Essay: Design For Positive Change

posted in: Graphic Design, Projects | 0

This is an essay first written in 2007 as part of my degree studies in Graphic Design. As a young and idealistic designer, I was beginning to explore the dialogue of ethics in the design industry. This is really only an introduction to the discussion and much has changed since writing. I’ve reproduced the text here to accompany my portfolio piece.

Being a Designer used to be like being on a crusade…

Peter Saville

I like to think of the creative industry as a platform once populated by groups of visionary crusaders; pioneering individuals who believed the messages they had to give could instigate change. Artists and designers were once cultural prophets, pioneering new schools of thought and practice; new ways of seeing. There is a lineage of creatives who lived and worked with vision and conviction that brought transformation.

Making things better

I believe that design has potential not just within visual culture, but also to make a great difference to people’s lives; to make things better. Unfortunately I often struggle to find this potential being tapped-into in the day-to-day of design culture and instead see a profession concerned more with commerce than a message. I eagerly look for the places where design practice is being used as a force for the greater good.

Peter Saville recently wrote of design in a manifesto featured in Icon Magazine: “Making things better is a moral issue, but morality and business don’t go together… it can’t really be all about idealism and altruism.” I put this belief to design educator and theorist David Stairs, founder of the non-profit Design Altruism Project. His work focuses on the work of designers from around the world, who are involved in helping developing communities – particularly in Africa. He is driven by a desire to change the world through good works and a long-held passion to “do something concrete for Africa.” The project draws these experiences together in an online community of creatives with a passion for changing lives.


If altruism isn’t mixed with business, we’re all doomed

David Stairs

“I couldn’t disagree with Saville more; If altruism isn’t mixed with business, we’re all doomed.” Stairs is a firm believer in the power of design as a catalyst to change lives in the developing world, but would like to see designers being quicker to take up the challenge. In his article “Why design won’t save the world” featured on the Design Observer website he commented that “designers often seem woefully behind the times.”

As a man who has worked mostly outside the commercial industry and dedicated much of his career to the non-profit sector, Stairs perspective is free from corporate influence. Without the commercial pressure of the mainstream industry, it has been easier than most for Stairs to peruse the cause of the less fortunate. As he discussed with me, “Unfortunately, this [desire to change the world] isn’t what  motivates the industry, and most designers operate under the commercial rubric.” And of those who might like to support such a cause, “…most are easily lulled into complacency by the latest palm pilot.”

Ideas that matter

Stairs responses validate my own thoughts. Commercialism is our cultural driving force and the creative industry is no longer any different. To be a Designer is to design for business and for the majority that can leave little room for the pursuit of alternative causes. Indeed, of the insight I have gained from Designers, their point of view has mostly seemed inward-focussed; concerned [though quite validly] with responsibility towards the workplace and clients. For those who do step out beyond this, the availability of resources to support their persuits can be an issue. This is an area where third-party organisations and initiatives have started to move forward.

The Sappi paper company’s ‘Ideas That Matter’ initiative sets aside US$1million each year to finance print campaigns for worthwhile social causes and projects (on the condition that they use Sappi papers) The Ideas That Matter global showcase is a very good place to find  examples of everyday Designers who have chosen to get involved in applying their design abilities to help change lives, outside of their commercial work. It is initiatives such as this which are helping Designers meet somewhere in the middle of the clash Saville referred to – between the corporate line and the empowering of design for the greater good.

There are a number of other initiatives using the commercial design industry to tackle social and ethical issues. Design 21, One Laptop Per Child, Designers Without Borders and the Design Altruism Project are just some of them. And some are more successful than others.

Much like Ideas That Matter, Architecture for Humanity is one initiative of note, networking professional Architects who seek to make a difference. Professionals working together, giving their time and skills to building and rebuilding developing and disaster-struck communities all over the world. Groups of professionals acting on their belief in the power of design to improves lives.

Design like you give a damn

It has become fashionable to sympathise with the causes of sustainability, climate change, ethical design and the like. But these concepts are brandished so liberally that they have already become cliched. However, aside from the bandwagon effect, it is clear there are initiatives and individuals pushing design beyond the commercial for socially positive causes – both nationally and internationally. Proof that yes, design has great potential as a force for positive change and there are designers who believe it and crucially, are using it for just that.

But it seems for the majority of the industry to maximise its potential, the motivation of the industry needs to change. Even for those who would like to do more, the business focus can hold them back. In order to revolutionise the commercial creative scene, those designers who have become so business-orientated need to free themselves – creatively and spiritually, from the constraints of corporate focus.

Good design is not a luxury but a necessity. Lazy responses simply don’t cut it and designing with care and vigour can produce life-changing results

Alice Wyllie

As an industry of communicators, designers should be sure they are bringing messages with meaning – messages they believe in that have the power to inspire the hearts of the audience. David Stairs put it to me this way; “What we’re talking about is a fundamental change in the way people practice design, one that valorises design’s ability to add to the common good, not merely the corporate bottom line.”



“Why Design Won’t Save The World” –

Ideas That Matter – Sappi Papers

Architecture For Humanity (Now nolonger functioning)

Design Altruism Project

First Things First manifesto –

“Responsible Design matters…” –


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