Design For Change: Abolitionist Movement

September 22, 2020


Visual communications have a unique advantage, as they are able to present images which spark an emotional reaction and convey complex topics in an easily understood manner. This combination drives people to take action, which is inherent for social causes to be successful.


The British abolitionist movement used many different methods to convince people that the slave trade should be abolished. When Thomas Clarkson joined the movement in the late 18th century, he was tasked with collecting as much damning evidence as possible in order to sway parliament and public opinion. This was a tough challenge, as many people relied on slave trade for commodities such as sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, and clothing.


During his search, Clarkson was horrified to see the inhumane conditions of the ships used to transport slaves, and wanted to spread awareness in order to abolish slavery. This culminated in the creation of the cutaway map of the “Brookes” ship in 1788; a slave ship sailing the passage from Liverpool via the Gold Coast in Africa to Jamaica in the West Indies. This map is regarded as the world’s first infographic. The ship, according to The Regulated Slave Trade Act to reduce overcrowding, could hold up to 454 slaves. At least one earlier voyage had carried a human cargo of 609 slaves. However, the diagram’s engraver could only squeeze in 400 people



This infographic was more successful than the abolitionists could have hoped, as it elicited an almost instantaneous emotional reaction, where people were said to be horrified by what they saw. London abolitionists had it printed on 7000 posters in one run. Following this, the infographic was published in broadsheets in England, France and the United States, and was also posted in taverns across Europe. This distribution contributed heavily to the success of the movement.




By 1807, Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which banned British ships from engaging in the slave trade. However, it wasn’t until 1833 that slavery was officially abolished in the UK. Although, it should be noted that whilst slavery was abolished, compensation was paid only to slave owners, and ex-slaves still had to work for their former masters for six years as apprentices without pay


The infographic was also instrumental in a boycotting campaign, which saw the demand for sugar significantly reduced by 30%. The efforts of the infographic were regarded as a successful piece of propaganda, as well as one of the first social justice campaigns.


We can learn from the early abolitionists how important visuals are for instigating transformational change in our world. With this infographic, they were able to elicit a strong emotional reaction that swayed public opinion in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Because it was easily understood by anyone who saw it, it was widely distributed, which made it an unusually resonant form of anti-slavery propaganda for that era


These are principals that are at the core of Design Edge. We believe that any topic, no matter how complex, can be transformed into a compelling visual story which is easy to understand and creates an emotional connection with the reader. We believe that by combining social messages and visual storytelling, we are able to make significant strides towards making the world a better place.




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