Michael Bierut | Essays

My Democracy Was Irretrievably Undermined by Reactionary Idiots and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

When Design Observer reader Sam Potts first emailed me about DOTWHO, the Designs On The White House Organization, my initial reaction was slightly exasperated bemusement: when the going gets tough, designers have a t-shirt contest. A group of celebrity judges, including Milton Glaser, Chip Kidd and Todd St. John along with more conventional celebrities like Margaret Cho, Al Franken and Moby, are slated to help select the best pro-Kerry t-shirt designs in a number of categories, including "funniest," "most stylish" and "best retro shirt," with proceeds from sales of the winners going to help the Democratic campaign.

This is all fine and good, and certainly the "official" Kerry t-shirt is pretty awful (if there were a Geneva Convention for typography, horizontal scaling would be a capital crime at my tribunal). Yet with the news getting worse every day, I wondered if designing t-shirts was anything near a sufficient response to the crisis in leadership we're facing.

But a visit to the DOTWHO website started me thinking: there's more here than meets the eye.

It's natural for designers to respond to an issue they care about by doing what they do best: design. But haven't we all sensed that often our talents are a bit inadequate, that sometimes something more direct is called for? I'm reminded of the passage in the Woody Allen movie "Manhattan" when Allen's character, Isaac Davis, suggests at a cocktail party that they confront some Nazis who are planning to march in New Jersey:

Party Guest: There is this devastating satirical piece on that on the Op Ed page of the Times. It's devastating.
Isaac Davis: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really get right to the point.

DOTWHO's site may not be about bricks and baseball bats, but it is about more than t-shirts. There are news updates on liberal issues, links to other Democratic sites, a weblog that is sure to attract more and more participation, and a light, lively tone, epitomized by the slogan "We're the T-Shirt Competition that the GOP Fears Most!" DOTWHO's President, Andrea Moed, was the original web editor for the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and she clearly knows what it takes to engage her audience. Designers can go along with theories, principles, and ideologies, but if you really want to get them energized, you need to give them a project.

Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif demonstrated the "power of the project" 40 years ago. An expert on intergroup relations, he conducted a famous series of experiments that proved that disparate, even hostile, groups could be coalesced around tasks requiring cooperative participation, even tasks as trivial as pulling a truck out of the mud. DOTWHO's t-shirt project, as trivial as it is, may be the pretext around which a politically committed design community -- and its ever-increasing audience of design sympathizers -- can rally. In short, the contest is just an excuse to bring together a community of like-minded people. And who knows where that may lead.

Even to me, this sounds a little like wishful thinking. But history provides examples from which we can derive some hope. Late on a Thursday evening in December, 1955, a group of black teachers in Montgomery, Alabama, met to discuss what to do to to protest the arrest of a black woman who had refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger. They came up with a project: a bus boycott. The project became a cause, the cause became a movement, and less than eight years later, a quarter-million people marched on Washington and heard Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Designing a t-shirt is a humble act, but humble acts are how revolutions begin.

This essay was originally published in May 2004. 

Posted in: Graphic Design, Politics

Comments [19]

