How Extinction Rebellion’s graphic design amplified their year of radical activism
When designer Clive Russell first met Roger Hallam, one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion, he was blocking traffic on Marylebone Road, protesting poor air quality in London. Hallam mentioned a then-unnamed, decentralised movement, that would make the urgent message of climate crisis unavoidable. “I told him, ‘If we’re going to do this properly, give us more time to get a design,’” Russell says. “And he did.”
A little over a year after Hallam and Russell’s conversation, the newly-named Extinction Rebellion was making headlines for shutting down central London, blocking five bridges in the capital. Suddenly, somehow, this collaborative and grassroots movement had captured the sense of urgency that had previously been missing from discussion of our rapidly warming earth. And everywhere these protests went, its visual language went too: a bright, closely defined palette of colours, a punchy font and woodcut illustrations of skulls and nature made by collaborator Miles Flynn.
In 2019, these design elements have become an ever-more familiar sight in major cities and beyond, on posters and flyers. With further protests occupying crucial spots in central London, the group (whose name is often shortened to XR) have made headlines for their unabashed and direct warnings about the climate crisis, which refuse to sugarcoat the level of threat that the planet is under.
“Its consistency makes it very effective,” explained Lucienne Roberts, whose studio GraphicDesign& was behind the recent exhibition on graphics and politics at the Design Museum. “Often with political movements, they can err on the side of being too passive – XR are not passive.”
Top left © Anthony Burrill, top right © Clive Russell, bottom left © Izzy Way, bottom right © Rich Back
The first thing you notice is the colours: bright, verdant green; a royal, bluey purple (both of which are uncannily similar to Pantone’s 2017 and 2018 “Colour of the Year”) and a bubblegum, millennial pink. The font, based on an old wood type, was designed by Russell himself to look a little crooked (he named his creation “Fucxed”). The stylised hourglass logo, however, was designed before XR was even a twinkle in a roadblock’s eye. “It was created by a street artist called ESP in 2011,” Russell said, explaining that the group has the artist’s permission, as long as the symbol is never used commercially. Russell, for his own part, had worked in design his whole life, but had always found the industry’s commercial side hard to stomach. “I found it a bit coercive, and very unprincipled,” he says. “So I’ve always been sort of slightly to one side of things,” he says. His agency, This Ain’t Rock N Roll, works with charities and causes, and is able to donate 50 percent of its time for free. “Of which a great deal, currently, is being spent with Extinction Rebellion,” he adds.
Russell had big plans for Extinction Rebellion’s image from the beginning, even helping to name the project. “It was really important to us that we didn’t look like any of the other eco movements,” he says. “Largely because a lot of them talk to a very internalised audience. It was important that Extinction Rebellion felt really open, fresh and easy for people to join.”
Despite these aims, the movement has been criticised for exactly the things Russell says it was trying to avoid, and, in particular, for speaking to a white, middle-class audience. Many feel that the group’s emphasis on civil disobedience, with tactics asking protesters to allow themselves to be arrested, excludes the groups that are more likely to be mistreated by police, in particular, people of colour. And unlike many radical political groups, the movement has a policy of actively liaising with police, at least in the UK.
“I think that’s a really valid point,” says Russell. “People have to understand that when they are getting arrested, it’s from a point of privilege. Sometimes, we should as a movement should push that message more.”
From the outside, the rigour with which XR apply their imagery can seem cynical. Is it suspicious to over-determine and coordinate visuals in advance, in the same way that brands do? While these are the tools of capitalism, it’s important to note that this is not the first political movement to work under the banner of an image. Russell cites the purple, green and white of the Suffragettes, and the Atelier Populaire silk-screened posters in the 1968 student protests in Paris as examples of other groups that have succeeded in this respect.
Dr Aidan McGarry, a researcher at Loughborough University who works on protest movements and visual culture, also noted the analogy with the CND logo, or peace sign. “There’s something interesting about people uniting under a symbol. The most prevalent identity is nation states, which unite under a flag. When people protest together under this symbol, they are disrupting this notion that the state is the primary organising principle in our society.”
Russell explains that the cohesiveness of the message, as well as its methods of production were set up in part to enable people to unite while making their own statements. “If we’re relying too much on an individual, that’s massively problematic,” he says, pointing to the availability of XR’s materials online. “That’s given out to all the art groups all over the world and the local art groups in the UK.” These kits come with guidelines and advice, but are open to interpretation. “Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the variety in flags, fluttering at protests all with the symbol on them. I think there’s something wonderful about that – we’re all together. But also, all different.”
He’s particularly excited to see more from the newly-inaugurated XR art group in Mexico, noting that the number of burgeoning groups across the world means he can take more of a backseat in the future.
For Russell, what is most important about XR’s branding is that it is eye-catching, and creates memorable moments that stick in the public consciousness. “That pink boat on Oxford Street – that’s a potentially iconic moment, and it wouldn’t have happened without our work.” He thinks that raising the alarm about the climate crisis means making a big visual imprint: “These moments have to be staged, you have to think about them,” he says. Lucienne Roberts agreed with this assessment, noting. “We don’t have the luxury of time. Making that apparent through the visuals is important.”