I recently attended a conference where a well-known speaker said he didn’t believe design could change the world. Although he thinks design has the potential for great influence, he suggested that perhaps the “design for good” believers should take a log off the fire. He said the expectation to feel responsible for changing the world was a weight he did not want to carry.
After hearing his perspective, two things came to mind. First, I completely understand the pressure of having to be a part of change, and second, the “design for good” belief system isn’t for everyone—as sad as that makes me feel. As his words blanketed the audience, some of the hope or energy in the room seemed to dissipate. I actually was surprised this statement was part of his presentation at all. It almost felt like a personal attack, and I found myself wanting to turn and say to the audience, “Calm down, everybody. There’s more to this.”
While I agree that there can be pressure to use design as a way to make a difference, the issue being addressed is massively complex. At its most basic level, design-for-good work can be empathetic. That’s probably what this speaker was pushing back against – and I would agree. Merely decorating a cause or message doesn’t seem to accomplish much.
But at its very best, design-for-good can and should be immersive and responsive. I’ve discovered that the greatest solutions are based on seeing life from the eyes of those you are serving. This is where it gets hard, and many creatives won’t or can’t take that step based on emotional investment, geography, safety, appropriateness, etc. It requires engaging in high-level design thinking to research, explore, question, provide solutions, test, and repeat. And it’s true, you’ll often find the issue to be more complex than you possibly can imagine, causing you to feel helpless and unable to do more than scratch the surface.
When Rule29 first began working in Africa we experienced a multitude of challenges – generations of improper sanitation and water use, government corruption, cultural issues, lack of will and resources – the obstacles felt endless. But in my mind this seemingly impenetrable wall of complexity is exactly the reason why creatives need to engage in this type of work—especially influencers like the speaker that inspired this article. We think differently and we are able to see possibilities where others may see a closed door. Design has the unique ability to change behavior and we, as designers, have the opportunity to harness our skills to help others. It is definitely hard work to do this kind of engagement well, but it is absolutely a necessary calling.
Maybe this does feel heavy, and perhaps it’s not something you are interested in. That’s your right, of course. And if you are not passionate about design’s potential for good or willing to have your heart broken at least a little, then perhaps you should look elsewhere for fulfillment. But from my point of view, that posture is a little disappointing – you are missing an incredible opportunity to add value (potentially life-changing value) to the world. Getting a bunch of design awards, re-tweets, or increasing your followers can be fun, but imagine using your influence and skills to help bring water, food, human rights, freedom, justice, or safety to those who need it.
From my experience, it’s good for your heart to get broken a little bit. It’s good to wonder how you could ever make a difference. It’s good to hate the way things are and wish for something better. When you design to fight deep human challenges, your work is tested in a completely new way. It takes on a whole new value and transforms individuals and teams.
I have to be optimistic about design’s potential – I’ve seen what it can accomplish. And I will always advocate for its possible impact, no matter how desperate the circumstances may seem.
At its most basic level, design-for-good work can be empathetic.