It was November 10th, 2016. Post-election night in America. The results were in, and before she went to bed, Bob Bland—nearly nine months pregnant, and feeling overwhelmed—posted a message on Facebook: “Women should march on Washington. A million pussy march.”
Bland is the founder of Manufacture New York, a fashion incubator dedicated to launching sustainable labels primarily run by women and people of color. During the earlier presidential debates, she was one of the first to produce and sell T-shirts with the viral “Nasty Woman” and “Bad Hombre” slurs-turned-titles-of-pride, donating all of the proceeds directly to Planned Parenthood.
The response to her Facebook plea was overwhelming and immediate; interest promptly began pouring in for this impromptu call to action. Within hours, she had teamed up with Teresa Shook, a retired grandmother from Hawaii whose own, very similar Facebook post from the day before had taken off–“great minds think alike”– and Breanne Butler, a New York-based chef who offered to help her pull it off.
“None of us had gone viral before,” Bland says. “We were trying to keep up with thousands of comments and DMs, most from people who agreed with us and wanted to get involved. Within 48 hours, over 250,000 people said they were coming. It then became very clear to me that this was going to require a uniting brand.”
The brand that the team created over the next two weeks has become the face of a movement that is now known as “the resistance.” The logo is subtly feminine and distinctly strong, profiling three faces looking forward toward the future in a palette that recalls a patriotic red, white, and blue. It became immediately recognizable worldwide–the de facto symbol of the Women’s March, which, on January 21, 2017, became the single biggest protest in American history. What began as a day-long march for women’s rights has evolved into an enduring effort that aims to put women in positions of power: In their daily lives, in their communities, and, critically, in elected offices. This weekend, many people are expected to march once again on the one-year anniversary of the first event.
But women are not a monolith, and representation–racial, cultural, and social, at all levels–has been a glaring, fundamental problem for women-centric movements in the past and present. Who was the Women’s March really for? Could it transcend controversy to affect real change? And how would its identity tie it all together? The origin story of how a group of women came together to organize and design the movement itself is one of prescience and quick thinking; of trust and collaboration; of efforts that put women first. It’s also one that articulates some of the tensions inherent in the movement itself–and illustrates the nature of design at a grassroots level.
A movement will not live or die by the quality of its branding or design, but a quick, unmistakable hit of instant recognition in this viral age can make a major difference in how its message spreads. After all, Trump rode the worst design of 2016 to the presidency. In the weeks after her election night post, Bland’s experience with small businesses and startups gave her the foresight to be strategic from the get-go. “When I work with early-stage designers, my advice is always to start right–before your make or break moment–because it’s so much harder to go back later and fix basic things.”
The Women’s March was not a startup but she applied the same approach, establishing a checklist of what she felt she needed to get this event up and running with the greatest reach possible. “The right way to do this was to have a kick-ass website, and a great logo. And we needed people with the skills and knowledge to make it happen.”
The event itself was initially being called the Million Pussy March, the Million Women March, and the Women’s March on Washington (the latter, both references to iconic moments in African-American fights for rights and unity); Bland had been running with a logo that referenced the Lincoln Memorial. But “we needed something that wasn’t place-specific,” she says. “It had to be evergreen, and endure beyond the day in a variety of formats and mediums.”
Teresa Herd is the VP global creative director for Intel, where she manages advertising and branding for the tech giant. A friend put her in touch with Bland and Butler about five days after the election, and Herd was on the phone with them almost immediately; no agenda, just a focused chat. “When you get organizers together, very seldom does that start from a purely creative place,” says Teresa Herd. “It’s not like, ‘Hey, we’ve got an idea for a logo, let’s start a march!’ It’s usually one of those things that’s thought of last in many cases, or not at all. So when they asked what I wanted to do and I honestly wasn’t sure how I could contribute. Then I was like: ‘Oh shit! I’m in advertising! I can brand you!'”
Over the years Herd has sought out ways to translate her mighty professional skills to more personal causes. “I’m a member of the LGBTQ community,” she says. She was active during the Massachusetts fight for same-sex marriage in 2004, and she later shifted her focus toward the next generation, sitting on the board at GLSEN, an organization that promotes LGBTQ education in elementary, middle, and high schools and mentoring local students. “I did this for years and everything was fine . . . enough,” she says. “But immediately after the election I was like, ‘Oh my god, what can I do?'”
