Printing for Activists

Graphics and the written word have been important to activism since time immemorial. Much surviving graffiti from the Roman era (yes, the Romans had graffiti artists) dealt with politics. As always, the Lesbian Avengers Handbook has a section on graphics, here are some updated practical details.

Getting a good graphical artist to execute the design is key. Artists are drawn to activism, but treat them well. Artists are ill-treated at work by art directors and customers. When they share a part of their creative self with you for the cause, treat them with respect. They deserve to know how what they do makes a difference. And absolutely no design by committee – work within your group for the message and the text in advance, and leave the creative graphics up to the artist.

From the outset of your relationship with your artist, the ownership of the work is important. Feelings can be hurt and relationships sundered if this is not clear. In Rise and Resist we require all creative work be licensed as CC0, i.e. released for anyone who sees it to use for any purpose. This is a complicated subject, other solutions are possible but a lot more complicated – you pretty much have to start writing contracts if you do anything else.

Starting from smallest to largest, let’s start with palm cards. Hand them out to potential recruits, if you do any tabling or in person fundraising, to press, at demos. State in a few words who you are, when and where you meet, your email and social media details, and something very short to explain what you are all about.

Here is a sample of cards from Rise and Resist, both sides.

Elissa Stein

Elissa Stein

We use the traditional business card size, 3.5” x 2”, black and white printed both sides, cheapest option on the cardstock and finish. Your printer may require a ⅛” “bleed” all around to allow for imprecision in the cutting process, which would mean that the PDFs should be 3.75” x 2.25”, with no important text or logo within ¼” of those edges.

Best deal I have found is VistaPrint, they have the economy of scale to beat the competition. Make sure you get a discount code, upload your design and call them if you don’t get one automatically applied. For quantity 1,000 VistaPrint charges about $41 including shipping.

If you can find a good, union print shop that can handle small runs then let me know. Try looking on Allied Label for a list of union printers. Compare prices with VistaPrint to put yourself in a good bargaining position. I prefer to use a shop that publishes its prices and has online ordering and uploading graphics, that way you don’t feel like they are trying to guess how much money is in your pocket before offering you a quote.

It probably doesn’t pay to go for expensive heavy cardstocks, finishes, embossed lettering, fancy shapes, all the stuff that you might want for your personal business cards. We are lucky that our logo is black and white, cheaper.

Next, fliers to hand out at demos or other events. Writing decent copy is a skill that any well educated person should be able to master (Strunk and White), but best to have someone else review for nits. Good writing is a talent that must be nurtured – I regard myself as a good writer, for an engineer, so I try to get someone who writes for a living to produce something with impact.

We use one of three formats, postcard size, quarter page (4.25” x 5.5”), or whole page. We have had great success with these postcards

Jake Rowland

Jake Rowland

for our weekly actions calling for impeachment of Trump. The striking graphic Jake created has even hung in the Whitney Museum (guerrilla curating), and makes passers by really feel like they are getting something for free.

VistaPrint again: color gloss finish one side and black and white on the other, which is their cheapest option, cost us $225 for 5,000 – we were handing these out week after week on high traffic volume New York City sidewalks. Sizes vary, compare with prices and delivery schedule you can get from your printer. Choose size and finish first, check bleed requirements, provide that to your artist as specification for their work.

Quarter size fliers also work well, and require much less lead time than postcards. In a pinch you can design, print, and cut into quarters over the course of one late evening at the office. Word has templates that you can use, google for a how-to.

Guerrilla copying is of course cheapest, but remember the 11th Commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Get Caught!” Alternatively any decent copy shop will do the job including cutting into quarters.

Good design is of course key. Small point dense text is unlikely to get read in detail. A typesetter or artist can certainly do a better job than I can on flier design. Be careful on graphics – line art can work well, but photos through a copy machine tend to look like wanted posters.

I have only once used full size 8.5”x11” fliers, and that was a very special circumstance where the medium was the message. I think that in most circumstances you will be unable to engage the reader to read a whole page. Probably useful if you are advertising an event on coffee shop bulletin boards, but that is a dying medium.

Placards to hold for events: two kinds, homemade or printed. Sign making parties are fun bonding experiences, and the end result can be very effective if combined with a sense of humor. Oaktag from your local stationary store and large sharpies.

When we want to project a consistent message as a group, getting fifty or one hundred 13”x19” placards is very effective. Decide your short and to the point slogan together, recruit an artist – though admittedly in a pinch you could do text only in Word or PowerPoint, custom paper size, print to PDF. But you will have much bigger impact if you have a good graphic.

Printivity (formerly MGX Copy) in San Diego has good prices, is very good about on-time delivery, and has an online calculator for pricing. Comparison shop with them as a benchmark.

For Printivity, 14 pt Extra Thick Semi-Gloss card stock, double sided. Full bleed if you will have color to the edge, so again make your actual PDF 13.25” x 19.25”, and don’t put anything important within ¼” of the edge. Plan carefully in advance, you can rack up a lot in expedite fees if you need a rush job.

Jake Rowland

Jake Rowland

Here is a kind of combo, graphic on one side, text on the other side with room for the bearer to write what is the most important target of the cuts for them – we brought a bag of sharpies with us to the demo.

Not sure we could do this particular image again, in a later action there was an intense discussion of whether or not violent images could be used in a protest. As usual, I was on the side of artistic expression. And also the politics, I do not believe I can confront violence without facing it. But that is a discussion for another day.

Larger posters are a project. First find out what size printer you have access to, your artist may have a better idea about this than you. You will need to mount the artwork on foam board. Best is likely 15”x19” prints, as the foam board comes 16”x20” standard.

Art supply or dollar store for foam board, or order online. 3M General Purpose 45 Spray Adhesive, spray on the back of the print, then put the print on the foam board. Lots of newspaper. Of course you will need a well ventilated space to do this in, or at least do the spraying part outside. Places like Staples can do the whole thing for you, but at a steep price. Tape the edges with clear tape if you plan on using these signs at multiple actions.

Banners are surprisingly easy and cheap. Typically order a 3′ x 15′ banner from a shop like Echod Graphics. 13oz vinyl works out well. Ships rolled up in a tube, easy for one person to carry.

Banner: Mary Hawkins Photo: Wrolf Courtney

Be very aware of your “page” size when creating a JPEG for a banner. Make sure your page size matches the size of the banner you want to create, and that when you export to JPEG you choose 300 dots per inch (or at least 75). If you submit a small image and expect the printer to blow it up for you, it will likely either look fuzzy, or be a tiny image in the middle of an enormous banner. Not all programs can support page sizes of several feet, professional artists invariably use Adobe Illustrator, I use Visio and GIMP. You are probably out of luck if you try to use PowerPoint or Paint in Windows.

An alternative to getting banners printed professionally is DIY with fabric and duct tape. Result is visually striking, but leaves little room for creativity.

Robert Croonquist

(Photo by Erik McGregor)

Of course, sometimes artists want to be in control of their own message, exercising their own free speech message rather than delivering yours. So yes, encourage them to bring their own signs to your events. Here’s something from Robert Ayers, photo: ©Erik McGregor


Network engineer by day, activist by night, and I try my best to have some fun along the way.

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1 Response

  1. Kathleen Z says:

    Thanks for this information, Wrolf. I just ordered a few of my designs on mini-posters. MGX Copy was so much less expensive than every other option I saw. I’m looking forward to carrying them at the Women’s March on NYC.

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