Environmental Activism: Why We Need To Shake Up the Visual

23 April 2018
Reading Time
3 minute read

Graphic designer Claire Matthews founded independent campaign group Clean Air Now alongside Vasilisa Forbes in 2016. Clean Air Now advocate for positive environmental change in London and across the UK, through billboards, subverts, videos and street art placement.

With the election of Donald Trump jeopardising many of the Obama-era policies aimed at curbing climate change and the potential loss of EU environmental regulations in the UK post-Brexit, local and global environmental protection should be a hot topic for all.

We’re at a critical time, and many big decisions are being made by politicians and policy-makers that will undoubtably affect the planet and our livelihoods both now and for future generations.

When it comes to rallying support for environmental causes, those in the creative sphere have a unique opportunity to use their skillset to raise public awareness and help spearhead change. Despite this, the environmental campaigns that make it out to the public eye day-to-day often feel outdated, unrelatable, and targeted at those already ‘woke’ to the issue at hand.

Setting up Clean Air Now was triggered by a feeling of frustration towards this lost opportunity, particularly in engaging with a new wave of bold young activists who have the potential to make a real difference and spread awareness. In the age of the internet, echo messaging and breadth of digital design, traditional environmental activist organisations are losing out.

Despite poor air quality being linked to over 40,000 early deaths annually in the UK alone, we found the design of many NGO’s anti-pollution campaigns followed an ‘off-the-shelf’ formula and felt soft-touch and forgetful. Often using idyllic imagery of clear skies and rolling hills, some campaigns could even be mistaken for the kind of travel ad you might see on the underground, were you not to spot the call to action.

We believe we need to bridge this disconnect by creating direct, engaging and people-led environmental campaigns that mobilise and empower young people. In terms of design, this means creating visuals that are audacious, brave and challenge the status quo. The washed out, tired visuals we are used to seeing are not doing enough to inspire fresh activism.

Where’s the influential face for environmental campaigning? Young identity needs to be reflected, and here collaboration can be key. In Grime Goes Green, our first fully-fledged campaign, we worked with leading Grime artists to promote electric cars and bikes as alternative inner-city transportation. By using young influencers and creating relatable content we were able to show that supporting and making green decisions is a bold, courageous, and even cool, thing to do.


Clean Air Now: Grime Goes Green

Our latest campaign, Polluted Beauty, illustrates the visible and shocking impact that dirty air has on our appearance. From blocked pores, premature ageing, loss of facial elasticity and dark circles, pollution is wreaking havoc on both our skin and hair. Our campaign aims to highlight this. By using pop-colours, fashion-led poses and bold diptychs we are visualising the invisible effects of pollution. We utilised design to make the message bold and pop without shying away from the grotesque reality of the situation.

The devastating impact of pollution is both a political and personal affair. As designers and creatives it’s important that we harness our skills to visually present activist messages. From keying into youth culture through pop-inspired ‘shareable’ imagery to putting up billboards that feature influencers and shake up the ignorable ‘norm’ of what an advertisement looks like, now — more than ever — the future of the planet lies with us. If you’re a creative, now is the time to take your art and make it activism.


Clean Air Now: Polluted Beauty

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Claire Matthews

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