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– Written by Ellen McConnell – June 2, 2023

From shadows to rainbows: The campaign evolution of LGBTQ+ design

Pride design has come a long way since its inception, evolving alongside the LGBTQ+ rights movement itself. From the discreet graphics of early gay rights organizations to the bold and vibrant imagery seen in today's pride parades and campaigns, the visual language of pride has been a powerful tool for self-expression, visibility, and advocacy. This evolution reflects not only the changing attitudes and progress made in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights but also the diverse and dynamic nature of the community itself.

The gay rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States was a quiet force, operating under the radar with organizations like the mysterious Mattachine Society. They chose names that hid their true purpose and embraced a conciliatory and gradualistic approach to public campaigning.

But everything changed with the groundbreaking Stonewall Riots in 1969. This pivotal moment marked a cultural shift and ignited a transformation within the gay rights movement. The Mattachine Society left their mark on the boarded-up windows of the Stonewall Inn with a poignant plea, and the visual language of LGBTQ+ campaigning started to evolve.

In the aftermath of the riots, the grassroots nature of the movement became apparent. Campaign groups had limited resources and organization, leading to the creation of handmade graphics as a necessity. These raw and authentic visuals became a reflection of the realities and demands of the LGBTQ+ community, boldly asserting their identities and rights.

The Gay Liberation Front banners displayed during the 1970 Christopher Street Parade is a great example of this, being widely recognized as the first pride march. These banners fearlessly embraced the term “gay” and used provocative biological imagery to challenge prevailing notions of gender and sexuality.

Across the pond, in the United Kingdom, LGBTQ+ rights groups that emerged in the 1970s embraced a similar grassroots visual language. The manifesto of the UK’s Gay Liberation Front utilized hand-drawn illustrations, a black-and-white palette, and graphic references to direct action.

Moving into the 1990s and 2000s, OutRage! campaign group took center stage with their stark black-and-white posters. These designs sported tabloid-style text, subtly mocking reactionary headlines from popular newspapers. 

Throughout LGBTQ+ design history, a recurring theme has been the reclamation of social and educational symbols from mainstream culture. The pink triangle, once used to mark and oppress LGBTQ+ detainees in Nazi concentration camps, has become an enduring symbol of resilience and pride within the community.

We cannot discuss LGBTQ+ graphics without mentioning the iconic rainbow flag. Designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978, this vibrant symbol emerged at a time when the community was gaining social and legal victories. The rainbow, a universal symbol of hope, diversity, and plenty, resonated deeply with the LGBTQ+ movement. 

Over time, variations of the rainbow flag have emerged, reflecting the expanding understanding of sexuality and gender. Philadelphia added brown and black stripes to highlight people of color within the community. Daniel Quasar’s 2018 “Progress” flag incorporated chevron stripes to represent trans individuals and those living with HIV/AIDS, among others, injecting a sense of momentum into the movement. Valentino Vecchietti redesigned the flag to include the intersex symbol, shining a light on an often overlooked group.

In the digital age, where physical gatherings have been limited, the LGBTQ+ community has turned to digital platforms to connect. Designers and community members have played a vital role in developing and adopting these platforms, facilitating a sense of community and solidarity.

The impact of Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag cannot be overstated. It has transcended borders and become an internationally recognized symbol of pride for the LGBTQ+ community. Baker’s vision to create a flag that could be flown everywhere has become a reality, serving as an icon for a global movement.

As the fight for LGBTQ+ rights continues, the visuals and designs of the movement will undoubtedly evolve and adapt. From the black and white campaigns of the past to the vibrant and inclusive symbols of today, LGBTQ+ design will forever embody the struggle, resilience, and unyielding spirit of a community fighting for equality.