Senior graphic design major Hannah Caulkins poses for a portrait at Richards Hall on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

A handful of students and their professor hope to enact social change through visual art in “Design and Social Change,” a graphic design course in the School of Art, Art History & Design at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  

In the class, upper-level students examine and take inspiration from art and counterculture at different points in United States history. Topics range from the AIDS epidemic, the gay rights movement of the 20th century, and World War II propaganda, all under the guidance of Stacy Asher.

Asher referred to her experience with activism and design when she was conceptualizing this course last year. She worked on a design project about the stories of Black Panther members in recent years and created recycled masks of gay rights activist Harvey Milk.

“I think the purpose of my research, as well as the thought behind this course, was looking at the role of design in promoting social change,” she said.  

Class members said the accessibility of images and their ability to bolster activist efforts creates a role for design and visual art in activism.

Senior graphic design major Maeve Nelson is examining the role of violence and nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. She said she can draw comparisons between the way current and past social movements in the United States have mobilized.

“I was interested in this topic because it’s interesting to study the ways in which history repeats itself,” Nelson said.

She said she thinks U.S. history continues to repeat itself due to society’s detachment from the past and because “we are able to distance ourselves from the past.”

But AJ Wiley, a junior graphic design major, found that the way people relate to design and art through the years has changed. He did this by using social media to interact with his audience.

Wiley created an Instagram with original infographics and informational designs focusing on the preservation of national parks and monuments. The content was linked to commentary about environmental sustainability sponsored by brands like Patagonia.

“The focus was on how to get people to interact with this page, while trying not to pick a side, but, at the same time, informing people on what is happening and allowing them to choose how they wanted to be involved,” he said.

Asher said remaining objective in a social change class is a challenge but said she feels she has a responsibility to emphasize issues because of their prevalence in today’s society.

“There are some articles we read about design being guided by principles, and there are a lot of wicked issues out there that can be kind of emotional,” she said. “I really didn’t want to create any more conflict, but I really think that at the heart of any social movement, there is design and art.”