#Performative: how corporations failed BLM— and how Gen Z didn’t

In desperate pursuit of appearing socially conscious, corporations forgot about how essential design was in conveying authenticity.

Derek Deng
4 min readMar 5, 2021
Gen Z activist accounts on Instagram are using bold, bright design concepts to revitalize the digital #BlackLivesMatter movement. Design by Derek Deng

Not all political heroes wear capes — some of them also make deliciously creamy ice cream. With flavors like Justice Remix’d and Bernie’s Yearning, a mint ice cream topped with a thick chocolate disc that “represents the huge majority of economic gains that have gone to the top 1% since the end of the recession,” Ben & Jerry’s has baked social justice issues into the fabric of their company.

The company was early to the game, and still one of the few to pull it off successfully. Last summer — as a lengthy history of racist policing incidents forced Americans to radically rethink the role of our institutions in fighting racism, and consequently, their shopping habits — corporations scrambled to mimic the tangible authenticity of brands like Ben & Jerry’s. Companies attempted to utilize their social media channels to position themselves on pressing social justice issues: many gave vague messages of support, while others gave half-hearted lists of activist resources.

Even assuming that the people writing these messages of solidarity had the best of intentions, consumers could tell that something was off — and backlash was swift. The bulk of these corporate attempts to encapsulate their support for Black Lives Matter felt resoundingly inauthentic.

Aesthetically, these commercialized messages of solidarity were homogenous cesspools of corporatized word jumble. They followed a formula: first, use a black-and-white color scheme; then issue a generic, vaguely supportive statement — not too supportive, though; of course– and finally make sure that statement is displayed in a generic, Silicon Valley-approved sans serif font. In desperate pursuit of appearing socially conscious, corporations forgot about how essential design was in the lifeblood of corporate authenticity.

In the age of the bland, social media content design can play an integral role in shaping our perceptions of what it means to be authentic on social media. Yet now more than ever, timid brands are adopting blandly similar aesthetics.

In stark contrast, the Gen Z response to the Black Lives Matter movement feels astoundingly anti-corporate. The flood of highly share-able, aesthetically pleasing Gen Z educational posts on social justice issues has radically shifted our media consumption: serif fonts dominate the landscape, indicating a contrast from the sans serif fonts associated with big tech companies like Google and Pinterest; and cozy pastel colors communicate approachability and warmth.

Though educational posts like these, Gen Z content creators have shed light on how design can be leveraged as a subtly political medium — how, in the age of rounded sans serif fonts, serif fonts can be used to in a broader, tacit protest of corporatization. In tech, sans serif fonts like Futura and Roboto have been widely adopted by corporations like Google and Spotify to connote modernity; perhaps, in opposition to the corporatization of sans serif fonts, serif fonts like Playfair Display and Sentinel are a refreshing attempt to break from corporate parrotry.

Some brands, however, are catching on.

In a widely applauded redesign, Burger King ideated a new brand identity that drew upon vintage serif fonts and groovy color schemes. “Obviously sans serifs have fallen into what has become a trend of blanding, where there’s nothing distinctive about that brand,” says Lisa Smith, executive creative director at the agency that redesigned Burger King’s brand identity. “The idea with developing this typeface Flame was that it led us back to creative principles of ‘mouth watering’ and having the irreverence evoke natural organic shapes of food.”

Newer brands are learning more, too. For Starface, it all started with a couple of star-shaped pimple patches. Disrupting a multibillion dollar anti-acne industry, Starface has an uncompromising approach to branding: their social media feed is dotted with bold, saturated colors and narrated with a humorous, relatable brand voice. They are unafraid to tell it like it is — “If a spot showed up on your face yesterday … It’s a pisces,” warns their Instagram.

Starface’s brand identity is part of a larger trend of adorkables, “a growing gang of disruptive brands that deftly target Gen Z with a jarring visual aesthetic and an authentic emotional appeal.” Situated against much larger corporations, adorkables leverage rebellious design and digital strategy to appeal to the same consumers that were put off by overly corporatized attempts at social justice.

Their rise in popularity, however, brings up an inevitable question: at what point will adorkables become the new blands? And what comes after that?



Derek Deng

I'm a Duke freshman that loves to write about the intersection of pop culture and social justice. Ask me about my skincare blog!