Her offer of help was put on hold briefly because the team had already been in touch with a company in Brooklyn to handle branding. “Nothing they were doing was jumping out, though, and we didn’t want to make a decision when we weren’t really happy with the options,” Butler says. “All of a sudden we needed a logo soon–really fucking soon–so I got back in touch with Teresa. She said, ‘Give me 24 hours.'”
Herd leveraged her huge network, built up over decades in the biz. “First, I shot an email out to basically anyone I knew who was an art director, designer, or writer: ‘I’m kind of getting involved with this women’s march thing–anybody interested?’ I got at least 70 responses almost immediately, all: ‘Yes yes anything I can do!'”
Herd had a friend in account services put together a brief, and on December 1 held a mass conference call. From there, the directive was set. Teams would “create options for a logo design; develop a creative identity and messaging platform that could serve as a guide for all marketing deliverables; provide guidance, and create or coordinate elements that flow out of the creative identity such as swag, banners, and social media templates and assets.”
The teams would do this work pro bono. And they had five days to submit their proposals.
Amy Stellhorn was one of the many participants in that whirlwind briefing call–and she was immediately on board with the campaign. Stellhorn is the Provo, Utah-based cofounder and creative director at Big Monocle. The creative agency is ad-adjacent–they will work on campaigns that run on social sites and IRL billboards–but Stellhorn sees them more as multiplatform problem solvers. “It kind of doesn’t matter what vehicle we need to take to hit client goals–brand work, visual systems, a website, messaging, marketing campaigns–we’ll pull together the right team and ride whatever rocketship we need to to get there.”
“We were definitely overstretched, because it was this surprise project right before the holidays, so it was really all hands on deck,” Stellhorn says of their crew of four Big Monocle-ites: herself, Julie Brigham, and Lisa Brown. They started producing sketches, both in-house, and soon, externally. On Tuesday, December 5, Stellhorn reached out to design director and friend Wolfgang Strack, for some on-the-fly backup. “He was on vacation, but was down to contribute some sketches.”
One of his ideas was a black-and-white line drawing that depicted a series of deliberate squiggles: three shaded silhouettes that symbolize “diversity, solidarity, and determination.”
Stellhorn and team loved the concept but Strack didn’t have the bandwidth to “make it a thing,” she says. They decided to bring in an illustrator to refine and polish the idea: Nicole La Rue.
La Rue had just moved to Portland with her partner after four years living in Japan. It was a bittersweet homecoming for the freelance designer and illustrator; the country was in turmoil. “We crumbled,” she says, of watching the presidential election results roll in. It was a crushing feeling, followed swiftly by a sense of still-undefined purpose. “I’m kind of introverted. I hadn’t been a designer who felt the need to be ‘seen.’ I’m also gay, so that’s always been a cause I felt passionate about. But all of a sudden I realized: I need to focus on making something meaningful,” Le Rue says. “I just didn’t actually know what that was yet.”
She got wind of this Women’s March on Washington that was gaining traction. “I saw it online and told my partner: ‘We should go. To Washington.’ Even though we’d just be a couple extra people in the crowd, it felt like something we had to do.”
So it seemed like kismet when she got an out-of-the-blue note from Stellhorn on December 7. As friendly fellow creatives–they met as classmates at BYU–the two had casually kept in touch over the years, but this message was all business, and way urgent.
“I keep my schedule pretty tight but thought: What’s a few hours going to hurt? For sure they won’t pick my design, but how cool that they asked,” Le Rue says. With Strack’s loose outline as a guide she got to work–with a few fraught factors top of mind. The Women’s March brand had to appeal to as wide a spectrum of the American public as possible. It had to not only engage women who may have never considered themselves “political” before–white women–but also those who had been on the front lines for decades–women of color–and might be cautious about aligning with a new movement that had a lot to prove. It was important that everyone could see themselves as a part of it.
“It was a little scary to take this project on, to be honest,” says La Rue. “I’m a white girl, right? There are so many millions of ways I could have gone wrong. I felt quite vulnerable about doing it.”
She took to the internet to find inspiration in a range of facial features and hairstyles that were specific and unique, but also somehow universal. At one point they toyed with having a selection of 18 faces for a kind of mix-and-match. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of discussion about these three silhouettes,” Stellhorn says. “Because we knew we just couldn’t represent everybody.” Even when the final three were selected, the conversation didn’t end. “We needed to line them up and make sure they were all the same size. The hair element [in the white silhouette] creates a distinctive logoform, but it was hotly debated: Who’s in the front; who’s in the back? It really depends on your perspective.”
