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Design Activism: Stand up if you want to be a designer

From the moment I became a designer, I was hopeful—if not a little cynical—about the expression “design can change the world. “But in the last decade, we’ve seen a huge rise in the role that design can play in an area that’s fundamentally about changing the world: activism.

The act of rallying people across the globe to unite around a common cause has traditionally been complex, costly, and time consuming, something best left in the hands of giants with the resources to match. Now, it can be as simple as sharing a mission on a social platform, to spark a global movement. Over the last few years we’ve seen these movements turbo charged with individuals, schools, industries and entire nations rallying around a common cause. It’s now become entirely possible for anyone with enough determination to make a real difference regardless of pocket size.

That said, not every activist-led Facebook page results in world-changing impact. So, what sets the most successful apart? A clear and simple vision? Yes. A problem that resonates with much of humanity? Absolutely. An easy way to get involved? Critical. And the vital element that brings these together and to life: Design.

Design has the power to give a voice to people and causes without access to multimillion-dollar advertising budgets and to offer people alternative visions of how the world might be. – The Design Activist’s Handbook

 

What is Design Activism?

Design activism is often hard to define, but it’s critical to boosting social change. At it’s simplest, it gives shape to a cause in a way that’s easy to understand, embrace, and get behind. It’s not about inciting isolated events but using design in all its forms to build a sustained platform for change— understanding and interpreting the fundamental problem, exploring the way to a solution together, and publicly calling for change.

At its heart, design is an iterative and generative process. So, when you take open sourced nature of design—its democratisation and transparency—what was once left in the hands of the few can now be utilised by anyone with access to the web (an estimated 3.2 billion people), a problem to solve, and enough drive to make it a reality.

The social issues we’re tackling today can vary significantly—from providing clean water, to standing up against homophobia, changing the conversation on climate change, or to get politicians to take note of a generation of kids tired of being a statistic. But the common thread is the voice of the people with enough strength to spread the story—whether sitting in a cafe in NYC or standing on a telecom box in Iran—with easier access than ever to spread their voice.

Much of this is possible due to progressive companies across the globe making their technology accessible; sharing tools, technologies, methodologies, and data with the view to democratising design and making it accessible for everyone.

 

What does this mean for the world?

That right now, there’s never been a more important time to stand up and use design for good.

That anyone with enough grit, determination and optimism regardless of geographic location can apply the same design logic to any problem and use it for good.

The last few years have been turbulent, and so right now we’re seeing firsthand how people are harnessing a collective energy for change by using every accessible tool (including wit and humour) to be heard. In a recent visit to the Design Museum London to see the Nope to Hope exhibition that celebrated all the grass roots movements and social uprising from the last decade, one image at the exhibition left a lasting impression on me: a sign that read “Slogans in nice typefaces won’t save the world.” And this is true. However, if the right intent sits behind the message, attracts attention, and ultimately builds a community, then maybe it can make a dent—a dent that demands a fix, a fix that starts a movement. 

 

Actions speak louder than words

Usually any problem is solved starting with an idea, but ideas can come and go. The ones that stand out are the ones that ignite action—an individual or group that embarks on the journey, a journey that’s topical, founded on truth, and a utilisation of accessible tools.

Early last year we experienced this first hand as the Australian Government decided to put the fate of the LGBT community (6.5% of the Australian population) into the hands of the country via an outdated postal vote favoured towards the ‘No’ voters on marriage equality. So, alongside many other strong voices and campaigns we decided to take a stance by shifting the focus towards the apathetic middle. It needed to be simple, straight forward and pulled together on a tight budget. The solution was simple: we created a “slogan in a nice typeface” for G’ AY MATE, a straight-talking campaign where we simply removed a letter from Australia’s most famous saying G’day. Then it ended on a simple question: Australia are we missing something? From our perspective design can make a difference, it just can’t end with a nice idea. You need a group of people with the drive and integrity to see it through even when the going gets tough (and it will).

Am I still hesitant to say design can change the world? Less so, because I certainly think with the right focus, determination and collective power of the people then design in all its guises can certainly make a dent on the world. More importantly, I’ve realised that ideas, designs, and voices are a reminder that we’re in this together. And that every voice, in every day, can make a profound difference to changing a global conversation. 

So, if you’re a designer, or someone that really cares, then get online, grab some tools, and build a movement, as every little voice builds into a cacophony of change. 

Read more about how we activated The G’ AY MATE Campaign here

If you have an idea, or a cause you’d like to elevate, please get in touch: ben.miles@interbrand.com.au.

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Executive Creative Director