I had the chance to visit Bangkok last year, while living in Asia; there, as in many other cities around the world, but especially in Asia, you can find stalls selling a myriad of clothes and accessories that resemble, more or less reliably, well-known and exclusive brands. The so called "5-dollar Gucci" trade. Added to the counterfeited goods, however, in Bangkok you find another phenomenon. It's called Khao Sarn Road, a street of the old city that has for years been the Southeast Asia backpackers' Mecca. In Khao Sarn you find everything imaginable, from incredibly good-looking and available transsexuals to fake student card makers, three 7-Elevens, Israeli Hostels, Phat-Thai stalls and the odd stray dog. On this street you also find many clothes stalls and shops, and especially T-shirt vendors. Of course the Thai alphabet Coca Cola and Red Bull T-shirts are the most popular, but on a stroll through Khao Sarn you can have a glimpse of the current «global zeitgeist» in hundreds of printed cotton shirts. These shirts are sold not only by shop or stall owners, who import the latest, or most popular motifs used around the world; many are brought by Thai students who silkscreen their own motifs and sell them on the sidewalk: from the usual Che Guevara shirt to the Cher Guevara look-a-like, from the 10 commandments of Khao Sarn to Hawaii or Acapulco faded (i.e. badly done) prints, from Clockwork Orange George to Bush, Saddham Hussein and Bin Laden cased inside a giant heart, to Singha Beer or McFuck, if you dig deep enough, you can find there any kind of message, slogan, icon or brand, from the most sellable to the most obscure.
No one really knows how these messages end up on a T-shirt in downtown Bangkok. You can surely see a lot of them in London, New York, Amsterdam or Barcelona, but how can all, or some of these, be able to travel, be seen, assimilated, reproduced and sold around the world? No one definitely knows who started the MacDonald's or Cocaine spin-offs, and also who buys and wears them proudly. Is this one of today's truly global effects? Wearing a T-shirt with a message that can be understood on such a large scale, creating a world-wide use of irony? Bangkok, where messages of any nature, language and kind seem to circulate at such a fast and uncontrollable pace, where silkscreen is evidently an easy technology to obtain and use, by everyone, not only T-shirt shop owners, and where the flow of "T-shirt customers" comes from every part of the globe (and knowing backpackers, they probably need a clean shirt once in a while), is a prime example for this. But I'm sure this phenomenon can be seen in every continent.
If the T-shirt has ceased today to be an "innocent" piece of clothing, as any T-shirt you wear is now "a white T-shirt", "a one pocket T", "a souvenir T-shirt", "an event T-shirt", "a designer T-shirt" or "a logo T-shirt", to name only a few, how can it be the ideal way to communicate today's culture, or counterculture?
So when a group of American designers get together to make themselves heard - and with them I would say most of the world's population - my only regret is not being American to be able to participate. With some luck, the shirts that will come out of this contest will travel the world, maybe even one of them will end up in Khao Sarn. And in the end, you never know: Maybe this will be another successful American project.
I personally am looking forward to wearing one.

PS: If horizontal scaling is a capital crime, Comic Sans is Donald Rumsfeld.

Too bad the T-shirts on that site all pretty much suck, designwise included.

Growler - the T-shirts on the front page of the site are the "official" Kerry T-shirts which we are hoping to improve upon by getting designers to submit T-shirts to our contest. You have till the 24th to come up with something better! You can also sign up to vote on the designs as they are submitted.
Kerim Friedman

I also came across this site several weeks back, and my reaction was mixed. I've certainly been known to enter (and win) a t-shirt contest for something I ... er ... believed in, but there is an inherent trivialization both in what we do for a living and in the meaning of politics that rubs me the wrong way.

I'm not really buying this coalescent act thing. Will a good, even brilliant t-shirt further Kerry's campaign? Will bringing designers together under a website win him more votes? Would not a Kerry-minded designer motivated enough to spend time on a t-shirt or on a website be motivated enough to vote (and talk to his friends etc. about issues)?

Somehow I think a better use of a coalescent act would be to solicit writers to contribute thoughtful, evocative articles which might spark debate and draw in a general public who might actually learn something.

But the t-shirt, the categories, the voting ... has the value of graphic design in serious issues come to this?
marian bantjes

Great description, Fred--how I love it when the purism of American branding gets hacked to bits in foreign markets (no pun...).

As regards the political effectiveness of T-shirts, I wonder if DOTWHO's project isn't perhaps a case of When-in-Rome. That is to say, it's pretty clear we're beyond the age when evocative political commentary--especially the written sort-- and thoughtful debate created or moved large groups of voters. Sadly, we seem to be beyond the point at which being articulate is any kind of requisite or minimum qualification for political office (I almost wrote "leadership"). So then, if the electorate is tending to think in and act on smaller and smaller (not to say, more concise) messages, why not spread the word on T-shirts? If T-shirts are a lingua franca that can express pretty much any mode of consumerism and irony, as Fred says, it would be foolish not to deploy designers to make better, more meaningful T-shirts. Obviously the whole campaign budget doesn't go into this one medium, but I don't see anything futile or foolhardy in the specific medium of T-shirts. Here in New York, a T-shirt gets a lot more eyeballs than a pin or a bumper sticker. And if this contest is a way to get people involved, all the better. Combine that with software that makes everyone a designer and blogs that make everyone a political commentator, and this really isn't the usual design contest anymore, which is probably a good thing since there's absolutely zero reason to think sharp political messaging is exclusive to the design/advertising professions. The real problem with the whole project is getting millions of these T-shirts distributed so they can really do some damage.

