Designing Change

by Dan Woychick

Be the change you want to see in the world. – Mahatma Gandhi

We live in turbulent times. It seems as if every institution, belief, and convention is under pressure from an insistent, uncertain and unsentimental future. Fortunately, throughout history, passionate people have responded with innovative ideas that make the world a better place.

Traditionally, nonprofit organizations inhabit the void between governments and corporations, but even that model is beginning to shift. New players are seeking new roles in pursuit of their passions.

Catalysts
Every day, designers work with nonprofits and community groups to raise awareness, inspire donors, and increase understanding of issues they care about. But the whole notion of the client/designer relationship, and what kinds of things designers are (or should be) involved in, is evolving.

As AIGA president Doug Powell noted in addressing the association’s members, “Designers are no longer content to be intermediaries between information and understanding – we strive to also be agents of social change.”

Design, in its most valuable role, isn’t employed solely to promote an idea or initiative, but to help shape it from the ground up – to make change happen.

Think like a designer
Designers are uniquely equipped to tackle complex problems. Though often recognized for beautiful or clever visual concepts, it is a designer’s approach to thinking about a problem that makes them well-suited to venture into new arenas.

The ability to conjure something out of nothing in pixels or on paper is fed by an active imagination that is equally capable of developing new solutions to societal problems. Designers are willing to consider different perspectives, anticipate the consequences, and risk trying new things. This fearless opposition to the status quo is vital to any social change effort.

A designer’s ability to think – both to shape a program or organization and its marketing efforts – can be a distinct strategic advantage.

Inventing the future
Whether due to an impatience with traditional efforts to make change happen, the empowerment of new technologies, or the desire to contribute to society in more meaningful ways, designers are involved in the social change sphere with increasing frequency.

When designers are given the opportunity to have a bigger role, real change, real transformation actually happens. – Yves Behar, One Laptop Per Child

There are many different models for merging design and social change:

  • Emily Pilloton and the team at Project H are using the power of design and hands-on building to transform public education in rural North Carolina.
  • Mark Randall and Andréa Pellegrino formed Worldstudio to help turn clients’ “do good” goals into action that drives positive social change. Additionally, the firm has launched several self-driven programs such as The Urban Forest Project and Design Ignites Change.
  • Corporations are providing new funding models for ambitious do-gooders, including the Pepsi Refresh Project and Sappi Paper’s Ideas That Matter program.
  • Other organizations are beginning to document and celebrate the impact of design on society. AIGA San Francisco launched cause/affect, a biennial juried competition and exhibition recognizing projects that support social good. GOOD presents an ongoing digest of socially-relevant design activity.
  • And some designers, like Steffanie Lorig at Art with Heart in Seattle, and Sue Crolick at Art Buddies in Minneapolis, have completely abandoned design careers to launch their own non-profit organizations.

Challenge and opportunity
Making social change happen, as anyone in the non-profit world can attest, is not a career for the faint of heart. As San Francisco designer Arvi Raquel-Santos put it, “Designers want to create change. They want to help and contribute to society, but how can they create work that matters while trying to make a living in this profession?”

There is no clear path to that goal, but one thing is certain – working for free is not a sustainable business model. Designers must assume a broader role in business, social and cultural environments by forging new relationships and applying old skills in new ways. We must expand our networks, identify and seek support from those who can help our ideas become reality, and grow accustomed to ambiguity and longer time frames – projects are often measured in years, not weeks or months.

Just last week, AIGA launched Design for Good to help ignite interest, encourage connections, and accelerate and amplify design-driven social change. As more designers become recognized for their contributions in this new arena, the hope is that more organizations will seek out our involvement.

It’s an exciting time to be alive. The needs are urgent and many, the opportunities great. And, as the old Apple ad reminded us, the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Related content:
Be Your Own Hero
Working for Social Profit: Six Tips
Design for the Other 90%
Dutiee: A Daily Peek Into Social Good

2 thoughts on “Designing Change

  1. Doug Powell

    Great post, Dan! The examples you cite are important early case studies of designers working in this new space. The true test—and one of the objectives of AIGA Design for Good—will be when more designers are able to find ways to integrate “for good” work into their practice in a sustainable way. This may mean reinventing the model of a design business to allow for access to different types of support. We are seeing some exciting examples of this around the country and I’m hopeful we can tell these stories soon.

    Reply
  2. Joe Isaak

    Excellent, thought provoking article Dan. Check out today’s (11/15/11) Daily Heller for an inspiring follow up from a past Sappi Ideas that Matter grant recipient.

    Reply

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