Design ActsNovember 9th, 2012
Design has been a valuable instrument during this election year. Hundreds of crisp banners and infographics about various issues have diagrammed with great clarity the issues discussed by each campaign – and those not discussed, including climate change. The designs succeed when they enable viewers to learn in just a few seconds about an aspect of an issue and acquire a few facts, stats, or talking points. And that success multiplies if the viewers share the infographics through social media. That particular maneuver was central to the strategies of this election and the 2008 Obama campaign, which won marketing and advertising awards. But who creates this visual material? How does a designer leap into the world of design activism? Is it a viable vocation?
These questions, and more, are part of The Design Activist’s Handbook, by By Noah Scalin and Michelle Taute. Next week, SVA will co-host Design Rebels Unite, a symposium and book launch. One of the panelists, Mark Randall, is the Program Chair of SVA’s Impact! Design for Social Change. Mark took a moment to talk about the book and the topics it addresses.
Michael: What are some of the dilemmas that design activists face?
Mark: I think one of the big dilemmas is how you turn “activism” which is typically a pro-bono activity into something more sustainable like social entrepreneurship. Many designers want to go beyond doing this type of work in their spare time and incorporate it into what they do on a daily basis.
The dilemma really is this: how can you do this and earn a living? The employees who do all the great work at non-profit organizations across the country get paid. We as designers have a lot we can contribute to the social realm and we should get paid, too. This is the only way that the design community is going to turn this into a sustainable activity. The onus is on us – as designers – to demonstrate what we can do in the area of social change. By doing so, we will begin to create a market for our services.
Michael: Are any of these problems unique to the last ten years?
Mark: This is only unique to the past ten years because of the ground-swell of interest in doing social change work by the design community. When I started working in this area way back in the mid-nineties there was barely any discussion of the subject.
Michael: Who were some of your peers in the mid-nineties? Were there any specific issues that sparked your activity? And are there any exemplary practices or practitioners that you see today?
Mark: In the early 1990’s, I was fortunate to have met David Sterling. He had a company called Doublespace, which was one of the leading avant-garde design studios operating at the time. David wondered if if was possible to have a design studio that incorporated a social agenda into its work on a daily basis. I was very flattered when, one day, he called and asked me to design a logo for a new company he was incubating around this idea. While working together we discovered that we viewed the world in much the same way and became business partners launching Worldstudio, the company I still have today. David left about ten years ago, a master of reinvention, he currently lives in Mérida, Mexico and has become a well-known expert in the cuisine of the Yucatán Peninsula.
There are a lot of great things happening. Design Impact embeds designers in developing countries for extended periods of time to tackle tough social problems. A real pioneer in the field is the Rural Studio out of Auburn University – currently they are developing a prototype house that can be built for $20,000 as an alternative to trailer homes. Here in New York, there is desigNYC a fantastic organization that pairs designers with local New York City non-profit organizations. An exciting up-and coming designer is Irina Lee with her First Person American project, which she conceived in the SVA Designers and Entrepreneur MFA program.
Michael: Are designers obligated to engage with social, political, and economic issues around them? How would you respond to a designer who separates work from his or her awareness?
Mark: I say the first thing you need for social change work is passion. Without that I say, don’t do it. It is important that you engage with the issues that you truly care about.
We live in a complex world and I would encourage everyone to do something – no matter how small – to make it a better place. This might be as simple as helping a neighbor on a daily basis – or more profoundly by launching a social enterprise or non-profit organization. There are many avenues and there is no right one. It is up to each individual to do what works best for them.
Michael: And how about with teachers? Do teachers and professors have a social obligation to inspire social engagement concepts that go beyond formal material like typography, color, and printing?
Mark: I am a firm believer in foundation studies; it is critical that a designer learn the theories and practices of the profession. Social change work is not for everyone – but it is in a student’s best interest to be exposed to the idea so that they can understand the power they have to affect positive social change. Fortunately, colleges and universities all across the country are now incorporating a social agenda into their curriculum. We have a program called Design Ignites Change, which supports and showcases social change projects from over 55 colleges and universities.
Michael: Is it possible for a design activist to practice alone? If not, who would be a design activist’s most valuable ally?
Mark: Activism in general is better as a group activity. There is strength in numbers. Of course this does not mean you can’t go it alone, but, I find that cultivating relationships and developing partnerships with like-minded individuals only strengthens the impact you can have. And – for me at least – it makes it much more fun.