My Unsolicited Design Advice for Instagram Activists

My Unsolicited Design Advice for Instagram Activists

I’m a professional graphic designer. I know I mention this often, but I just think it’s so cool! I love designing—just look at the time and love I’ve poured into this website—and I even think I’m kind of good at it!

You could go so far as to say graphic design is my passion.

While I’ve used my design skills in making my logo and website, I haven’t really had a chance to geek out as a designer in a blog post. Today, I’m just going to do it. I follow a handful of accounts on Instagram that are dedicated to activism, mental health, and even Carl Sagan. (Who’s surprised?) I fully believe that beautiful bite-sized infographics are a great way to learn about things like climate justice, reproductive justice, racial justice, and more. My Instagram feed has a lot of justice and a lot of design. Today I want to share the great messages in these posts while I kindly and respectfully critique elements of their designs.

I’ve chosen posts whose designs are pretty amazing from pages who create beautiful art all the time. I didn’t want to critique designs that are simply awful because I don’t want to insult anyone (even though there are endless bad designs out there). My position on these is more, “This is great! It would be perfect if we just changed this one thing…” but even so, design is pretty subjective. I’m doing my best to refrain from simply saying I don’t like a font or graphic. When it comes to Instagram infographics, there’s really only one type of design rule:

It should be easy to read, to understand, and to comprehend. Even then, your opinion might differ from mine, and it doesn’t mean that one of us is right and one is wrong.

Will these graphics hold up? Let’s get started!

#1: A lesson on truth by @saganism

The page Saganism is one of the reasons I wanted to make this post, so I had to include it. The message in this one is great, albeit ironic considering Sagan is standing in what seems to be the Library of Alexandria set on Cosmos, in which he tells a story that is not actually true.

Either way, we know from looking at this that the designer knows the basics of what they’re doing. If you’ve ever seen a meme, you know that you can technically read white text with a black stroke against any background. But this image, as well as others from this page in the same style, is really stretching it. The background has such a mix of dark and white shades that the text gets lost. There are a few things we could do, like make the text stroke thicker, but I think the best solution would be to darken the background just enough, and replace the border with a drop shadow so that it isn’t so stark.

Finally, I would de-italicize the text, decrease the tracking (space between letters), and possibly decrease the font size so that the text doesn’t cover Sagan at all. I’d also decrease the space between both paragraphs and individual lines so that we could fit the attribution under the quote and not floating off to the right.

#2: On Palestinian liberation by

This next one is a great example of a post with a crucial message that would just be perfect with one visual tweak. The issue occurs on all three slides, but mostly on the second and third. It truly may just be me, but the mixing of a sans font and a serif font in the same paragraph feels so jarring, especially when you add in the underlines and italics.

Mixing different fonts and styles can create visual interest and make a piece more engaging if you do it right. The fonts of different words in a graphic can tell you how they relate to each other and what they mean. What’s the headline? What’s emphasized? Which pieces of information are each other’s equivalents? Treating certain parts of texts differently can help things stand out and help reveal the text’s meaning instantly. So here, in the case of the second slide for example, it’s hard for the reader to know at a glance what’s the most important takeaway of this quote.

I know what the designers were trying to do. This slide has a lot of text—important text—so we want the reader to get it all, and if not then at least get the most important bits. To keep it visually interesting, there are different fonts and styles throughout. But if you are like me and you use the font treatment to understand what the writer and designer mean, it gets muddled. On first glance, I assumed the phrases “freedom,” “decolonised and equal world,” and “work to dismantle them” were those takeaways being emphasized (although underlines just makes me think of links so I personally would have gone with bold).

That makes sense, but wait—is there something special about “oppressive imperial and colonial struggles” and “oppressed for centuries”? And why is “true origins” emphasized and in yet another way? It’s a great message, it really is, but you can’t emphasize every part of it in a different way. It just feels confusing and makes it more overwhelming to read than if it had been one big plain paragraph.

I would have loved to see these quotes treated all in the same font, whether it is the sans or serif font, just with the most important phrases clearly emphasized, like @futureearth did in this post.

#3: ExxonMobil’s Misinformation Campaign by @futureearth

This one has essentially the same issue as the last one, but I included it to make a couple of points. And also because people really need to know about how much ExxonMobil sucks.

Firstly, I want to explain that bad design isn’t just things that look funny. We’re in a time right now where everything in pop culture is mimicking and celebrating the aesthetics of the 80s and 90s. The goofy shapes and text on the first slide are intentional, and I think the tongue-in-cheek, self-aware nods to 90s designs are really fun!

