What does it mean to design for social change? For decades designers have tried to push the profession into more humanitarian causes with varying success. In 1964, for example, the designer Ken Garland along with 20 other designers, critics, and students, published First Things First, a manifesto calling on graphic designers to abandon their obsession with commercial work in favor of projects that help humanity. It made a splash, including a BBC news segment featuring Garland, but so little changed in the years following that in 2000, another group of designers picked up the cause and published a new edition of the manifesto in Adbusters. Twenty years after that update — after a year of divisive politics, racial reckonings, and a raging pandemic — designers are yet again forced to rethink their work and the difference it makes in the world.
Andy Chen and Waqas Jawaid, partners of the Brooklyn design firm Isometric Studio, are two of these practitioners who are rethinking the role of the graphic designer in building a better world. Chen and Jawaid are less interested in writing manifestos decrying capitalism or making broad declarations about the role of the designer as they are in using design itself as a tool for empowering those who are too often left behind. For them, designing for social good is core to who they are as designers — and people — and foundational to the studio’s output. This approach is rooted in their own experiences as queer people of color, who have been married since 2014 and often felt like outsiders in the circles they found themselves in. “We never felt a sense of belonging,” Chen says, noting the pervasive whiteness of the design profession (Of the 21 designers who signed the original First Things First Manifesto, 18 were men, all of them white) “but we wanted to add to this conversation. We had this desire to formulate a theory about how we think design can lift up the most marginalized people and focus the concentration of power that the design accords to their narratives.”
In describing their approach, they contrast it with the way designers have historically created work for social good. Large brands led the early attempts at social design; they used their brand vocabulary to project social responsibility and humanitarian causes, often promoting causes without doing the work to enact change (think the ‘conscious capitalism’ movement). Then came design studios like IDEO who developed processes pulled from service design and design thinking to codify social design into particular deliverables that can be used in any context. There is nothing inherently wrong with this work, Chen and Jawaid are quick to point out, but they think there is still more work to do. This means being more sophisticated about how we practice and talk about the role of design, working with and responding to individual communities, sometimes at the systemic level, as opposed to the designer coming in with premade solutions. It also means looking for universal solutions — ‘sticky-noting the process’ — for specific problems will only reinforce the status quo. “Can we be more like sociologists or policymakers?” Chen asks. “How do we design for these social issues in a way that doesn’t just reflect back our own stylistic preference or celebrity or propping up of the design field, but instead creates truly empowering tools for the very people that design is supposed to benefit?”
Chen and Jawaid met while undergraduate students at Princeton in 2006 when Chen was a sophomore and Jawaid a freshman. Chen, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, was studying sociology and Jawaid, who grew up in Pakistan, was studying architecture. They worked side by side in a student-run graphic design agency on campus and volunteered in other on-campus organizations together. Working at the student design agency allowed Chen to see graphic design as an extension of his sociology work and he was encouraged to continue studying design. After a fellowship at the Royal College of Art, he received an MFA in graphic design at RISD and went to work for Paula Scher in Pentagram’s New York office. In 2013, he co-founded Isometric Studio with Alex Huang. Jawaid, meanwhile, started to grow disillusioned with architecture after cutting his teeth in firms around the world like OMA, SAANA, and SOM, and decided to join Chen at the studio in 2014 (Huang was leaving to join a startup), a month after the couple married.
Many of the early Isometric projects began as part of Chen’s MFA work at RISD. It started, as many studios do, doing pro-bono collaborations and working with nonprofits including the American Youth Circus Organization, USAID, and Evidence Action, a non-profit that works with developing countries to provide chlorine dispensers to purify water. The duo has also continued working with a variety of Princeton’s campus departments and offices on projects ranging from branding, publications, and a typographic installation in the Weickart International Atrium.
What their work looks like in practice means they often need to be advocates just as much as designers. Chen and Jawaid don’t shy away from commercial clients, despite the majority of their clients coming from cultural and educational institutions as well as non-profits. Their client list includes large corporations and big brands, startups and healthcare providers. “We work with everybody across the gamut to try to find where we can create a positive impact because it’s those [bigger brands] who may not consider these narratives. And those are the ones that are often most vulnerable to critique,” Chen told me on the Scratching the Surface podcast when I interviewed the studio a few years ago. “They’re the ones that are sometimes unintentionally promoting narratives that are sexist or homophobic and perhaps we can get them to look critically at their values.” This has allowed Isometric to position itself as a generalist studio, moving between traditional graphic design, architecture, research, ethnography, and photography. “We’ll take on any kind of client who demonstrates a desire to think about what authentic inclusion looks like, what foregrounding marginalized narratives looks like.”
In 2019, for example, they worked on an exhibition with Google called “Rising Together” that explored unjust policing through the Black American experience. “We faced a dilemma because despite the great research they’d done, they had no Black team members and wanted to present this information in a formulaic way,” Jawaid says. “And the elephant in the room was that there were all these names that we knew — Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin — where were those names? Why weren’t they being talked about?” The team at Google wanted to restrict the exhibition to only including direct quotes from their research, but Isometric argued for a more holistic narrative that blended the past with the present. They proposed traveling to three American cities to interview and photograph participants to better understand their negative experiences with policing. These images and quotes became the foundation of the exhibition that was then layered with historical narratives, current data, and a community table in the center of the exhibition space that encouraged visitors to talk to one another.
Their work also manifests itself through self generated and independently published projects. This past summer, shortly after the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, Isometric self-published “Confronting Unjust Policing: A Primer for Systemic Reimagining,” a multi-page PDF primer co-authored with Megan Wicks, a Philosophy PhD student at Princeton, that builds and expands upon “Rising Together.” “Confronting Unjust Policing” explores the debates around policing, tracing its history into contemporary contexts, and challenged the studio to use visual design to translate complex topics and make them accessible to a wide audience. “The conversation is so nuanced, and the country is so divided,” Jawaid said. “So how can we be very precise and accurate but at the same time, have it be simple enough for people to remember?” The result visually moves beyond the quick protest posts splashed on Instagram through the summer while also questioning the binary nature of the debate itself.
In the last few years, the studio, whose seven-person team operates out of its Williamsburg work-live space, has continued to branch out, taking on more architectural and interior work and pursuing bigger client projects. “There are a lot of projects that may or may not have any explicit social consequences,” Jawaid said. “But we remain who we are and we will hold people accountable. Sometimes we’re the ones that have to pause the process and have a difficult conversation.”
Regardless of the project or the client, Isometric embraces these challenges, seeking to move beyond stylistic dichotomies and predefined types of work. When they were just starting out, mentors and older designers advised Chen and Jawaid to not talk about themselves — their backgrounds, their queerness, their identities — so they wouldn’t be pigeon-holed as a specific type of designer. But it is these identities that guide all of their work and the entire mission of the studio. “Much of our early relationship paralleled the Obama administration — a time of profound hope and evolution for the country where we still needed to work daily for our right to be known and heard,” Chen said. “In the Trump era, our goal has been to fight the tides of racism and xenophobia because our very belonging as queer immigrants of color was called into question.”
The definition of isometric is of having equal sides. “It means we can give equal measure to each other as business partners and the clients we serve,” Chen said. “We can represent everybody who has informed the context of this work.” And in architecture, an isometric drawing is a floor plan drawn at a thirty degree angle where the same scale is used for every axis, creating a non-distorted image. “It’s an ideal that isn’t really possible,” Jawaid continues. “But we’re interested in that ideal. We’re designing for that ideal. We are looking for the people who have been excluded and trying to make this space more inclusive.”