It looked like First Friday in Uptown Oakland, though it wasn’t a First Friday night.

The party at SoleSpace to celebrate Design Action Collective‘s 10-year anniversary was packed – one might even say bangin’.

Earlier that night, the Brass Liberation Orchestra had rocked the sidewalk at 17th and Telegraph, nearly shaking the glass out of SoleSpace’s storefront with their jubilant brass band party music. Now Kevin Christensen was serving up beer brewed straight out of his garage-based brewery, DJ Willie Maze was manning the turntables and the exuberant crowd was mingling, noshing, dancing and just plain celebrating.

There was much to celebrate. For a decade now, Oakland-based Design Action Collective has designed websites and print materials to further social change and the momentum only seems to be building.

Design Action is a worker-owned cooperative whose mission clearly states that it provides “graphic design and visual communications for progressive, nonprofit and social change organizations,” though it also serves artists, authors and individuals whose work is in line with the collective’s political points of unity. In 10 years of business, Design Action has worked in collaboration with nearly every social change organization imaginable, becoming an integral part of the work to further the progressive movement.

You’re probably familiar with Design Action’s work, whether you know it or not. The “Foreclose Wall Street West” posters from the Occupy movement? That was Design Action. The “Not In Our Name” anti-war posters? Design Action. The black and red “Defend Civil Liberties” series of anti-Islamophobia posters? You guessed it, Design Action.

The current staff of 11 people are responsible for such designs as the U.S. Social Forum’s web and print materials and have had a hand in a far-ranging list of causes including reform of the prison-industrial complex, Shell Oil boycotts, divestment from Israel, campaigns against Tar Sands and Keystone XL, and movements for women’s rights, immigrant rights, accessible education, workers’ rights, housing rights, reproductive rights, marriage equality and LGBT rights and environmental and climate justice.

Design Action’s work lends to progressive and nonprofit organizations a crucial aspect of campaign success that more resourced corporations have leveraged for a long time: In this era of media saturation, aesthetic appeal is key to getting people to pay attention. Rallies need signs that are boldly colored and easily readable both in person and in photographs; websites must be attractive and well-organized; logos must be memorable. Design Action provides the art and design to complement the grassroots organizing.

“Having an event like this is really a celebration of all of the movement work that people have done collectively over the past 10 years, and not specifically Design Action’s portfolio,” said Sabiha Basrai, one of Design Action’s staff. “All of us [staff], coming from political organizing backgrounds and having connections with a lot of the people we do work for, has blurred the line between client-vendor dynamics and really made us see ourselves as a part of the activist community. We bring a particular skill set – which is visual communications, graphic design and web development – to that movement.”

I got to sit down and chat with Basrai at Design Action’s Oakland office a few days after the celebration at SoleSpace. Basrai has been a member of the Design Action Collective since 2007 and also happens to be an old high school friend of mine.

Even as a high schooler, we reminisced, Basrai was identified by our fellow students as a future “artist and activist;” she was a talented artist with an eye for lines and colors and had an activist streak uncommon for a high schooler in a suburban town. In college, she figured that her most likely career path would be to pursue design work at a for-profit corporation and to do pro bono social justice artwork on the side – but then, through a stroke of luck and happenstance, she heard about Design Action.

She became Design Action’s first intern in 2003. From the perspective of her 10-year association with Design Action, she told me a bit about the history behind the collective.

Design Action originally began life as a spin-off from Inkworks Press Collective, a West Berkeley shop that has provided printing services for social justice organizations since 1974. With the tide of changing technology over the decades – particularly as desktop publishing and graphic design became increasingly fundamental to print work for activists – Inkworks recognized that there was a need for more dedicated graphic design work that they, as a printshop, could not provide. Thus in 2002, Inkworks’ two in-house graphic designers, Innosanto Nagara and Kym Thomas, formed their own graphic design service called Design Action.

Nagara and Thomas set up shop in a back room in Nagara’s house in Berkeley, then eventually moved into shared offices with The Ruckus Society, an affiliation that kept Design Action in close daily contact with progressive movers and shakers. In 2004, together with The Ruckus Society and TUMIS design firm, Design Action organized the Designs on Democracy conference to bring together the artists and designers who work specifically for social change. The conference was attended by 400 people.

Since then, Design Action has grown to its current staff of 11, built up a robust web department to provide full-service web development and design (again, keeping up with changing times) and moved into a 2,000-square-foot office whose walls are lined with dozens of posters as testament to the collective’s work.

In keeping with the model that Inkworks Press laid out, Design Action is a worker-owned cooperative, which means that staff are each equal owners of the business once they become collective members after a nine-month candidacy period. There is no hierarchical structure within the collective – each member makes equal hourly pay and has an equal voice in collective decision-making. The staff holds at least two meetings per week, on Monday mornings and Thursday nights, to do check-ins about the different projects going through the shop and to discuss business matters. Generally speaking, Design Action strives to maintain as egalitarian and consensus-based a business model as possible.

“It’s like you don’t have a boss, or like you have 10 other bosses,” Basrai said jokingly of Design Action’s collective structure.

Design Action charges clients on a sliding scale, which is made possible by working with a diverse portfolio of clients, such that Design Action can serve both small grassroots groups as well as large nonprofits who are willing and able to pay more. According to Basrai, Design Action has no real marketing plan to speak of; instead, clients typically seek out Design Action based on connections and word of mouth. The shop thrives in the intersections that community organizers make with one another.

“It’s really empowering to be able to say, ‘Yes, this is what we want to do, this is how we want to do it, this is what’s working well, this is what didn’t work so well and let’s make sure we do it differently next time,’” Basrai said. “We’re very grateful that we have clients who are willing to work through that process with us. The most successful projects are the ones where organizers are willing to trust and go through that process with us. Then it’s not this vendor-client tension but instead this collaboration where we’re all reaching a common goal.”

To celebrate 10 years, Design Action is holding a month-long retrospective exhibit that represents just a small fraction of the design work they have done – and the clients they have worked with – over the past decade.

“We really trust that what we’re doing here is useful,” Basrai said. “Looking at the show, it’s really a testament to all the organizers we’ve had the privilege of working with. We can see anti-war posters from 2002, we can see a website for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, we can see our latest personal poster project that we put out into the community for International Women’s Day. I think it really showcases our own personal motivation and our personal creativity – but more so, how the movement has grown and diversified, how many success stories there are, how many struggles continue.”

The exhibit runs through March at SoleSpace. Pop by SoleSpace during open hours this month and help Design Action celebrate ten years of justice, ruckus and liberation.

 

If You Go

Design Action Collective’s 10 Years of Designing for Change exhibit

When:
 Noon to 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, through March 31 

Where: SoleSpace, 1714 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
 

More info: designaction.org/blog/archives/1078

 

Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact goingout@oaklandlocal.com.

 

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