And I guess we can all give up on trying to win Funniest category, since Michael's title to this thread is clearly the winner.
Sam Potts

While it is true that making t-shirts is not the most effective form political protest, it is also true that every little thing helps. It is easy to fall into the trap of doing nothing, and justifying inactivity by saying that there is something more effective to do than the proposed activity. For example:
A book is better than a t-shirt, so we won't bother with the t-shirt.
An organised poster campaign is better than a book so we won't bother with the book.
A tv-campaign is better than a poster campaign so we won't bother with the posters.
A new party offering real alternatives to Democrats/republicans is better than a tv-campaign so we won't bother with television.
The total rejection of modern western values and the development of a new wonderful society in which everyone is happy is even better, but that's too difficult so we won't bother with anything.

We have to start somewhere. If everyone who cares about what's going on does these little things then a new big thing might just emerge, and if it doen't at least we'll have a nice t-shirt.
Achilles Yerocostopoulos

It's that prolific leap you make fom designing t-shirts to participating in a bus boycott that defines liberalism (particularly the east coast variety) today. Somehow from your comfy loft apartments and Hampton digs you're able to to equate a self-absorbed activity like creating t-shirt art to actually advancing society. How very John Kerryish. Here are some more ideas for a project. Let's challenge some interior decorators to revamp one of Kerry's five mansions. Or maybe we can have some graphic designers create a new John Kerry line of snowboards. In regard to the t-shirt project, you summed it up best when you said, "Even to me this sounds like wishful thinking." That, in itself, is perhaps an even better definition of liberalism—a bunch of wishful thinking. And one more thing. A bus boycott is NOT a humble act. People were beaten, brutalized and murdered for doing such things. Oh, wait, John Kerry does know something about that. That's what he accused all his Vietnam buddies of doing. Sounds like a t-shirt idea to me.
David Walker

Jesus, Sam. So ... because the sound-bite is the increasingly dominant form of communication, we should just do away with debates and discussion in favour of sound-bites? Eschew the article for the pullout? No one reads anyway, so let's reduce everything to what can fit on a billboard, t-shirt or flash card? Will all discourse eventually be reduced to the equivalent of a ZikZak commercial? When do our heads explode?

I'm buying Michael's "My Democracy ..." t-shirt and I will adorn it with a 1-inch button that says "Think bigger."
marian bantjes

of course you can do better than a t-shirt, and I am definitely not putting that activity on par with a bus boycott. But it is definitely better than nothing. A line of snowboards with protest signs is better than sitting comfy and thinking how cool it was in Paris in 1968.
The jist of my post was that inactivity, especially when one cares about issues is never justifiable. If you are actually doing something better, then fine, abstain from t-shirts and posters. But abstaining because you feel that something better could be done, without taking any steps towards it is, in my view, completely idiotic.
A t-shirt will not change the world, it probably won't change anything, but it is something.
Achilles Yerocostopoulos

Mr. David Walker, when comparing other forms of protest such as cold blooded homicide or personal violence to one's participation in a bus boycott, then yes bus boycotts always remain a more humble act.

I have spent a great deal of time in Detroit, and thankfully I can honestly say that only those who are not humble enough to explore their own position will move to attack, such as your comment. Second graders are often allowed, with little punishment, to push each other into puddles. This does not solve or prove anything, other than one's own ignorance and impatience.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

Having introduced this post with a title including the phrase "reactionary idiots," I'm hardly in a position to ask any of our participants to tone down the rhetoric.

However, to get back on topic, I'd suggest that although organizing a t-shirt contest and proposing a bus boycott are not equivalent, they are both examples of modest actions with the potential to create a community dedicated to social action. I still remember my surprise when I first encountered Ralph Caplan's characterization as the sit-in as a great design solution. This was in his classic book By Design, which is a must for every design library and is due to be rereleased this year.

For more thrilling instances of these kind of "great design solutions," check out Taylor Branch's magnificent history, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963.

Michael Bierut

Sorry to stray further off topic, but, Michael, you did refer to the horizontal scaling in the Kerry logo. Does anyone know who is responsible for the Kerry campaign identity work? Can we possibly out that person here and make that person take "full responsibility" for it, just as Rumsfeld has for Abu Ghraib?

