Design for Direct Action

Transcript of a lecture delivered for the School of Speculation at the Design Museum, London, 18.08.20

Ende Gelände, direct action at an open cast coal mine, Germany, 2017. See


Insisting on acting as if one is already free

(David Graeber)

Intentional law-breaking where persons place themselves in arrestable situations in order to make a political statement


To “create such a crisis and foster such a tension” as to demand a response.

(Martin Luther King)

Struggle between worker and employer for control “over the economic life of society”.

(William Mellor)

Strikes, demonstrations, or other public forms of protest rather than negotiation to achieve one’s demands.


Direct Action is organic and spontaneous — it can be a march, a riot, individual action. It is about creating nonviolent conflict to start or intervene in public discourse. It’s an essential component to democracy, and holding power to account. Discourse is fundamental to progress, but we’ve forgotten how to disagree and still be friends. Populism reigns, and its one-size-fits-all solutions.

We live in a kind of desperate, lazy clamouring for fast, individualistic solutions to ease the strain of conflict. This is the symptom of the populist times we live in. In-fighting within movements ends up as playground politics that wastes energy and dissipates mutual power by taking each other down rather than acting in solidarity. This is the antithesis of solidarity.

“We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree — on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication.”

Mark Fisher, Exiting the Vampire Castle

Riot is the collective human reaction when faced with violent oppression. It’s the pressure cooker of society and its oppressive systems boiling over. Violent flash points happen in the public domain that remind us of our vulnerability, our oppressed position within the system. Riot is organic, spontaneous, and about shared identity, emotion and purpose. As much as some revolutionaries would like to think, you can’t manufacture a riot.

Sephie (illustration). Greenpeace, Ditch Diesel. Credit: Minute Works and Rosie Strickland


Design’s purpose is to merge form with function, to invent, create the new, to solve wicked (or impossible) problems, innovate, speculate, and push progress. It’s the manipulation of matter, material, resource into tools and things for human use. Design is everywhere. Once you start looking, it’s inseparable from the human experience, and progress.

Je dessiné, donc je suis.

The word progress has for too long been wedded to the capitalist ideal, more money, higher GDP = progress. What if we valued other things? Gross national happiness? Gross national equality? Gross national health? Gross national biodiversity? There is a lot of useless crap that designers are churning out that keeps business-as-usual rolling, maintains profit margins, and drives the artificial consumer market. The relationship between design and capitalism is undeniable. Advertising and product design are our domain. We’re selling our souls to keep paying the rent. It’s our power of innovation, to find the new, to invent and create, that enables companies to keep profits moving, even more so when we design useless stuff that we can also tell a very compelling story about why you need it. Design is responsible for the creation of desire. The new is seductive, especially when it looks so good.

But Design itself isn’t the culprit, we have a choice what or who we design for.

We are problem solvers by trade and to solve a problem we seek to understand the context in which the problem exists. We must not be afraid to throw ourselves into the unknown and dig. Gather data. Go undercover. Listen. Become a fly on the wall. Take risks. Interrogate the client’s assumptions. We quest for that data that’s going to give us the insight we need, that’s the power of our work.

Quest — -> Knowledge — -> Creativity

We are inquisitive & curious about what people think, and why. We don’t take things as they appear, and want to know what’s beneath the surface. We work with complexity every day to find the new, to seek the sweet spot that’s going to give us that wow or aha moment, when you know you’ve cracked it. You’ve nailed the brief.

Reclaim the Power, direct action at coach depot. Banner design: Rosie Strickland, Disobedient Design


Direct action is manufactured dissent. It’s about designing a non-violent flash point in public space that ignites the imagination and kick-starts discourse to hold power to account.

It intentionally intervenes in business-as-usual, and when done well, inserts new ideas into the public domain. Direct action is the threshold where the creation of new ideological parameters for society exists. It requires putting the human body into a position of vulnerability against things that are much bigger than it, and it’s in this performance of human vulnerability vs. nonhuman, cold, hard infrastructure of the state or capitalism that strikes a powerful image. Whether choreographed or spontaneous, positioning the human body in relation to infrastructure makes visible the conflict at the heart of the demand. The conflict between the ecological, represented by the human body; and the nonhuman, the technological.

Infrastructure can be used as a tool by the powerful to gain access to resources previously inaccessible. Whoever owns infrastructure, also has power. Using infrastructure to land grab or gain access to untapped resources has colonial roots, and is the foundation of destructive resource extraction. Extraction is the battle line frontier of capitalism and the race to save nature from the artifice. Sites of extraction are incredibly significant as these are the spaces where the crimes against ecology and humanity are most visible and taking place in real time. Whether it’s a coal mine in Germany or the shrinking edge of the Amazon rainforest, these frontiers of progress as we know it are tough battlegrounds and more-often-than-not riddled with corruption and hidden from the public eye.

Direct Action is about knowing and intervening in the hidden machinery of capitalism, its destructive supply chains. Look behind the brands to see where the chain goes and you will find lorries, ships, trains, diggers, sub-brands, nasty middle-man companies, factories, refineries, fields, pipelines. Sometimes direct action interrupts a chain to stop a crime against nature or humanity taking place, and at the same time makes visible some of the terrible atrocities happening ‘behind the scenes’, the other side of the glossy advertising and media PR. A lot of animal rights protests achieve this by revealing the shameful treatment of animals for industrial meat that goes on behind closed doors, whilst burgers and meat products are sold to us with all their advertising gloss.

Designing a direct action is about designing an image. An image that resonates in the imagination of the public, articulated through the intersection of the human body, public space infrastructure, architecture, objects and symbols, to communicate a new, subversive or radical idea.

  • Choose your point of intervention
  • Know your target
  • Nail your demand
  • Speak truth to power
  • Use the media
  • Break the rules
  • Shut shit down

Rosie Strickland is a designer, storyteller and art director for social change. Find out more by visiting