Image courtesy AIGA/NY

Last week, a group of designers gathered in the basement of the New School for an AIGA/NY chapter event titled “Citizen! Designer! Now!” At the front of the room, a screen displayed a set of questions intended to spur discussion between the three panelists and the designers in attendance:

“What problems need to be addressed?”
“Which of them can designers realistically affect?”

In the weeks after the election, these two questions felt particularly salient, as designers, like so many others, struggled to find a meaningful place in the new political environment. The election sparked a sense of civic duty amongst designers, and the room’s atmosphere was underscored by a palpable sense of wanting to do something. Of course, getting to the doing part is always the challenge. It takes planning (and evidently, panels). Google Docs help, too.

But even amongst a group of designers who had gathered for a discussion, there was an acknowledgement that simply talking about design’s potentially transformative power wasn’t enough. “To me the saddest thing that can happen right now is if designers are like, ‘let’s start a movement,’” said Christine Gaspar, executive director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy. Gaspar’s organization, a nonprofit that uses design to increase civic engagement, seemed to hit a nerve with people in the audience, many of whom had grown tired of lofty idealism and softly defined goals (empathy, anyone?), particularly in a time when practical action is needed most.

Design, like any tool, is only transformational if employed in the right way. It’s not a magic wand, but rather, a chisel used to steadily chip away stubborn problems. It’s a tool best used in tandem with others; alone, designers can only play a limited hand. “What designers can and should do is find organizations that are doing good work and put your tools at their disposal,” said panelist Jake Barton, founder of the studio Local Projects.

Barton’s sentiment was echoed throughout the room, but with a caveat: supporting community organizations is important work, but only with the understanding that ambitious altruism must be tempered with the the realities of working with organizations that are often understaffed, underpaid, and have little experience with professional designers. “It’s not a normal client relationship,” Gaspar added.

The thrust of the evening was just that: to make a real difference, designers must inevitably leave their comfort zone. “If you’re comfortable,” Gaspar noted. “You’re not doing enough.” To be fair, no one at the panel discussion seemed particularly comfortable. Most agreed that being useful isn’t about creating something your fellow designers will appreciate—it’s about creating something your fellow citizens will appreciate. There’s always the chance that the visceral reaction to election results will soften over time. People get busy, their jobs get in the way. But a month out, designers, at least in this room, seemed more motivated than ever.