Design for Good and Bad

Milton Glaser, a number of years ago, wrote The Road To Hell, a guide to help designers determine whether or not they were designing for dubious purposes and questionable ends. Using “hell” as the most extreme yardstick was a clever way to address issues that concern most of us without resorting to more pedantic moral or ethical jargon that can sound self-righteous and preachy.

Over the past decade or so the term “Design for Good,” has become a mantra. “Design for Good” is a label affixed to conferences, initiatives, courses, books, magazines and journals. Through repetition, however, the phrase renders an inherently sound design ethos – to do no harm – into a brand. Sure, there was a time not too long ago, when some designers, especially during the boom years of glitzy corporate design firms and consultancies, had become comfortable making profit despite the consequences – but even then, most designers did not intentionally design for bad.

Some may have done bad design owing to a lack of talent made poor aesthetic choices, but frequently even this bad design was done for good causes. These days bad design, as it were, may be rebellion against the mainstream’s good design. Good can be bad and bad can be good – context and semantics are everything.

“Design for Good” presumably means designing for a positive quality of life. That’s a good thing – and the thing we should all strive to do, if possible. But when the mantra becomes a jingle – when it sounds like an advertising slogan – then it is time to reassess. Design should impact life in a positive way. Using “design for good” as a brand – good intentions not withstanding – simply fosters a trend that will be easy to ignore or parody.

Why can’t designers just practice “public good” as an integral part of design’s mission without labeling it as such – indeed that is good thing.

[Read about the comics biography of Underground Press Pioneer John Wilcock on tonight’s Nightly Daily Heller.]

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8 thoughts on “Design for Good and Bad

  1. Pingback: What the heck is “good design” any way? | Ethics in Graphic Design

  2. Doug Powell

    I think there’s a subtle but important point that emerges from Steve’s post, which is: why does “design for good” have to be tacked on as an appendage to a design practice? And how do we integrate meaningful social change work into the central operation of our businesses in a sustainable way? The current model of taking on unpaid pro bono work is not sustainable and—while some amazing design work is generated—it will always be the afterthought. My hope is that the AIGA Design for Good initiative can begin to answer some of these really complex questions around the way designers will be working in the generation ahead.
    Doug Powell
    National President, AIGA

  3. Jim Ward

    Love your writing, and continually take away thought provoking insights from the subjects and topics discussed, but can’t help but think this one is a direct dig at AIGA recently launching their “Design for Good” initiative. Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree about the inherent dangers and know, as a label, it will become further overused, diluted, and in turn become a parody (just as “design thinking” or “green design” has) but, an organizational initiative needs to carry some sort of label or title to communicate and get it off the ground. Good things have come from bad starts, but reassessing and over-thinking can easily lead to nowhere… I believe it’s a “good” initiative derived from the passion of many, even if it has a “bad” title, but it’s better than nothing and looking past the title it’s a good message.

  4. felix sockwell

    I find Glaser’s fingerpointing petty (Sagmeister designed the WTC pin Milton half denounces in #5’s Road to Hell). See bottom for link here:
    Sagmeister is a big hearted, great guy even if Glaser thinks he has one foot in hell. He did something, a heart felt gesture, that yes was risky but heartfelt nonetheless. He took a chance and tried to do some good. I wonder how many trees were felled in order to print the “I heart NY more than ever” poster. Gasp! And were they soy based inks? God forbid we slip on Milton’s slope!

  5. Aya Al Bawwab

    To: Steven Heller
    I couldn’t help but say that I am literally IN LOVE with your writings! Very rich, very informative, and a very easy read. They always come in handy as well especially that i am working on developing an ethical branding strategy or ‘reality branding strategy’ ,the way Veronique Vienne defines it in ‘Citizen Designer’, for my final year GD project. very inspiring!