Design & Politics

This course explores the overlap between design and politics. The overlap is not fixed or sharp, leading the idealist and the activist alike into unknown territory. Here, politics is the means in which power is shifted. Defined as such, the designer has many ways to enter the political arena: through affecting change in small groups, organizations, neighborhoods and political office.

As a graduate interdisciplinary studio, the course will introduce and frame assignments in the broadest possible way to allow for many outcomes. Students are encouraged to bring their existing bodies of work, personal narratives and discipline-specific processes to their projects.

There will be three major assignments with a few activities, guests and outings. Some will relate and reinforce the assignments, others exist to bring students into contact with people and issues that relate to design and politics and can inform the final project.

Learning Goals

Learning Outcomes

Course themes



Unit 1: Who’s in charge?

Using your own affiliations as content, we’ll look at how various groups organize themselves, what the benefits are to those structures, and how other organizational structures may be of value. See writeup
2 weeks

Unit 2: How can we use symbols to make a point?

Groups and movements rally behind symbols — whether a graphic symbol, a flag, a building, a color or other. You’ll be asked to choose a symbol and create a new work that alters or applies that symbol in a manner that expresses a point of view. See writeup
2 weeks

Unit 3: What is public space for?

Public space provides the space for political and social acts, helping to define the culture of a place. You will make a work (or a proposal) sited in public, physical or digital, that encourages a shared experience. See writeup
4 weeks

Unit 4: Open Inquiry

You will have the last four weeks of class to create a work, whether individual or collaborative, that comes out of the first part of the course.
4 weeks

Weekly: News share and discussion

A minimum of every three weeks, you’ll share news stories of interest to you, and potentially the class. Throughout the whole semester, you shoudl be looking at news, videos, magazines, headlines, reddit posts, twitter, etc as the source for projects, commentary. Widen your sources. Use it as a chance to see how information flows and the agendas of those that propagate them. Let your imagine flow out of what you find. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s ashes in urn available for pets.” You may also bring up primary sources (Covid stats) as something that is news for you, worth looking more into. You may also share your personal poltical news (Ex: “my mom is for border walls, and we talked about it”).

These share sessions are informal, but please prepare what you plan to share in advance.

Method Activities

You’ll work with various graphic diagramming structures — venn diagram, slider bar, branch, border, asterick — to help generate new ideas and relationships between things.



Week 1 Feb 18 Unit 1 begins
Week 2 Feb 25 Gemma Copeland
Week 3 Mar 4 Unit 2 begins
Week 4 Mar 11  
Week 5 Mar 18 Unit 3 begins
Week 6 Mar 25  
Week 7 Apr 8 Andy Pressman
Week 8 Apr 15 North Burial Ground
Week 9 Apr 22 Amber Art Collective
Week 10 Apr 29 State House
Week 11 May 6  
Week 12 May 13 Final review
Week 13 TBD Work due

Key Bibliography

Tools & References




20% Unit 1: Org Chart
20% Unit 2: Symbol appropriation
30% Unit 3: In Public
10% Headlines, Exercises
20% Participation, Attendance, Class engagement

Updated May 2022


Because class activities, discussion and community-building is at the heart of this course, you are required to be in class, and what we do in our class meetings will help determine your learning experience and outcomes.

Method of Instruction

Class will be held in person (as long as RISD’s College Covid policies allow) and involve a mix of the following: lecture, activity, guest, outing, reviewing student work, sharing headlines, etc.

Estimated Cost of Materials

There are no mandatory expenses planned. The Graphic Design Department has a few black and white printers that can be accessed and used to print for free.

On Subjectivity

We each carry different life experiences and our goal should be to help each other see differing perspectives while the intention of making stronger work and connecting us to each other. Our viewpoints are influenced by our life experiences, education, age, identity and systemic forces out of our control. The instructor will do his best to expose students to a wide range of references and to respond to student work as generously and open-mindedly as possible. Part of how a student develops a personal voice is by seeing how the range of RISD instructors communicate their own views.

Particularly in a course about politics, it is expected that student viewpoints on subject matter and the reading of a work will differ. In order to grow, we must be open to listening and engaging views that we are unfamiliar with or disagree with. Please respect each others’ opinions and refrain from personal attacks or demeaning comments of any kind. Finally, remember to keep confidential all issues of a personal or professional nature that are discussed in class.

It is the responsibility of the individual faculty member to determine, maintain and enforce the standards of behavior acceptable to preserving an atmosphere appropriate for teaching and learning.

Community Guidelines

  1. Listen actively and share the floor. Allow others to speak if you have already spoken, and try to speak up if you tend to be an observer.
  2. It is OK to disagree, but not OK to shame, blame, or attack another person.
  3. Assume positive intent on the part of fellow participants.
  4. Ask questions from a standpoint of curiosity, as opposed to arguing or debating a point of view.
  5. Use I statements when sharing experiences, feelings and opinions. I feel, I believe, I think, …
  6. Avoid making generalizations. Facts and evidence are important.
  7. Allow space for emotions to be expressed, and notice when you get emotional. Ask yourself, what are your emotions teaching you?
  8. Be conscientious about your use of slurs against any identity group, even when telling a story or quoting. Choose your words thoughtfully. Some words open doors while others slam them shut.
  9. Address others using the name, pronouns, and identifying language they request.
  10. Privacy: please do not share other peoples stories outside of the group. If a story must be shared ask the storytellers permission first and ask them how our planet can be shared.

Refer and alter the community guidelines

Academic Misconduct

All work is built upon other work; whether explicitly or not. In this course, there will be opportunities to work with your classmates to build something that is shared. Particularly with many deadlines and when learning a new skill, other people’s work may offer a pathway forward. What you do with what you see is important and can be the difference between riffing, appropriating, copying and stealing. As a general rule of thumb, if you see something you are excited about (in class or outside), understand the context in which it was made. What was the design responding to, communicating, and to whom. A deeper understanding of other people’s work generally produces additional ideas, realizations and starts to “fork” the idea (thank you, Github). It’s rare that your design problem is exactly like someone else’s. It is rare that you share the same values, interests, skills, as someone else. Referencing another person’s work can make sense (logo parodies, etc) if that fits your concept. In a school environment it’s best to check in with your teacher to see how to best make your own work truly your own.

We expect all GD students and faculty to maintain an open perspective towards these concepts, and to use class as a safe testing ground for exploring influence, with the guidance of faculty. For more information, please see “It’s probably not plagiarism,” along with RISD’s Academic Code of Conduct.

Disability Statement

RISD is committed to providing equal opportunity for all students. If you are a student with a disability that may require accommodations to complete the requirements of this class, I encourage you to discuss your learning needs with me during the first week of the term. Once an approval letter from the Office of Disability Support Services is submitted, accommodations will be provided as needed. For more information on how to receive accommodations, please contact Disability Support Services at 401-709-8460 or

Land acknowledgment *

Rhode Island School of Design is built on what is now called College Hill, part of the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett Nation, the only federally recognized tribe in Rhode Island. Indigenous people from many nations—near and far—live, study and work in Providence today. RISD community members are committed to actively addressing the many violent legacies of colonialism in our daily work. The amplification of Native voices and histories is crucial to rectifying the destructive past, and we gratefully acknowledge the ongoing critical contributions of Indigenous people across our state, region and nation. Let us commit ourselves as designers and human beings and with our work to create more equitable, respectful and honest open cultures and societies.

*This text has been sent to Anthony D. Stanton, chief sachem of the Narragansett Nation, to ask for his review. The text will be revised to address any feedback RISD receives from Chief Stanton or from one of his representatives.