University of Arizona

Episode 2
A Typeface For Change: Silas Munro

What do iconic movements like women’s suffrage, Civil Rights, queer liberation, and the Vietnam war resistance have in common? They tapped into the power of words and images to convey messages of protest that changed the collective imagination and direction of history. For LA-based designer and educator Silas Munro, there is “no shortage of opportunities for design to be part of the conversation of social justice.” In this conversation with Munro, we learn to use the subtle yet powerful techniques of lettering and type to tell new stories that inspire justice.

Silas Munro is currently faculty co-chair in graphic design at Vermont College of Fine Arts and author of Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of Protest.


Amelia Kraehe Race Remix

gloria j. wilson This is Race Remix, a podcast that pushes forward enriching and challenging conversations about the arts in racial justice. We talk with artists, poets, writers, directors, dancers, designers, performers, and creative practitioners from the Arizona community and beyond. As you listen, be inspired to advocate and activate in your community. Together we can create a more just joyful and sustainable world. Welcome to Race Remix.

Amelia Kraehe Welcome to Race Remix. I’m your host, Amy Kraehe. Co-hosting this episode is gloria j. wilson.

gloria j. wilson It’s great to be here with you, Amy. Thrilled that we can be joined today by Silas Munro. Silas is a Los Angeles based designer, curator, writer and educator. Welcome. 

Silas Munro Thank you so much. I’m really grateful to be here and excited to chat with you all.

Amelia Kraehe Silas has put a wealth of research and experience into a new book called Strike Through Typographic Messages of Protest, published in 2022 with letter form archive. This visually delicious book shows readers the many, many ways dissent has been expressed through text and graphics and how we can craft our own demands for social change. I want to ask you to read a passage from your curatorial statement in this wonderful book.

Silas Munro Strike through the penetration of ink, through paper in the printing process to draw a line, through text, to call for the deletion of an error. Protesters have long used typography to strike through myriad forms of oppression. Their urgent, often handmade signs, placards and posters put bigots on notice that their hate has been marked for correction created in the wake of the 2020 police murders of black Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the upswell of ensuing Black Lives Matter protests.

Silas Munro This exhibition and book showcase examples of typographic anger and agency from across moments, places and movements as it is seen in the streets, on the printed page, and even on the bodies of demonstrators.

gloria j. wilson You work in the realm of design, and so I have three questions related to that. What is design? How do you define it and how does it relate to art?

Silas Munro I think for me, the way that I define design is a creative practice of expressing and reflecting culture. I think design’s role is about communication and connection. In our contemporary culture, we treat art as an elevated thing, like in a western lens. But I feel like for me, design kind of bridges all of those things in a way that’s quite mutable.

Amelia Kraehe How did you get started with design? When did it become a part of your life? How did you end up focusing your creative energy on issues of racial justice within and through design?

Silas Munro I think I first noticed design in the public library. I grew up in the suburbs of DC in Northern Virginia, and there was a public library that I could walk to the Woodrow Wilson Public Library. And part of why I was drawn to the library is that it was really quiet. I just really noticed the books. I loved the materiality of them.

I love the variety of them. And I both love like reading and text, but also image. And so in graphic design, all of those kind of manifest. And so that was an entry point when I got to art school, like that felt like a path. And I think also because of growing up middle class, having interracial parents, I think also being a queer person, I don’t know.

There’s just this idea of like when I was entering art school, I felt like there’s a little bit of pressure to have a practical skill to take away. And so graphic design have this kind of merging of text and image. And also it was a trade and it could have a function in society. But it also felt like when I work in design, it’s almost as if the two halves of your brains come together.

Like, I could see you have, you know, one lobe in each hand and like through design, this kind of this fuzing together. Once I got to design school, I realized as I was taking design history, I didn’t see myself represented in those courses. I didn’t see black folks. I didn’t see queer folks. And so through the course of school, but also going into practice, that idea of social justice was just about wanting to see myself in my own work and the work of my students.

Once I became a teacher and needing to find kindred spirits because I just there was a lot missing. And the more I studied and the more I started to work, the more I realized how many gaps there were.

Amelia Kraehe Why are you interested in typography and typeface?

Silas Munro I’m interested in type and typography because of its meta message. So when you look at a typeface, you can read the text of what it’s saying, but the forms carry other information. They’re encoded in a way visually, and they connect to better forms that have come before. I mean, even the Roman alphabet, which we use to typeset English, has a whole colonial lineage connected to the Roman Empire and Latin Western communication.

So the idea of racism and inequalities inherent in letter forms. But at the same time, I feel like someone who carries a marginalized lineage type has an ability to put a visual into the language that has something extra, has something other, something expressive. And I think that allows an opportunity for resistance in that visual form and allows you to take a stand to push back.

