Design Action Collective
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
[See original for examples of their work.--DC]
An interview with the Design Action Collective
By Collin Harris
Design Action Collective is a worker-owned co-op based in Oakland,
California providing design and visual communication services to
movements for social justice. To say that designers and artists of all
kinds play a crucial and highly complicit role in the great circus of
consumer capitalism is an insight that evades the average art school
student. They are the aesthetic force at work in the mass delirium that
is the American marketplace. Without designers the vast kaleidoscope of
distraction would be shapeless and colorless.
Many young artists are so happy to be getting paid for their creative
talents that the actual purpose, the wider social function of their own
creativity, is an afterthought, if it ever even enters their thinking at
Of course, people should be able to do what they love for a living, but
who goes to art school to pursue a passion for corporate branding? I
suspect that there are legions of aspiring young artists pursuing a life
in the arts precisely because it offers something other than income:
creative fulfillment, transcendent experience, cultural expression,
self-discovery, or the search for existential meaning. The notion that
one could pursue these decidedly immaterial forms of value and make a
living is still, for many, a utopian daydream within the current social
It’s easy to accuse them of a failure of imagination, and certainly
there is an element of this at work, particularly among those with
access to creative resources. What’s more difficult is to imagine, and
then create, a social order that actively cultivates people’s creative
potential and expands the boundaries of their imagination—a society that
doesn’t smother the artistic impulse with the “dull compulsion of the
economic.” Members of the Design Action Collective offer their insights
into the intersection of movements and the arts.
HARRIS: How did Design Action Collective (DAC) come about?
DAC: DAC is a graphic design studio in Oakland, California. We are a
mission-driven organization formed to serve the visual communications
needs of the progressive movement. We are also a worker-owned
cooperative, with nine members. Design Action was formed in 2002 as a
spin-off from Inkworks Press, a worker-owned print shop formed in 1973
to serve the movement for social change. When the desktop publishing
“revolution” hit in the 1980s, Inkworks’ electronic prepress department
quickly expanded to offer desktop publishing and graphic design
services. As graphic design became an increasingly important service to
non-profits and activist groups, Inkworks was faced with the reality
that the design and prepress work did not always mesh very well. After a
number of discussions about how to provide both services well, it was
decided that the design department should be spun off as its own shop.
Thus, Design Action was born. Inkworks’ two designers left and were
replaced by two dedicated prepress operators. Initially operating as a
two-person shop working out of a living room in Berkeley, Design Action
quickly expanded its services. In 2003, we moved to downtown Oakland to
share offices with The Ruckus Society and Third World Majority. Then we
started adding collective members. In 2008, Design Action moved again
and today occupies over 2000 square feet of office space in downtown
Oakland. By 2011 Design Action had grown to a nine-person shop,
including a dedicated web design and development team.
We still work very closely with Inkworks and each shop is now an
independent worker-owned business. We serve many of the same
organizations, and Design Action has been able to expand its services in
the areas of web and multimedia, as well as design for other types of
printing such as T-shirts and banners. We can also now support
organizations with full-ad campaigns, messaging, and strategic
communications tools of increasing importance to the social change
efforts. Without advocating for image over substance, Design Action
believes that the social justice movement does not lack good solutions,
theories or even solid working models of how a better world is possible.
Yet, the other side spends billions of dollars every year bombarding
people with the message that there is no alternative to the current
system. So, it is important for progressives to find a way to articulate
their vision—and the visual communications piece of that effort is what
Design Action seeks to tackle.
At the same time, Inkworks has been able to place a stronger emphasis on
the technical side of its prepress and printing—modernizing its presses
and launching an online print-ordering system. So the split has been a
win-win for both shops. As a collective, Design Action modeled most of
its initial policies on Inkworks. We have a democratic decision-making
structure, and equal hourly pay. The collective candidacy period is nine
months, but there is no buy-in.
Design Action is incorporated as a California Cooperative following the
model of Rainbow Grocery, the Arizmendi Cooperatives, and others.
Members are active in a number of different social movements, and the
shop is a member of the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives, The
U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, and our union, Communication
Workers of America, AFL-CIO. Being part of a union allows us to have a
voice in the labor movement, and ensures that we continue to adhere to
union standards as our co-op grows. For all of us, Design Action is how
we earn our living and we have prioritized things like health care and
vacation pay to ensure a sustainable work life.
A majority of Design Action members are people of color, with native
speakers of Indonesian, Spanish, Hindi, and Tagalog on staff. We strive
for diversity in our collective as we bring in new members.
Tell about your organizational structure, values, and principles? What
distinguishes you from traditional design studios? Is DAC a design
studio or activist collective?
Most business decisions are made by a two-thirds majority vote in a
weekly collective meeting. However, certain larger decisions that affect
the shop as a whole (such as hiring and firing) are made by consensus.
Day-to-day project and client-related decisions are made individually.
We also have weekly production meetings where we distribute work and
update each other on upcoming projects. All members share
responsibilities for project management, design, production, and
administrative tasks. There are no divisions in job roles. We have a
bookkeeper who comes in once a week, but we all have to keep up to date
on our accounts, payroll, and invoicing.
Unlike other design studios, we all came to this work through a
dedication to social justice and our shop’s democratic structure models
those values. Many of us have experience working as community organizers
and in nonprofit organizations, so we understand the needs of the
As part of the movement for peace and justice, Design Action supports
all efforts to bring about progressive social change by providing high
quality graphic design and visual communications services to progressive
organizations. With this in mind, our “Points of Political Unity” give
direction to our work.