La Rue also selected–and modified–the geometric font called Drone Ranger, and chose the hues that would become the Women’s March signature; a muted nod to red, white, and blue. Ten hours after she received Stellhorn’s SOS, La Rue was finished with the proposal. The next day, Stellhorn sent in a tight pitch deck. Their presentation was done.
On December 8, Herd was inundated. “I think we probably had 25 logo designs come through from about 12 teams; really, legitimately good ones,” she says. “I played the role of creative director so Bob and Breanne didn’t have to get in too deep. I filtered out stuff I didn’t think was appropriate, or couldn’t scale; I gave some direction, tweaked and simplified some things; then brought about six logos to them to decide between.”
It was a choice that did not have the benefit of a time buffer; there was no time to contemplate, only to make a call. “I loved Nicole’s logo,” Bland says. “Her’s really stood out as one of the more bold versions we saw.” She and Butler did wonder about having the white woman out in front, but Herd was convinced she was actually in the back, and the coral woman was in the lead. As Stellhorn said: “A matter of perspective.”
Bland shared the contenders with her fellow leaders, and a consensus was reached. La Rue’s logo was in. Stellhorn was shopping at Costco on December 10 when she got the call that their pitch packet was selected, and immediately called La Rue. “She was screaming, ‘It’s yours!!!’ I was screaming. It was surreal,” La Rue says. There was one day for elation–and then time to get back to work.
On Monday, December 11, Stellhorn and her team began creating comprehensive brand guidelines and assets. New chapters and locations were being added daily, and the sheer scale and scope of the Women’s March meant that they needed a nontraditional approach. “Usually we’re working at the corporate level with an internal brand asset management system that’s got a proprietary login,” Stellhorn says. “For this, we put out a protected Google slide deck with a bunch of download links. This allowed us to release wave after wave of files as they were ready and updated, as opposed to repeatedly sending out PDFs that were obsolete soon after.”
Every new addition was formatted by Stellhorn and co., which made for a truly crazy holiday season. Bland, who was now a new mom, dove back into logistics after a brief few days of maternity leave. On December 13, the first round of guidelines rolled out to the world. By December 30, they had created 60 U.S. and 47 international logos; plus, La Rue crafted a series of additional hand-drawn designs for merch. The Women’s March on Washington had become a women’s march on the globe before anyone even hit the streets.
When the Women’s March was officially launched, its ongoing impact was a big question mark. Organizers were figuring out what it even “was” almost in real time with the public, but design played a major role in its capacity to grow.
There is no single “best practice” for visual communications in politics today; in fact, some of the most powerful pieces that have emerged this year were scrawled in Sharpie on corner-store cardboard; earnest, hilarious, heartbreaking posters made by people who’ve turned out to march, and strike, and make their voices heard but also seen. And it was a sea of bright pink beanies that, for many, became the defining identity of the Women’s March; characterized as both symbols of solidarity or fairweather feminism, depending on who was weighing in.
Still, the visual identity itself struck a nerve–and became an incredibly effective means of financing; by December 27, merch sales and donations via custom T-shirt company Bonfire raised $225,000; two days later it was $100,000; and to date, it’s over $1.3 million (not including sister marches). Women’s March official social feeds, like Twitter and Instagram, are flush with ways to get involved while circulating stories of both frustration and inspiration designed to get women educated, engaged, angry, and active. The branding has become a means to “sanction” and spread those moods and messages.
In October 2017, the Women’s Convention provided perhaps the clearest vision for the future of the Women’s March, welcoming women and allies with a focus on disrupting next year’s midterm elections. “Women are setting the progressive agenda for 2018 and beyond,” Bland says. “The march itself was specifically not an anti-Trump rally. It was about women’s rights as human rights. Our uniting principles speak unapologetically to a pro-women agenda that we want to shape with our growing community. Everyone who marched on January 21 has continued to be active in ways that they deem appropriate.”
The impact of Trump’s first year in office and the massive action on the part of Americans to resist it are just beginning to register in the political realm. Women are seeking office in numbers the U.S. has never seen, outpacing decades past by the tens of thousands. Mock or underestimate Women’s March supporters–as New Jersey freeholder John Carman did with a regressively sexist meme directed at the movement earlier this year–and you may get unseated by a passionate upstart like Ashley Bennett.
Among the growing crowd getting involved–seasoned activists, pussy hat-wearing dabblers, those new to collective action and ready to work–three ubiquitous, anonymous silhouettes have made their presence felt, with an inclusive eye toward a future led by women in all their forms.
For more behind the scenes of this movement, check out Together We Rise: The Official Oral History of the Women’s March from the Organizers.