how we design
Designers feel like they need to approach social change by changing the subject of their work and not the process, which is in opposition to how designers talk about the richness and depth of their work. When faced with the idea of “social change” or social justice, designers turn to their professional work to attempt to affect positive change. They want to make work about the change but it is less common to think about the process of their work affecting the change. Instead of only thinking about what we design, we should be thinking about how we design and how that can contribute to creating a more just world.
How People Design
People who give a shit search for meaningful jobs in social change areas at community organizations and non-profits which is worrisome. Designers will be pouring out of their regular jobs into jobs they feel are worthy of their wokeness rather than staying and doing the real work of challenging problematic shit that happens at their existing job. As a designer at a regular job, everything might feel inconsequential and irrelevant. It might feel weird to be designing social media campaign graphics and logos when it feels like there is so much work to be done to dismantle oppression. But it takes all kinds of people and professions at all levels to address these issues in the system that exists now. Ultimately, creative professions will have to address how our occupations will exist and serve us after we’ve worked together to dismantle these systems. For the time being, people that work in all kinds of fields, in varying occupations can do something to contribute to social good, in their regular jobs in graphic design, advertising, and social media.
Design as a Profession
Graphic design as a profession needs to address the middle child complex that exists within the occupation. Not an artist, not quite a… businessman? Engineer? Old timey industrialist? But we’ve got to get over that. Since design as a profession as we know it is in it’s infancy – a little baby, if you will, we spend a lot of our energy trying to legitimize design as something that is needed and valid. Which takes me right back to the idea of, So What Are We Going to Do After Capitalism. So because we are insecure as a profession, we try to justify our careers and practices by saying it can help save the world. Everyone wants to feel like what they do is important and necessary. What we do as designers can be important and necessary if only we stop shouting about how important and necessary it is and start doing something about it, as individuals and as a profession.
From my perspective, there’s so many ways to create meaningful change in the workplace and as a designer in service of social change. Stand up as an accomplice or comrade to marginalized people that you work with, especially if you are doing “social impact work” in ~communities. Be a voice in the room challenging questionable creative work. A lot of people are afraid of speaking up at work, particularly because there are very real repercussions to standing up to bosses and clients. Figure out how to do this in your own way. Advocate for hiring and creating a welcoming environment for marginalized people at your workplace. Consider common workplace habits and practices that you might not have previously considered contributing to an uncomfortable or toxic place for marginalized people to work.
What People Design
The highest paid and most visible design work right now is in the worlds of advertising, social media, and UI/UX particularly around tech and start-ups. The design work supported by these industries makes easier and more full those whose lives are already sufficiently easy and full. Designing for and opening up the field of design professionally to people who that is not the case for, in addition to being simply the right thing to do, would create so many rich and creative solutions and contributions to the design world. Design is a resource that is being inequitably distributed, and redistributed back to people who are creating design work. It feels like a cop-out to focus design expertise and knowledge on designing yet another freelancer invoice app when the systems that people depend on everyday for their survival are failing. Stop designing products for people who design products.
The way people design for underserved communities treats the work as portfolio pieces and aesthetic flexing. Often pro bono or underpaid work for a non-profit or community organization is treated as an opportunity to do whatever the designer wants, rather than going through the design process of researching and being reflexive. When someone is asked to make a design piece accessible to a marginalized community, particularly poor people and people of color, that accessibility gets visually translated into pandering and childlike visuals comprising simplistic illustrations, primary colors, and geometric shapes. It comes down to making something eye-catching and colorful to appeal to people who are viewed as less sophisticated, rather than being strategic and adaptive like one might be for any other design audience..
It’s also about what you don’t make. It’s understood that interns and junior designers and even art directors and freelances often don’t get much say or at least we don’t feel like we can stand up to clients and bosses when shitty things are happening but, we have to use our access to spaces to act as an accomplice from the inside of industries and institutions. For white and middle class people, you have a privilege to be involved in conversations and should learn a level of nuance and become comfortable with challenging other people in an effective and strategic way, in the same way that non-white and poor/working class people have had to learn to do.
A More Open and Explicit Design Process
Both sides of how and what we design can contribute to positive social change. Designers cannot ignore the systems in place that have created a social climate of violence and injustice and should work in tandem with other occupations to address these systems. For whatever reason, designers as a profession are a group that avoids controversy or politics. Some professionals see design as a “service industry” and so it’s bad business to do or say anything that might label you as someone with opinions that differ from your existing or potential clients. A lot of designers seem themselves as simply an impartial communicator, an idea that I can safely and firmly disagree with. Designers, like any other kind of human have experiences and values and biases. Absolutely no one is an impartial pair of hands with technical skill who will execute communicating a concept for their client without embedding their perspective. We should stop pretending our trade is powerless, while also acknowledging that it might not be powerful in the way that we want it to be. Design can’t “can change the world”, as people like to say it can.
I want to see design make things transparent and accessible. Just as we have the ability to make concepts and information visible, we can simplify complicated bureaucratic processes. We can break barriers to access knowledge, tools, and community. We can develop resources and tools where more people can get to the things that they need. We can use our design skills and access to the creative industries to uplift narratives that are not often told by the people who own those experiences.
We should not allow the concept of design for good to become an industry that only satisfies itself, serving only to pay the designers and project managers and studios that get to sustain themselves off of design experiments on at-risk populations. Designers need to understand their role in the non-profit industrial complex. The profession needs to be opened up to include people from marginalized backgrounds and allow us to shape the industry in the same way that dominant culture and capitalist centered goals have since the industrial revolution.
Design making a genuine impact is going to be a lot less glamorous and validating than we think it is. I hope we don’t win awards for it and I hope we start doing it in a way that doesn’t make us label ourselves as “social impact designers” but rather just regular designers. We need to advocate for areas that need resources and attention to benefit from design, just as it needs to benefit from radical changes in other systems.