I wish I could say the same thing about the pixelated-looking font, but I really don’t like it. I know I said I wouldn’t just pick on fonts I don’t like, but I think it’s hard to read. I also wanted to include a design that has the right-pointing arrow indicating to “swipe for more” since it’s so common; is it just me or should it be pointing to the left since you swipe toward the left? That seems more intuitive to me, but it’s not the most important thing.

#4: Climate refugees by @chicksforclimate

What is the most important thing is reversing the effects of climate change. The creators of this design at Chicks for Climate knew this, so they really made this design to stand out. The good news is that they succeeded but the bad news is I think they could have done it better.

Overall, I wasn’t crazy about this font. All-caps fonts are naturally harder to read because all of the letters are the same height, so you have to concentrate a little more and can’t always read as quickly. This effect is exacerbated here since the font is so vertical, dark, and blocky, which in a way makes it feel hard to focus on the message. As a side note, that’s actually why some people like to use Comic Sans despite its awful reputation; each letter’s unique shape makes it much easier on dyslexic readers than fonts where all the letters are similarly blocky or round.

Moreover, this graphic stands as my example of the problem of fully justified text, meaning every line of text extends all across the text box (except for the last line in this case). Fully justified text is perfect in books or other instances where every line has enough letters that it takes a pretty long word to mess up your spacing. Seeing gaps like that means that I read it almost as if there were a period between every word. Again, this detracts from the important message.

#5: Ecological empathy by @chicksforclimate

I think that the colors and style of this one are gorgeous! Unfortunately it suffers from some of the same issues of previous graphics… and then some more.

A great man, whom I’m married to, once said “Every font has a place. And sometimes that place is nowhere.” I can think of at least five fonts immediately that belong nowhere, but the one used in the headlines here is actually not one of them. It’s fun, stylish, and retro, and it even works pretty well on the last slide. The problem is that the headlines are far too long for such a decorative font that I even found it straining to read, especially on the fourth slide.

Additionally, I feel that the headline on the second slide is centered for emphasis, but it doesn’t come across that way. It would look fine either centered or left justified, but the headline simply has to be justified the same way the paragraph is. And since the rest of the post is all left aligned and doesn’t have this problem, I’d vote to align it all left.

The paragraphs and the bulleted list look great, but I always prefer the leading (vertical space between lines) to be great enough that no part of the text is touching anything above or below it. Making this work can be a great pain in my work because sometimes the descender in a letter on the top line and the ascender of a letter on the bottom line are just in the perfect place that they don’t fit together at all and there’s no way to fix it. Such is life, though.

#6: Red flags in relationships by @nedratawwab

Speaking of lists, I wanted to throw in these last two posts by “Instagram therapists.” Nedra Tawwab has an amazing account, by the way—and an awesome book that I think everyone could benefit from reading.

It is a bit of a pet peeve of mine to see bulleted lists where each point spills over onto a second line but every line is evenly spaced. Each point is more visually distinct if there is more space between points than within points. The graphics in #5 and #7 show what I mean, although even then I wish they actually had more space so that the letters in different lines weren’t touching.

Another thing I notice in this design, and this is just personal preference, is how I wish that “fit” and “but” from points two and three were returned down to the lines below them. That way, all of the full first lines would be almost exactly the same length, and it would just be so satisfying!

#7: Beliefs to leave behind by @sitwithsharon

Finally, I wanted to include this bulleted list because it corrects the issue in the previous one but introduces another problem. Because it’s more appealing to have clean lines, it’s a general rule in lists to keep the text on the second line (or subsequent lines if there are more than two) lined up with the beginning of the text on the first line rather than with the bulleted list itself. The best part about bulleted lists is their ability to communicate information quickly, and it does that by having multiple visually distinct points.

In Nedra’s post, the points are distinct because the numbers on each of them are in their own vertical lines. In Sharon’s post, it is because there is space between them. But it’s even better when you get both of those things like Chicks for Climate did in their post.

There ends my critiques of these important designs! I can’t emphasize enough how much I admire the beautiful and inspiring work done by the people that run the accounts. My favorite Instagram activist accounts right now, some of which were included and some which were not, are:

I would love to know which accounts are your favorites and which others I should follow! And of course, feel free to let me know if you agree with my design critiques or if you’d like to see me make more posts with design advice in the future.

What do you think?