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Design Action Collective

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  • Dan Clore
    News & Views for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo [See original for examples of their work.--DC]
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 7, 2012
      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      [See original for examples of their work.--DC]

      Design Action
      An interview with the Design Action Collective
      By Collin Harris
      July 2012

      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
      movement well.

      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.

      Dan Clore

      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_
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