Union by Design

introduction and images by

The English mod-revival punk band, The Jam, has a line that sums up the struggle for workplace rights: “Stop dreaming of the quiet life because it's one you'll never know.” Contrary to growing misapprehensions, union members are just regular working people. They have joined with their colleagues to make their working lives better, safer, and more productive. It is my job to convey the very simple concept of “real people with real stories”—and the result must be compelling. Unions grow in strength when the person who sits at the next desk explains why they’ve joined—my work is designed to engage people in just this way, to bring them into the picture, and into the design itself.

The briefs I receive from a trade union are quite different from the usual client briefs. I'm not asked to sell a product, but rather ideas and ideals. I seek to promote the idea that cooperation—more than contention—can lead to powerful change. A design needs to start conversations between co-workers; it needs to be a statement to management and to individuals within, and outside of, the organization; it also needs to demonstrate that it is possible to stand up and be heard. In this respect, union designers are extremely fortunate.

As a designer in a trade union, one inherits a strong visual tradition. The simple ideals and messages of modern unionization have barely changed in the last 200 years. So the challenge is to work out a way of presenting the same ideas in new ways. Union design turns out to be more conceptually based than are other forms of graphic design. There are no fists or flags in my work, although I'm asked for them quite regularly. I also receive requests familiar to all designers—to fill in the white space, to enlarge logos and change colours, and so on. I am a designer, after all.

Those of us in the position of designing the history of the trade union movement face an intimidating task. We must think ahead to ten years from now, or more, and decide what will be remembered—or at the very least, what will be retained for the purposes of the campaign. We must consider that in 100 years, a campaign will be remembered largely by its design.

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Atosha McCaw is a graphic designer who works for the National Tertiary Education Union in South Melbourne, Australia. She is also one of the founding directors of Creative Unions, www.creativeunions.org, a not for profit aimed at improving the level and reputation of graphic design in trade unions. You can see more of her work on her website, www.mortartown.com.



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