I’m thinking particularly of the work of Tré Seals, whose typeface equates its use in Strikethrough, the display typeface, where he researched a series of protest posters to the 20th century and kept seeing a similar slanted, sans serif lettering style. But it was showing up in women’s suffrage posters and anti-Vietnam posters in queer liberation posters in the Civil Rights.

And so there was this sort of different agenda, but then the same typographic feel. And I feel like when you design a typeface or you choose a typeface, you can add that extra edge to it. Like you can tell a story through the form that just fascinates me, that endless sort of search to find the right voice for a particular text. It’s like the graphic designer’s role becomes interpretive in that way.

Amelia Kraehe What is a sans serif?

Silas Munro Yeah, that’s a great question. So in the history of the inscription, all Latin text, part of the way the letters were formed, which were like painted and then also chiseled in stone, there is sort of like a flourish when you move the brush or you remove the chisel that creates a form that comes at the end of a stroke and as a serif.

And so Serifs have this connection with the way things are made. Why type is made. And so a sans serif typeface, which you start seeing those show up in the late 19th century, early 20th century, removes that flourish. And I think part of the ideology of the way we experience a censor is a kind of refusal of a certain kind of history or tradition and are linked or associated with something modern with this idea of like that complicated phrase, modernism of like culture, embracing the now and how technology is shifting.

And I guess I hope to try to say something different visually and that has a lot of baggage. It’s complicated at the center, but I think that’s the idea behind us. And Serif is like to try to, like, strip away a form of history.

Amelia Kraehe What are some really common serif typefaces and send serif typefaces that your average PC user would be familiar with?

Silas Munro Yeah, I feel like Serif Times New Roman, which, you know, comes from newspaper printing. It’s originally of British origin but becomes associated with factual information and legal documents. Helvetica is one of the most known sans serif typefaces that was designed in Switzerland and mid-twentieth century that kind of has a sleekness. It’s used in a lot of branding and corporate communication, but it’s on pretty much every computer.

Silas Munro And there’s alternate versions, like Arial is a descendant of that. That’s a common sense there of other Serif Georgia, a serif typeface that you would see and use quite a bit. I think you kind of throw in also Courier, which is technically a sans serif, but kind of feels like typewriter E and kind of mechanical, and also is used in like a number of legal documents too.

Silas Munro So there’s kind of these like system typefaces that you see and kind of think of as almost like an archetypal version of these categorizations of letter forms.

gloria j. wilson You talk about how you came to design through your love of books. Your latest book, Strikethrough Typographic Messages of Protest is filled with design. There are 250 images of protest signs, posters, clothing, buttons, publications and ephemera. What were your goals in this project?

Silas Munro Yeah, I had a number of goals with Strikethrough. One goal came out of how the project started. I was asked by letter from archives in San Francisco to co-create this show with Stephen Coles, who is the resident curator there. And they approached me after the murder of George Floyd about creating this show about protests. And one of their goals was to try to do some of what I was talking about with my own design Education Research was to have more inclusivity into their collection.

The letter from Archive has a really rich, amazing collection of all typographic objects from its cuneiform tablets to now — contemporary protest graphics. But at the time when they asked me and they’re still working on this, there’s a lack of artists and designers of color. And so one of the goals was that the show could help the archive acquire new pieces into their collection.

And then I think also there’s already been a lot of scholarship around protest, but it just felt like in the last few years it’s become more and more resonant with our time now. And so for me, with this project, I think every history project is sort of like, how do I make sense of it now? Through history, by organizing this show and gendering the public.

And for me there was this idea of call and response that I kept seeing, both in terms of when you go to a protest site or when you see pictures of a protest, there is the chant, this idea of protesters asking for demands. Usually someone in the crowd kind of starting the chant, you know, what do we want?

When do we want it? Now? And this kind of talking back and forth to each other as a collective and that idea of also how does this experience that we’re having right now with the resurgence of BlackLivesMatter, police brutality connect to the work of the Black Panthers and Emery Douglas, for example, and how does that connect to the history of other forms of civil rights or labor issues or queer revolution?

Like there’s all of these forms of solidarity that I was discovering, and that became really important to evidence that both in the publication and in the exhibition. And so there are moments in the publication where there’s direct formal comparisons where you can see protesters either using similar typefaces or similar colors or also similar messages. And the kind of frustration of dealing with these themes over and over again, but also the empowerment of looking at those who came before us and how that can energize us to continue to fight, to continue to resist silence.

gloria j. wilson There are numerous trained and untrained designers who have facilitated social change across time. What designs for racial justice has moved and inspired you? They really rocked your world.

