Design Activists Needed

Last week I got down to the serious business of discussing how graphic design can help build a powerful and effective sustainability movement.The discussion was moderated by Susan Szenasy, editor of Metropolis Magazine and, in addition to me, the panelists, were  Michael Bierut (Pentagram), Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Jeremy Osborn (, Dmitri Siegel (Urban Outfitters) and James Slezak ( (The event was sponsored by AIGANY and Distributed Artist Publishers.)

In organizing this panel, we wanted to come to real, concrete conclusions and to open up some real pathways for artists to contribute meaningful work towards a movement that has the capacity to radically affect our political thinking. Let’s cut right to the chase. Here are the highlights:

1)      Michael Bierut felt that the sustainability movement needs to simplify its message and choose an enemy.

2)      Jeremy Osborn felt that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is that enemy (see below for why), a point strongly supported by Susan Szenasy (and me).

3)      Dmitri Siegel made the observation that people no longer rely on big institutions for authority.  They rely on their networks.

4)      This point about networks was also emphasized by Paul Miller and James Slezak, who argued that today’s movements are different from prior movements and that social networks are essential for spreading the word, aggregating interest and also investing people in taking the first steps towards action.  (However, it was agreed that the focus of online activity should be driving action offline.)

5)      There was a consensus that both humor and anger were necessary in messaging for this movement.

So weaving all these points together, here is what you get: Let’s get strong, simple messaging that is tailor-made for particular demographics operating in service of attacking the U. S. Chamber of Commerce on its climate position. has recently launched a very smart and promising campaign against the Chamber (explore this website).  And over the next month I (as director of The Canary Project) will be working with to create clear pathways for designers to contribute.

Here, in a nutshell, is why the Chamber is the right target for the sustainability movement: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is controlled by Big Polluters, poisons politics with its dirty money, and opposes every single effort to curb climate pollution.

What does that mean exactly?  Here are some factoids from 350’s website: The Chamber spent $132 million on lobbying last year.  That is more than the next three highest sources of lobbying COMBINED. The majority of the Chamber’s funding comes from just 16 donors. Those donors are anonymous (thanks to the Chamber’s own lobbying efforts), but in October 2010 the New York Times revealed that among the top donors are Chevron Texaco and Rubert Murdoch’s News Corporation.  “Of the $32 million that the Chamber spent on the midterm elections in 2010, 94% went to candidates who deny climate science,” notes

In other words the U.S. Chamber has emerged as the biggest force standing in the way of meaningful climate legislation and in so doing they do not represent real American business interests. They represent only a handful of big business interests. Get this straight. The U.S. Chamber IS NOT your friendly local chamber of commerce. It is a different animal entirely.  (See these videos for more).

350 aims to spur defections of both businesses (big and small) and local Chambers of Commerce from the membership rolls of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, weakening its credibility and exposing it for what it is–a shill for the highest bidders and an enemy of progress and prosperity in this country.  Last year several corporations (Apple, Microsoft, Nike, PG&E) defected from the Chamber, specifically citing the Chamber’s policy on climate. These heavy hitting businesses were joined by dozens of local Chambers of Commerce (everywhere from Hanover, New Hampshire to Lebanon Pennsylvania to Charlottesville, North Carolina to Mountain View, California).  350 is trying to up that number of defections, as well as getting businesses to sign on to a statement that “THE US CHAMBER DOES NOT REPRESENT ME”.

So how can designers help?  We need clever ways to spread this message. The more dynamic the message, and the better its message is calibrated to a specific demographic, the more effective it will be.  I will be working with 350 to come up with a simple mechanism by which designers can submit designs for specific locations to be distributed to local businesses and citizens, as well as on possibilities for creative stunts like the one the Yes Men pulled last year, and also on campaigns of public messaging, such as bus ads.

Stay tuned for the specifics. In the meantime, feel free to email me any ideas you have for how to stick it to the Chamber at

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