Design Activism

Watershed Project

Watershed by Sheri L. Koetting

It is no secret that design has infiltrated every aspect of our lives from the styling of the icons on our smart phones to the ads we see in the newspaper and on billboards and even the jewelry we wear. One of the up and coming uses of design is in activism. From the stylish campaigns urging us into the recycling battle to the Occupy Wall Street movement, design is playing a big part in the promotion of causes all around the world. To further delve into the world of design and activism we are joined by Noah Scalin and Michelle Taute authors of The Design Activist’s Handbook. Welcome Noah and Michelle! 

Q: Often when you think of activism the first thing you think of isn’t really design, but most causes have an iconic body of work associated with them that really helps get their message out. To you, what really is design activism and how has it transformed you?

Noah: Design activism is about using the incredible power of visual communication as a tool for making positive transformation in our world – specifically by raising the voices of individuals & groups that would be normally overlooked in our current communications din.

I was raised as an activist, so I always knew that whatever I did in life it would need to mesh with my ethical beliefs. When I was graduating college in 1994, I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer, but I couldn’t find a model for how to do it socially consciously (and indeed I was told by many people that it was an impossibility!). So figuring out how to become a design activist and then sharing what I learned with others has been a central feature of my life ever since!

Michelle: In the case of our book, we really focus on matching your career to your beliefs and values. It’s the idea that you should feel good about how the work you’re doing impacts the world. Your activist work doesn’t have to be packed into those precious evening and weekend hours you might rather spend with friends and family. For me, working on the book definitely made me take a hard look at the kind of work I want to do and who I want to partner with on projects. A couple folks fell off the client list.

Q: Noah you teach a class called Design Rebels at Virginia Commonwealth University, what was your motivation behind creating the class and how did that play into the creation of this book?

Noah Scalin

Noah Scalin

Right after I quit my last office job and started making my living running Another Limited Rebellion, my own socially conscious design firm, in 2001 I also started adjunct teaching in the graphic design department at VCU. After interacting with the students for a semester I realized that, while they were learning a lot about making great design, they weren’t learning anything about the potential positive and negative effects that their skills could have on the world. I immediately pitched the concept of a socially conscious class to the chair of the department and amazingly he said yes to basically giving me free reign to do what I wanted under the subversive title: Design Rebels!

It’s been a real treat being able to challenge students to think differently about their roles as designers and humans for over a decade. And seeing the positive ways they’ve responded made me really want to spread the message further. Creating a book seemed like the ideal way to reach out beyond the school walls.

Q: Your book has so many wonderful examples of design activism in it, which one was the most inspirational to you and why?

Michelle: Just one! That’s really tough. I interviewed every single person who’s in the book, and the biggest takeaway for me is that no one has it figured out. You just have to go out there and start doing that thing you’ve been thinking about in your head. And you’ll learn and grow along the way. I think it’s easy to believe that people doing this amazing work know something we don’t or have resources we don’t and often, that’s not the case at all. They just dug in and made it happen.

Noah: Like Michelle said, that’s a tough one! I have to say I was really happy that we were able to include the work Elan Cole did for Johnson & Johnson. I think it’s super important that design activism be seen as something accessible and not elitist. The majority of designers are ultimately going to be working for other people (and not running their own socially conscious firms) and they need to have realistic ways they can make a difference – without getting fired!

Q: I have many friends who are designers and many of them are soft spoken, but passionate people once you get them to open up – especially about some of the causes they support. What are some tips you can give the soft spoken and shy designers out there to help them give a voice to their cause when they are in places where they might feel out of their element?

Noah: It’s a tough challenge, because we can often feel like our wellbeing is at the mercy of our clients and/or bosses and so not rocking the boat becomes the de facto behavior. However, what I’ve discovered is that if you put yourself out there and share your passions and beliefs, you’ll actually find that most people appreciate it. If they’re not on board, it’s better to find out sooner, so you don’t have to waste your time struggling along doing work that you hate. But realistically I’ve never had more success than when I’ve been clear from the start about what it is I want to do. People appreciate passion and enthusiasm.

Michelle Taute

Michelle Taute

Michelle: Well, I think that’s where your design talent comes in. Your design work is your voice. You just have to take those first steps to connect with other people and figure out the best way to put your talents to work. Go to that Meetup. Drop an email to that designer you really admire. Offer to buy someone more experienced coffee in exchange for advice. You’d be shocked at how accessible most people are if you’re polite and ask for advice on something specific and within reason. Reach out to that favorite no-profit as Noah likes to call them and see how you might partner up.

Q: What do you think the number one thing a designer has to keep in mind when designing for activism? Is there anything that differs for this particular type of design when compared to normal design?

Michelle: In an ideal world, all design would be socially conscious design. You’d feel good about the products, brands and messages that you’re promoting with your design talent. I think looking at socially conscious design or design activism as separate or other limits the potential.

Noah: Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s very daunting to try to change the world and it’s easy for people to give up if they feel like they can’t make massive change right away or if they don’t get it exactly right. If you start small, with attainable goals and objectives, you’ll be surprised at what a difference you can make in the world!

z9768For more information on design activism and how you can help use your talents to give a voice to the causes you’re passionate, check out at The Design Activist’s Handbook available now at MyDesignShop.com.

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