Silas Munro Yeah, there’s so many. I think one of the people that I think about a lot is Fabiano Rodriguez is an Oakland based artist, designer, and she really speaks truth to power in her work. Part of that call and response lineages, she was very much influenced by Emory Douglas, who was one of the early members of the Black Panther and their Minister of Communication and her lettering and illustrations style is reflects this really beautiful Latin experience, but also transcends that too, in a way that I think is just really audacious, really visually rich.

She also cites Sister Creative Kent as one of her influences, who I also think is really amazing as a woman, as an educator, as someone who’s processing their faith, you know, as a Catholic nun. But then she’s also been connected to pop art and her own lettering style. Speaking of hand lettering. And yeah, those are two that come to mind.

I feel like another standout that I didn’t know about before working on the show is Mary Tepper, who is still living and was part of the sort of Haight-Ashbury movement of protest. And she has a piece in the show called Hallelujah to the Pill. And it is a celebration of a woman’s right to choose birth control. And it’s so visually striking and just really resonates with the recent repeal of Roe v Wade.

And that’s really important. And like all of those artists are connected to Aviana also argues for basically in one of her posters, she’s like telling the government to like, keep your power off my pussy, basically. And this idea of, like. claiming part of the autonomy and embodiment and self-care as part of her work and I actually like that theme of the body shows up a lot and strike three of like designers, protesters, activists, literally putting their body on the line to protest something.

Another example is the collective brick-by-brick who makes these suits that have bricks on them. And they have language, derogatory phrases from Donald Trump on their like nasty woman in other things that he said that were hateful. And they use them as patches on this wall and they stand together in protests. And I feel like that’s really powerful to take something that’s hateful or painful and then redirect that and reclaim that.

And I feel like the artists in Strikethrough really inspire me to do that. And the last piece that I wanted to mention is the work of Heather Snyder, Quinn, Adam Tomasso and the developer Flor Saladino. They made an app called Maria, which is an augmented reality protest tool, and the name comes from a young woman named Maria Lottie, who unfortunately died of an opiate overdose as part of the negligence of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family.

And so with the app, Maria, you can take your cell phone and hold it up in various institutions and places, particularly the Met and the Lou for the Sacklers have given money to art museums and the app will display an overlay of typographic and video protests. And for me that is really powerful in a time when there’s a lot of violence and where it takes a lot of risk to be a protester in a public space.

And this allows you to protest in a virtual way where you don’t actually even need a physical sign. And I just think that’s a really powerful, important tool.

gloria j. wilson We’re seeing racial justice movements like BlackLivesMatter and movements led by black women such as Hashtag me to and say her name using online platforms to get their message out and to organize. What have you noticed in these digital practices is.

Silas Munro I think the silver lining of the COVID 19 pandemic was this ability for activists, artists, designers to organize virtually and to share their messages in the digital space. And to your point, I’m thinking of folks like the NAP ministry that have been able to circulate ideas of restless resistance and other political messages through social media posts and how also information about being safe and communicating during a protest and like informational guides that give you strategies for avoiding or evading police and surveillance and other ways to regroup, I felt was really powerful and really inspiring.

I think it’s also become a platform for the extension of people who do actually protest in person. A lot more people are going to or can see a protest because of the ubiquitous digital documentation that happens. And I feel like that’s a really powerful tool, especially for black women and other folks who have been marginalized where you can now suddenly amplify your voice.

I think there’s a little bit of a shadow there to where literally a lot of PSC folks and queer PC folks get quote unquote shadow band in these digital spaces where like their content is like blocked or banned or flagged a lot more so that those kind of like there’s a sadness for me in that. But overall I feel like there’s just so much opportunity to have your voice heard that has been really inspiring for me.

gloria j. wilson What challenges do you see in designing for social movements today?

Silas Munro I think there’s no shortage of opportunity or need for design to be part of the conversation of social justice. I think there are a couple of key things that are abstractions. For lack of a better term. I think one is the history of design thinking, which is being adapted a lot for like thinking about organizational change or institutional change, which involves like editing and brainstorming and collaborating can have kind of a history of white supremacy itself.

Amelia Kraehe Can you say more about that?

Silas Munro Yes, because design thinking as a term is associated with a lot of bay Area theorists and studios and technologists that come out of the Human Factors movement, I would say sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, where industrial design and product design were influencing the idea of prototyping and iterating as a way to evolve design and have connected to design studios like Idaho, where like design as a controlled consultancy showed up as a way that design could be problem solving and could solve issues social issues. I think the problem with that is a lot of those designers and a lot of that thought come from a place of savior and white savior modes of like, we if we just make a process, I can come into a community and I can use my skills as a designer to like, repair and restore, but can be very exploitive of in a way.