We make a sincere effort to support other political designers and
cooperative shops by referring projects to one another instead of
undercutting each other through competitive bidding. Design Action
Collective exists at the intersection of activism and communications
work. Many of us have community organizing projects we are involved with
outside of Design Action. Whenever possible, those projects are
connected back to the shop.
Talk about your selection process. Do you turn down work? What’s your
internal process for planning, developing, and finishing a project?
Design Action members do our best to stay connected with people we love
working with and we reach out to new folks we want to collaborate with.
We give workshops and presentations at conferences like the U.S. Social
Forums, the Allied Media Conference, South by Southwest Interactive, as
well as national and regional worker-co-op conferences. Most of our
clients seek us out because of our politics and our reputation of doing
dedicated design work for the social justice movement. We all share in
the roles of “intake”—answering the phones and responding to email
inquiries and we trust each other to decide what projects are a good fit
both from a political perspective and with regards to our services.
Sometimes we’ll get a job inquiry that require specialized skills and we
can propose a process that involves bringing in an outside consultant.
We rarely turn down work. The factors we must consider are (a) does this
project fit with our political points of unity? (b) does this project
fit within our services and can we bring in other consultants? (c) does
this organization have a budget that will cover our design costs or are
we willing do donate time?
Our internal process for sharing work involves weekly production
meetings and department meetings. We share our projects according to
skill and interest and do our best to make sure the workload is
distributed evenly among all Design Action members. Sometimes we work
individually and sometimes we work in teams depending on the scope of
the project. When time and budget allows, we’ll gather the whole shop
together for developing concepts and messaging strategies that will be
implemented in web and print materials for a given campaign.
Did you start out exclusively designing for activist and social justice
groups or did you have to build up to that point? What allows you to
design for groups and projects that are often notoriously underfunded?
Design Action began with a clear mission to design for social justice
and activist groups. Our founding members recognized the communication
needs and were dedicated to helping build a broad and effective
progressive movement. Design Action operates on a sliding scale and we
strive to match our design process with organizational resources. This
means we must be creative in how we manage the scope of projects. We are
grateful to have a diverse range of clients with various levels of
funding resources so we can afford to serve grassroots community groups
while also working on national and international campaigns for large NGOs.
Many collectives, co-op’s, and alternative projects of all kinds thrive
through mutual aid, the sharing of workspaces and resources,
collaboration, relying on community and so forth. What’s been your
In Design Action’s early years, we shared office space with a direct
action training organization called the Ruckus Society. Ruckus not only
enabled us to have office space in downtown Oakland, they also helped us
stay even more connected to social justice work. The office was often
buzzing with news about action planning around various issues so we were
aware of the tactics and strategies that organizers were discussing.
This was a constant reminder that we were part of a large community of
activists and we were playing an important role in campaign work.
Eventually, as we hired new members, we needed to move to a bigger
space. But the relationships developed during that time in the Ruckus
building are still strong.
We also see Design Action as a “sister shop” to Inkworks Press. We
continue to refer projects to each other. Design Action is part of the
Network of Bay Area Worker Coops and the U.S. Federation of Worker
Coops. So we are connected to many other worker-owned cooperatives where
we have been able to learn from each other and discuss ways to
successfully run co-op businesses.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists and designers who want to
take design in a more radical, engaging direction, to liberate their art
from the values of Madison Avenue and the economic logic of capitalism?
Many students do not realize one can make a living doing this work. We
are often encouraged to find corporate jobs and then do pro bono work on
the side. It is Design Action’s hope that aspiring designers and web
developers will realize that there is a huge community of people who
have dedicated their careers to social justice work and are still able
to support themselves and their families. We have given presentations at
high schools and colleges and started internship and apprenticeship
programs so students have an opportunity to learn with us.
In 2004, Design Action helped organize the Designs on Democracy
conference in Berkeley, California. Designs on Democracy was a landmark
gathering of progressive graphic designers, communicators, web
developers, new media creatives, cultural workers and marketers.
Participants explored tools and strategies that support movement
building and strengthen relationships and institutions that serve
organizing for social justice. Image-makers and message strategists from
diverse movements came together to learn from one another and build a
basis for future collaboration. As for artists searching for a way to
liberate their work from the world of corporate design, this event was a
great introduction to the possibility of forming artist collectives and
sustaining media work dedicated to social justice.
When this work is approached with an attitude of creative problem
solving and we are motivated by issues we care about, then without
trying to compete with each other, we can help each other achieve a lot.
MOSS is intended to be an incubator for movement culture in all its
forms. What role can designers and other artists play in the resurgent
culture of rebellion that is emerging here and around the world?
Design Action members have all come to this work from different
backgrounds. So even in our nine-person shop, we are constantly learning
from each other. We recognize that the stories of our diverse histories
and cultures are often co-opted or told for us. And we seek to help
people tell their own stories. Graphic design and other media can help
bring a unified voice and help us identify with diverse struggles for
social justice. We believe that this kind of cultural work should be
accountable to the campaigns lead by the most impacted people, which is
why Design Action is always collaborating with organizers and community
leaders. We have a responsibility to help undermine oppressive
narratives and articulate visions for the future.
Collin Harris is a freelance writer and activist based in Portland,
Oregon. Graphics in this article are examples of DAC posters.
New book: _Weird Words: A Lovecraftian Lexicon_:
My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
"From the point of view of the defense of our society,
there only exists one danger -- that workers succeed in
speaking to each other about their condition and their
aspirations _without intermediaries_."
--Censor (Gianfranco Sanguinetti), _The Real Report on
the Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy_