How to Make a Protest Sign That Isn't Garbage

WHAT DO WE WANT? Info on how to make a better sign. WHEN DO WE WANT IT? Periodically, throughout the article.

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Feb 22 2017, 10:22pm

Photo by Elissa Capelle Vaughn

Protesting is so hot right now. It seems as if every week there's a new fundamental human right being trampled, demanding a flood of opposition storming the streets. The Women's March was a shining example of peaceful resistance in action, as somewhere between 3 to 4 million people around the world gathered to protest Donald Trump. 

As diverse as the crowds at these marches were, the signage was even more varied and colorful. Some of the signs being waved by protesters were beautiful enough that they could easily hold their own on any art gallery wall. Other signs relied on caustic and razor-sharp humor to get their point across. Some signs, on the other hand, could benefit from a second pass.

As demonstrations are likely to remain popular activities for the next few years—or at least as long as George Soros keeps paying for everyone to attend them—there's a chance you'll find yourself participating in one at some point or another, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. Before you put on your pink pussy hat and join the throngs of people, it might behoove you to learn some best practices. 

With tips like "add glitter" or "decide in advance what your sign will say," the WikiHow for making protest signs treats the endeavor a bit too much like a rainy-day arts and crafts project. The most helpful takeaway from the WikiHow is the suggestion of using hollow cardboard tubing for your sign's handle as wood sticks are "not permitted in many cities." I reached out to experts in the fields of activism, design, and comedy for advice on how to make a sign that isn't yet another cluttered, unfunny, and ineffective mess.

Artist Gabby Gonzales immediately swatted down some of the WikiHow's suggestions, cautioning against adding too much busyness and pizazz to your sign, telling me that "everyone likes glitter and fun fonts, but, in a protest setting, it might not always be the most appropriate."

She also indicated that the WikiHow's raw material suggestions of cardboard and poster board were a tad naïve. Foam-core boards are what the pro-protestors use for both their rigidity and light weight.

Illustration courtesy of Jessica De Jesus

Creative director Jessica De Jesus explained how the visual philosophies that guide professional designers can be applied to sign creation. "I've found that text-based posters had the most impact with a limited color palette," said De Jesus. "That said, a general rule you can follow is that your main text should always be well-contrasted against its background, even if that background is full of color."

She also notes that unsung heroes like kerning play a far greater role than most realize in effectively communicating a message from across a crowd. If someone can't read your sign because you ran out of space and smushed a bunch of letters together, you might as well not be holding a sign at all.

"Do a readability check by walking a fair distance away from your poster. Can you still read it, or did you have to squint?" said De Jesus.

Photo courtesy of Jessica De Jesus

De Jesus encourages experimenting with mixed media so that your sign's message will both literally and figuratively pop off the poster and stick in people's minds. "There's nothing like a flaming red, 3D bush bursting from a 2D drawing of women's underwear to stop strangers in their tracks to applaud you and make everyone's day just a little brighter," she said.

Photo courtesy of Corinna Loo

Graphic designer Corinna Loo echoed De Jesus's sentiments about limited color palates, weighting certain words, and the importance of contrast, but also made it clear that a sign-making endeavor doesn't require a trip to Michael's.

"Get creative with what you have available," said Loo. "For example, the neon-pink tape that held my [above] sign together also added color. And if you don't have enough time to paint a sign, you can type one up in word and tile your poster so that it prints on [letter] paper. That way you can print something huge at home."

Now that we've covered aesthetics and your sign isn't going to make everyone's eyes bleed, let's move on to messaging. Whether attempting to tug at heartstrings, tickle a funny bone, deliver a gut punch, or target some other piece of anatomy, there are dos and don'ts to keep in mind when planning your words.

Hillary Rettig, author of the book The Lifelong Activist, has been protesting since the 60s and, in accordance with her book's title is politically engaged to this day. She told me that those wishing to take a no-nonsense approach with their sign's messaging should keep things succinct—seven words or fewer—for maximum effectiveness. 

"Recall one of the most successful political signs of the past few decades," said Rettig. "Shepard Fairey's Obama poster contained only a single word: Hope." 

Rettig said that marrying concrete and specific examples with that brevity, like "Obamacare saved my life," adds more personal and emotional weight to a sign than the similar idea of "women for Obamacare."

As we live in a world completely saturated with pop culture, Rettig encourages those who subscribe to a particular fandom to "let their geek flag fly" and drop references in their signs. Dropping nerd shibboleths like "Trump is a Dalek" announces one's belonging to a particular tribe and subconsciously encourage those who would regard themselves as members of the same group to get onboard with the sign's stance.

Whatever you choose to write, Rettig recommends googling or having a friend review it before you take it to the streets, lest you unintentionally say something offensive or suggestive

On the other hand, maybe you're going for suggestive. Maybe you're going to change hearts and minds with the power of humor. What do people who are actually paid to be funny for a living have to say on the matter of protest sign comedy?

Writer and comedian Lauren Brown found one of her popular tweets (above) being used on signage in the recent Women's March protests. She was flattered to discover that her words were appreciated enough to be transferred to poster board, and she imagines that most other comedians would share her opinion, as protests are typically well-meaning efforts. In a post–Fat Jew era, where comedic attribution is under more scrutiny than ever, Brown feels signs are a forgivable exception for minor comedic plagiarism.

"Using my words for a protest sign when you're fighting for a good cause is cool," she said. "It's totally different than if somebody was stealing a joke from me for their own comedy."

Brown noted that whether you attempt your own comedy, borrow someone else's, or just doodle a uterus on a piece of cardboard, one's participation in the protest is the factor that trumps all others in the equation.

"Making a sign and showing up to a protest is an act of saying that you matter and your voice should be heard. I don't think it matters if it's funny or original or not, it just matters that you're there saying it."

Fellow stand-up Emily Heller agreed with Brown's thoughts that nobody should be discouraged from participation and all comedy, even bad comedy, should be welcomed at a protest.

"A lot of protest signs succumb to dad-level jokes, but the fact is, dads love dad jokes, and I want dads at protests," said Heller. "And I don't know about you, but my dad fucking hates Trump and he could use some exercise, so let's not discourage anyone who wants to carry a 'WE SHALL OVERCOMB' sign or whatever. They say it takes seven years to find your voice in comedy. Let's hope this administration doesn't last long enough for any of us to master cardboard."

Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.

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