A few years back, designer Victor Ng was living the Bay Area dream. He worked on the design team for Pinterest, launching new products and building the platform’s profile; the only word he used before “campaign” was “brand,” not “presidential.” But that all changed when he found himself as one of the close-knit, and refreshingly diverse design team for Hillary Clinton’s election campaign, where he spent just shy of a year and a half heading up the web design department. “It was the single greatest privilege of my life,” he says.
Today Ng’s at the New York Times, having landed a role as a manager on the brand team in December—making him the quickest of the Hillary team to find a new job. “It wasn’t an easy transition,” he says.
“It was tough to think about things we could be doing when we’d be hoping to go to the inauguration.”
While he’s loving the job, both his personal and professional lives have been transformed by his 18-month stint as a key cog in the wheel that had planned to turn Clinton into the first-ever female U.S. president. Being part of the 24-hour news cycle seems to be a good place to be for a man whose views of design, politics, society, and people are intrinsically and critically linked.
When you’re working on a presidential campaign, it’s of vital importance that the oft-overused “human-centered design” is embraced. The Clinton website, for example: if your policies are based around inclusivity for people with disabilities, your site design has to thoroughly back that up. That means extensive research into design considerations for users who might be partially sighted, for instance.
Ng has taken his many insights and sleepless nights and transformed them into a handy set of six steps for designers looking to use their skills for good. Here’s how you can take your activism from online discussions and social network echo chambers out into the real world.
So why is it important to outline these nuggets of advice to designers in particular? “The reaction we saw from the design community after the [election] result was announced was amazing—things like organizing donations to Planned Parenthood—and we thought about how we’d be doing the same if we weren’t involved in the campaign,” says Ng. “Then we realized we had to put aside our egos and show what we can do when we collaborate with people. You can make something much more valuable when you work with other people than if you’re on the periphery.
“It doesn’t have to be that you make one iconic, game-changing poster design—it could be several small, incremental design changes. It’s maybe not sexy, it’s maybe not going to win an award, but what you can do could mean a lot to organizations who don’t have the means to invest.
“We wanted to share the story of how those things that maybe aren’t so glamorous—the people you see holding clipboards—could be streamlined with a bit of good design, and to share that with other designers. The Obama ‘Hope’ poster seemed like one of the best examples of how design can influence an election, but there are so many other smaller ways you can contribute.”
Here’s Ng’s advice on how to go about making that contribution in the best way possible. And once you’ve read those, you can head over to the site created by his fellow team members Meg Vázquez and Kara Haupt, Do The Most Good, to find out where to deploy your design skills to make a difference.
1. Understand the facts
“By the time we put a pixel down we could explain Hillary’s policies on climate change. A lot of what the design team was doing on the campaign was making the kinds of policies that were difficult and nuanced into a format an everyday person could understand. These sort of things just did not work well as a tweet. An economic policy that called for people with disabilities to be included in the workforce and women of color to start their own businesses are complicated things, so we had to make them understandable to a voter.
“We became students at the start of this campaign, and learned from some of the best policy makers in the country, so we were very privileged. Not every designer has access to those of course, but there are good resources out there for people to check their facts and understand these issues before they invest time and energy in something. Another tacit point is understanding the limits of what design alone can solve. There’s no shortage of noise and loud voices out there, but designers are not insignificant in their power to shape information. That’s what we do, so we have to really make sure that if we’re going to put something out there, that it’s right and accurate.
“Do your homework and stay informed so you can defend your decisions.”
2. Find allies with a common cause
“Instead of starting a Facebook group, look for an established group who you align with. If you care about Black Lives Matter or Trans Lives Matter then join those organizations—I bet some could use some design help.
“During the campaign a lot of it was about reaching out to advocates and policy makers to find people fighting for specific causes, and people who try and pass those things into law. The more focus and energy there is, the more effective that becomes.
“Something like immigration is not a new issue—there have been people fighting for these things for ages. Find people who are fighting for the same things as you, and think about how design could help amplify that.”
3. Learn to organize
“Anyone who’s worked on ‘human-centered design’ at an agency knows how important empathy is. It’s not easy to organize people in a lot of campaign situations, especially as designers—we are a bunch of introverts and we’re not all comfortable with talking to strangers. During the primaries we had to make calls to Iowa and New Hampshire to ask if people had everything they need to vote, and I was terrified—I can barely make a restaurant reservation!
“I know that myself and the design team were in a privileged position in a way: for most people it’s not easy to just quit your job and take a pay cut and move [to another] state. But what we did learn is that organizing is really, really hard work, and that the people who do this voluntarily are very special. There’s a lot of email threads, a lot of petitions—even just to get people into a school gymnasium is hard work. But I was pleasantly surprised that people were so willing to just show up and volunteer, even if it’s just to do one shift.
“The better the tools we design, the easier it is, and the less likely it is that people will hang up or slam the door.”
4. Start designing
“Only after you’ve done your homework do you know what needs to be designed. The kinds of problems you might be solving as a designer might be as simple as creating a new sign-in sheet that matches the same fields as a digital spreadsheet, but it took me two days to figure out that a bad sign-in sheet was a problem. It’s just by doing things that you see what needs to be made better.
“Often organizations are scrappy, but you can just hang out and see what people are doing and make a call on the situation. Maybe what they really need is pamphlets, maybe it’s to make them a quick Squarespace site. It’s mainly about doing good user research as part of the design process.”
5. Run your business right
“I think design has to take a good look at inclusivity and diversity and the kind of voices you see and hear. In some parts of the industry paying interns is not a requirement, but that creates the environment where people who have the resources to do free internships can, but those who don’t have the family resources to do that can’t. These are the sort of systemic things we need to be aware of, and there are very real problems.
“It was the greatest privilege for me to work with my teammates [on the Clinton campaign] as we all came from very different places; some of us are immigrants, some are LGBT, and one of the things I took for granted most on the campaign was that people discussed the idea of intersectionality and what it means to be a woman, and a woman of color on the internet, and all the trolls and abuse. We became much more aware of the world outside of our design community, and the things that could be improved became much more apparent.”
“It might not be a thing that a lot of designers are good at or want to do, but it’s important to run things like a business in any organization. Pay interns. Have real and candid conversations about diversity. Have paid family leave.”
“Voting in the 2018 midterm elections is a big one. There’s always a big push to think about easier ways for people to vote, and it’s difficult as there are so many laws that apply to different voting requirements. This year there were a few chatbots to help people vote, and that’s actually a great place to start. Lead people to where the tech is. Snapchat didn’t exist in 2012, and Twitter is not what it was, so a unique advantage for designers is knowing how these platforms work and thinking about what we can do with them in future.
“You can also see where there are design opportunities with mailers and more traditional media. We need to think about how we engage people, and 2018 is an increasingly important opportunity to do that.”
Thanks to AIGA/NY for inviting us to its recent Hillary for America design team lecture at Parsons.