In today’s political climate, designers are vocally, visually, demonstratively setting about using their talents for the greater good. There’s a palpable sense that this mass movement toward social design started with the 2016 presidential election. A number of communities, both online and offline, have emerged since that created new structures for using design as a tool for conversation and action. “I’ve certainly seen an increase of interest in social engagement,” says Christine Gaspar, the executive director of The Center for Urban Pedagogy, a nonprofit organization, founded in 1997, that uses design for civic engagement.
One project that arose in the wake of the 2016 election is Designers Available, a network of designers, artists, and other creatives looking to collaborate with grassroots and non-profit organizations. Created in November 2016 by New York-based designer Joelle Riffle, the initiative started out as a widely-shared Google Spreadsheet. Today, it counts around 200 designers and other creatives from around the world as part of its network. When a group or individual approaches Riffle with a project, and she helps them create a proper brief and partners them with the right designer.
Also created in response to the 2016 elections, AIGA New York Citizen Designer Now offers national innovation grants for year-long projects that help community design initiatives. Over the past year and a half, the group behind the initiative has facilitated workshops, hosted panels, and created a PDF primer publication for designers who “want to be more involved in social change,” says AIGA New York Citizen Designer fellow Sam Holleran. “A lot of folks think what they should do at the outset is apply design skills,” he says. “First, you should listen, learn, and be present.”
If you’re a designer itching to offer your talents to those who need it the most, we’ve put together a list of tips to help you out.
Use your own experiences to tackle problems affecting others
In addition to her work running Designers Available, Riffle also works full-time for an art and design access program for high school students. There, much of her day-to-day is trying to help open up creative careers to POC designers and those from underrepresented backgrounds. “Designers have a tendency to look for innovation and newness, so I wanted to make sure people understood that the issues we’re encountering post-election aren’t new to marginalized people,” she says.
Consider Slack as a tool for activism
Both within and without direct political work, much of doing good is about giving time, space, and voice to underrepresented groups. Victor Ng, a designer who worked on the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016, has found Slack to be a brilliant platform for galvanizing such action. “Slack’s been a great tool for designers to self organize about fundraising for candidates or asking people how they can help with pro bono work,” he says.
Ng discovered this initially through the 100 under 100 channel. “It started as a group of designers who want to connect with other designers,” he says. “Now it is loads of people across the world: there’s channels just for civic engagements, or designers of color about dealing with workplace issues; channels for discussing LGBT designer issues.” Some groups even meet up IRL as well as online.
Cut the jargon
Sometimes the conversations around the impact of social design can feel all mouth, no trousers, so to speak. But empty jargon helps no one—especially when you’re talking across industries. “What you learn from partnering with non-profits and other organizations is that everyone has a language of graphic design, they just might not see it like that,” says Riffle.
Much of cutting through the waffle is about being specific, and learning what problems need to be addressed in a group of organization’s activist work. “Figure out where you want to place your energies,” adds CUP’s Christine Gaspar. “Is it around housing justice, or racial justice in the legal system? Is it my community, the neighborhood I get involved in?”
Leave your dreams of a portfolio piece at the door
AIGA New York Citizen Designer fellow Sam Holleran points out that more often than not, the work that’s needed is not the stuff that’ll set your portfolio alight. “Advocacy groups often need relatively boring design that will speak to a broad sphere of people,” he says. “We all want to create things that are beautiful and interesting, but often those things don’t mesh that well with [pro bono work].
“The thing I’ve done that’s been the most powerful is a Powerpoint. It’s not super sexy but it’s eminently usable.”
“Being engaged as a designer means being engaged as a citizen first”
Wise words here from Holleran, who adds that you can’t do good for others until you listen to their concerns and truly think about their needs. Ng echoes this almost to the letter. “You’re not just a designer, but also a citizen and an active participant in politics,” he says. Since the 2016 election he’s continued his political work through campaigning for the Democrats by humble leafleting, cold calling, and generally being useful behind-the-scenes. No flashy posters to speak of.
“If you start by just licking stamps and other small things, then you’ll understand the opportunity for design, and the groups you’re working with will feel more trust in you,” says Gaspar. “So much of it is about building relationships. You can’t just walk in and say ‘what design do you need?’”
Think about what, and who, you can realistically commit to
We all know how easy it is to be caught in a moment of fury and action. “It’s easy to galvanize in the moment and harder to engage long term,” says Holleran. He suggests getting involved with an issue that’s personal, as well as political. “Think about who’s already working in that space, and find out how you can support them.”
Rather than going the more ego-stroking route of setting up your own group, it’ll likely be far more beneficial to join an existing one and offer your services. “If you care about an issue, there’s probably a design community there talking about it already,” says Ng. He says that following activists and designers on Twitter is a great way to find out more about what other people are doing, and how you might be able to help.