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Interview: Justin Kemerling

Written by
Nicholas Burroughs
February 25, 2013

We met up with designer Justin Kemerling to talk about his passion for design activism. Justin shares how he got started, his philosophies on designing and social justice, what inspires him and what really irks him:

How did you get started in socially concious design, or design for good?

In college, I’d say I was oblivious about a lot of things. I wanted to be in a punk rock band and that was it. Then I took some political science classes. I got way into the federalist and anti-federalist papers. I ate that shit up. After that I had a Blacks and the American Political System class with a section about pop culture where we analyzed some Public Enemy songs. Media, power, struggle, etc. Similarly, I love The Clash. “Born out of social movements” and “fuck the man” stuff. I liked how making art blended with doing things that mattered. Punkers in Lincoln I’d hang out with were globally-minded, environmental, foodie activists. It naturally rubbed off on me.

Then I got my first real job at an ad agency, and I explored and made things on the side involving design + music + art + activism. Creative side projects lived on The Match Factory, a site where a couple other hard-working designers (Jason Hardy and Jontue Hollingsworth, who are both so damn good) and I shared our experimental work. 

We were in an art show once to make pieces that supported or opposed any kind of social cause. I made a 12′ x 8′ tiled wall of B/W tabloid posters against the Iraq War. It was in 2004 and heavy into that whole debacle; it was on everyone’s mind. From there it became more of a focus of mine, but not only personal art projects. I started working with non-profit organizations on websites or logos, and would help develop the proper communication tools for them. For a while I would do that for free and it kept building from there.

Do you think socially conscious design needs to be jarring or offensive to communicate and work?

We had a class discussion in college about United Colors of Benetton ads that were always pretty provocative and caused lots of controversy, and at the time I didn’t like it. I thought you shouldn’t have to do shock value just to prove your point. Now, I think there is a time and a place. Some of the early stuff I would do was purely about exposing a message that I thought was harmful or I didn’t agree with, calling attention to the fact that I thought the war was not right. A lot of that was really raw, and as a piece of design, it wasn’t very good. But I was more concerned with the Adbusters type message of making it as raw as possible, so it felt like a protest, not a glossy commercial piece that was selling something.

You wrote a blog post for Adbusters a few years ago. Does their content still resonate with you?

Yes, I did. I don’t really follow Adbusters anymore. I feel they’re too negative. That’s probably because I’ve been a designer for 10 years now, and at the end of the day, I like making things that are nice. My style has changed. I think my perspective has, too. When you’re talking about design, the message that’s actually going to matter and resonate with people is not often the most harsh one. Most of the time people need to be inspired to do something rather than belittled or scared into it.

But then there are subjects like voting rights suppression that really piss me off. If you’re going to mess with people’s right to vote, you’re an asshole and you deserve to be called out on it. America says it believes in voting rights, but not really because it makes it hard for people in low-income neighborhoods to vote. We put up billboards to scare people, we close polling places and tolerate 8-hour lines on election day. That is grounds for much more harsh communication

What design for good project are you most proud of?

I really like the Appleseed poster exhibitions. Appleseed is a local organization in Nebraska that does the hard, legal, behind-the-scenes work to make our state a better place for everyone to be. A friend of mine works there. We thought a poster show was a constructive idea, so we did it. The Appleseed poster show brings people together. It gets people talking about making a positive impact from a community organizing, design and issues standpoint. I dig that. The last couple of years we’ve had posters highlighting the positive aspects of the organization and the principles they stand for: equality, opportunity, justice.

The designs are better if they’re more positive, uplifting and hopeful. It’s not paid work, but Appleseed pays to screen print everything. By paying to print a poster you design, it shows that the organization believes in what you made as a designer. Not all designers like doing or even care about socially concious design. It’s just not on their radar, and that’s fine. For others, it’s really important to do something that matches a certain set of values, and there should always be outlets for that.

If you could work with any non-profit or socially conscious organization, which one would it be?

There are bigger non-profits, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, that would be great to work with. GOOD does a lot of really cool projects and partners with changemakers to help tell stories. Of course, Dave Eggers or McSweeney’s would be SO amazing. I think any of those would make for an inspiring opportunity.

It’s great to work at a local community level, but also with the bigger national groups, like the President’s re-election campaign, where your design gets spread across the country. I think designers want more exposure to more people, so being able to have that with bigger non-profits or collaborators out there who are making waves is something I’m always thinking about.

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