And so I think the antidote to that is like community led long term engagements using some of the strategies of design in a way that I think is more reparative rather than harmful. And I think the flip side is in all this amazing watershed moment of social justice, I think we can also hit fatigue both in terms of activists and and folks who are doing the work where I think there can be this exertion exhaustion thing where we’re just asked to do so much and so we can get burnt out.

And then I think there’s also, over time, resistance from organizations to change because it’s hard work, because it takes a lot of effort and takes time and it takes uncomfortable conversations. And so I think the way that I navigate that and the way that I get help is really working in collaboration and working with collectives and doing my best to also rest and serve and have meals with people who are doing this work and to take time away and to instill joy and make things just for myself.

So I think that idea of how do you practice in ways that’s enduring like that can endure for ourselves, for each other, for institutions, and like, how do we take our time and put in time and our allowed time to do this kind of work.

Amelia Kraehe So it leads me to wonder how expanding design history, what you might call the foundations of design, or at least the narrative about the foundations of design, how that relates to conversations about race and racial justice in this country.

Silas Munro I think as long as I, my collaborators, anyone that’s interested in doing social justice work can think about it as a series of small conversations, small interventions. I think that helps me not get paralyzed by the enormity of the challenge of deconstructing an arbitrary concept like race that has been embodied in everything, especially everything design and that additive collective process which many folks are doing already.

One resource I’m thinking about is the People’s Graphic Design Archive that has user submitted elements like that idea that we don’t have to do it alone, and that if we personally expand things with friends, with collaborators, with support, I think that frees us to have a kind of power that we need to dismantle these histories of racial oppression.

Amelia Kraehe This sounds like call and response.

Silas Munro Yeah, very much so. Yeah, it is that same metaphor, that same power that we can have where we can hear ourselves, we can see ourselves and we can be validated and validate each other and learn from each other in a way that can, I think, break that myth of the so author and the expert. Like, I feel like that is what I try to embody is like, how can I be a facilitator and a space holder for and with others as much as it is my own voice that is calling for change.

gloria j. wilson So can you share more about the notion of call and response? It seems to be a through line in all of the work that you do.

Silas Munro Yeah, the musical structure of call and response can be traced back to African musical traditions. You also see it in the Caribbean and Latin acts, musical traditions that were carried through the slave trade, through enslaved Africans who brought this musical tradition of a vocalist or musician saying a phrase and then a collective or audience responding. You see it in gospel, blues, music, cumbia, and so many musical forms.

And so that idea of an initiator and responder in dialog is something that just really resonates with me. I think because of my own lived experience and that of especially my mother’s side, I also played the drums in Middle school and high school. And so part of the percussive part of a band or an ensemble is kind of like keeping the pace or keeping the rhythm and there’s also play.

You can improvise, you can shift and kind of riff off of each other, kind of like what we’ve been doing in this conversation. And I feel like that that is a design strategy and it’s one that is not tied to a Eurocentric prospect, but it can also expand and shift and be used for a lot of different roles, whether you’re operating as a designer or a writer or a teacher or a student or collaborator, it allows a lot of shifting of power and shifting of effort.

Amelia Kraehe I think I can speak for many people, not only in this studio but in the world, and say that we we all have many things to keep, keep learning and failing and trying. Again, I want to thank you for being here and sharing the wisdom, your knowledge, your energy. It’s been a joy.

gloria j. wilson Thank you.

Silas Munro Likewise. The pleasure is all mine. Thank you for giving me space to share my experience and reminding me of just the power of the conversations, the spaces, the projects that I get to be involved in a way that’s really, really nurturing. And I hope you all feel nurtured by this experience, too.

gloria j. wilson Absolutely.

Thank you for joining the conversation on Race Remix today. The podcast is the creation of Racial Justice Studio in Tucson, Arizona. Land of the Tohono O’odham and the Pascua Yaqui. This episode would not have been possible without the efforts of our team of students, staff and faculty fellows Chelsea Farrar, Amy Kraehe, myself, gloria wilson, Isaac Schutz, Dianna Scott and Jenny Stern.

This program is brought to you by the Arizona Arts at the University of Arizona with generous support from John and Sandy Flint. If you enjoyed this episode, please invite your friends, family, students and colleagues to listen. Interested in joining our community or listening to more episodes, please visit Race Remix dot Arts dot Arizona dot edu and sign up to receive emails about upcoming news and events. You can also learn more about all of our guests in the show Notes Race Remix.

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