Great posts, Achilles.
So maybe what we are discussing here is: can a T-shirt be engagé?

I was talking about the shirts inside the site, not on the front page. I looked at, and voted on, all of them. I really think they're not that good. Hopefully some better ones will be submitted. I'n no designer, alas, so there'll not be an entry from me.

Interesting thread, y'all.

Whether or not tshirt graphics will bring on the revolution -- and I'd be inclined to say they won't, but you never know -- they are great for one thing:

Getting strangers to talk to each other on the street. (Or bus, train, McDonald's line, etc.)

I know this from first-hand experience. Obviously, "statement" tshirt designs often serve to identify the person wearing it, and the more expressive the tshirt, or the more precise (or, sometimes, enigmatic) the message, the more total strangers will be inclined to remark on it, sometimes starting a dialogue around it -- usually in support, though sometimes in opposition. It depends, of course, on the message and aesthetic.

When the tshirt expresses an issue around which like-minded people will want to bond, they most assuredly will. I learned this in my teens as a skate rat in the mid-80s. (Designers reading this who skateboarded during this period may concur.)

Because skateboarding was so underground and tight-knit at the time, with the few skaters in the world desperately looking for others to bond and skate with, wearing a Sims Hosoi shirt, for example, would cause any serious skater within eyesight to make a beeline to the wearer to say howdy. (In fact, this is exactly how I met some of my best friends to this day.)

Come to think of it, over the course of many years, I can recount all sorts of significant and long-lasting experiences and interactions -- positive and negative -- from wearing tshirts with either provocative messages or really great, evocative designs. (If Neville Brody happens to be reading this, I owe a debt of gratitude: a tshirt bearing one of his Cabaret Voltaire designs directly lead to getting me kissed in 1986, which, at the time, was quite a rarity. Thanks dude.)

Anyway, the same applies for the political tshirt, even when weightier, more complex issues are being displayed. (Unfortunately, it's not altogether fashionable to wear political declarations on one's chest at present -- though if Bush is elected for a second term, I bet it will be.)

For as little as a tshirt might actually say -- Art Spiegelman once remarked that the American public can only handle as much philosophy as will fit on a tshirt ("Less is more," "Know thyself," etc.) -- it at least has the potential to create a dialogue where one would have otherwise never taken place.

These days, if, for example, I wear a shirt in support of Barack Obama (a highly inspiring, distinguished young Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate here in Chicago), undoubtedly total strangers will initiate a conversation with me about his candidacy and beliefs, most voicing their support and similar perspective (along with a bit of grousing among Republican onlookers -- that's fun too).

In one day, as many as 10 onlookers may talk to me about Obama, and issues surrounding the upcoming election, solely because I'm wearing a tshirt with his name. (It's gratifying for both parties to know they share the same mindset -- at least enough for the onlooker to pipe up about it with a stranger, it would seem.)

And, in at least one of those cases, a nice conversation may ensue, emails may be exchanged, and a friendship (or alliance) might begin.

Truly, how many other cheap, simple devices -- much less ones employing graphic design -- can casually, unassumingly and spontaneously get strangers talking to each other?

In this day and age, isn't that at least a little bit revolutionary?
Jon Resh

T-shirts are the essential tools of politics, commerce, and culture. They are billboards and trademarks; they reflect our partisanship and belonging. They are brilliant inventions.

While I often drown in free Tees from all sorts of businesses and institutions - including design firms - when I see one that telegraphs what I want to say to the public, I wear it. Geez, I even pay $12 - $20 to buy it if it isn't free.

The fact is, we all love uniforms. Even uniforms of alienation. I'd like to see more Kerry Tees, that would be an optimistic sign.
steve heller

FYI, the contest deadline has been extended until 5/31. So, if you're not too busy redecorating your comfy loft apartments in the Hamptons...

Great post.

Spritied designs do have a strange way of standing the test of time. Funny is best. I'd love to have one of the "ReDefeat Bush" Tees.

A Texan, I can tell you they love their Tees. Some wear the same one day after day. Now thats advertising with coverage.

felix sockwell

FYI, the winning designs have been announced and the shirts are for sale. Check it out:

Designs on the White House

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