) by a group of Australian architects, however we are yet to see any examples of this put into practice.

Climate protest in Perth CBD, January 2020.

At this crucial moment in history for citizens to make demands of their governments on policies that need to change, designers must stay engaged and employ their skills where they can. Despite assurance from members of the government that they are listening to the scientists on Climate Change, we are yet to see any significant decline in Australian carbon emissions.15 While the economic shutdown from Covid-19 may offer some reprieve, how the government responds to restarting the economy is of critical importance to our ability to reach the targets set out in the 2019 Paris Agreement. As pro-active citizens, we must hold the government accountable to these commitments even if rebellion is required for meaningful action to occur. The stakes are extinction of one million animal species and possibly humans.16



  1. Block, India. “Extinction Rebellion uses bold graphics in protest against climate change.” Dezeen. April 15, 2019.
  2. Alexander, Samuel. “Extinction Rebellion protesters might be annoying. But they have a point.” The Conversation. October 8, 2019.
  3. Flannery, Tim. “I now look back on my 20 years of climate activism as a colossal failure.” The Gaurdian, September 17, 2019.
  4. Groth, Aimee. “Extinction Rebellion is using holacracy to scale its international movement.” Quartz at Work. December 29, 2019.
  5. Shiels, Julie.  “Extinction Rebellion: how to craft a protest brand.” The Conversation. October 7, 2019.
  6. Vienne, Veronique. “Words on the Street: Art, Architecture, and the Public Protest.” ArchDaily. October 1 2018.
  7. “Home-Extinction Rebellion-Copyright.” Extinction Rebellion, 2020. Accessed June 10, 2020.
  8. Block, India. “Extinction Rebellion uses bold graphics in protest against climate change.” Dezeen. April 15, 2019.
  9. Dawood, Sarah. “What can designers do to help tackle the climate change crisis?” Design Week. April 29, 2019.
  10. Cowan, Gregory. “Street Protest Architecture – Dissent Space in Australia.” Bad Subjects. January, 2004. 65.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Block, India, “Modular boxes used by Extinction Rebellion are ‘protest architecture.'” Dezeen. October 17, 2019.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ford, Gina. “Spaces for Protest, Places for Peace.” Filmed December 2017 at TEDxBEaconStreet, Brookline, MA. Video, 12:04.
  15. ABC News. “Angus Taylor says the Government is listening to the science on climate change.” ABC News video, 1:35. May 21, 2020.

Links Provided:

  1. Bozar. Projects-Protest Architecture.
  2. Redshift Architecture. Protest Activities Dwelling – PAD.