Designing Activism

In October 2015, I had the pleasure of exploring the world of design with creative practitioners from all walks of life, a variety of crafts, and diverse perspectives at the2015 AIGA Design Conference, themed “Revival”. At this 2 ½ day conference, we discussed a range of topics, including the role of design in organizational development and innovation, the immersive (and metaphorical) experiences of movie titles and promotional game trailers, and how getting mentors is easy (you just don’t have to tell them). We also learned that we can yell “Bullocks!” for a 30-day project deadline, but then come out with some of our most amazing work. Ultimately, this collision of the strategists, makers, problem solvers, and connectors was an explosion of fulfillment and appreciation of everyone in the room that were oddly, but lovely creative thinkers.

But, while this experience was encompassed by positive vibes and a “good time”, AIGA sparingly, but intelligently, interspersed topics of seriousness. A call to action for designers to remember that their impact on society is more than typography and pretty illustrations. Intentionally, this was done in a few instances, including the Design for Good and GAIN affinity sessions and pre-conference volunteering opportunities through PlayBuild, a New Orleans-based nonprofit working to transform under-utilized urban spaces into exciting kid-friendly environments for play and learning. While, truthfully, I was disappointed to see a limited amount of mainstage speakers focused on design for societal improvement (let’s push for this at the 2016 conference in Vegas), there were two instances that merit noting. The first instance was AIGA strategically requiring the Command X (a live, reality design competition) participants to develop a solution or approach to gun violence within the United States. The second instance, in which I had the honor of being directly involved, was the inclusion of an affinity session focused on design activism in today’s society.

“From Logos to Protests: Using Design to Start a Movement” featured insights from current design activists and social entrepreneurs. Jake Levitas, co-founder of Our City and co-creator of Occupy Design, De Andrea Nichols, director of Civic Creatives and creator of Connected for Justice, and myself, truthfully, struggled with developing one overarching definition of design activism. For us, this practice is multi-faceted and means something different for everyone. And, that’s okay.

Actually, it’s great!

As designers, we have this innate ability to want to have the solution – even if we don’t truly know.

As effortless problem solvers and explorers of ambiguity, surprisingly, we are not okay with an ambiguous solution, let alone not having a solution at all. This was shown moreso when Command X finalist Sarah Azpeitia took the non-traditional approach and turned the call to action around to us – everyone in the room – to use their voice, their power to make change around the issue of gun violence opposed to expecting a specific leader or person to develop the solution for them. Using the words of Kennedy, Obama, and Ian Keys, Sarah ignited over 2000 designers to find a stake and act upon it.

What many designers don’t realize is that they have the power to truly create change. As problem solvers, collaborators, and challengers, we have the power to develop approaches around systemic impact, from micro campaigns to macro policy changes. The way we think. The way we approach all issues. The way we depict. Our mode of being moves beyond visual to intellectual and actionable. We have our craft. Now each designer (and design thinker) needs to determine their mission.

Overall, I was a fan of all three finalists approaches, but (as you can probably tell), I leaned more towards Sarah’s “solution”. Why? She avoided the savior complex.

As a privileged society, we have a tendency to take a fishbowl approach and develop solutions FOR a community or social problem opposed to WITH the community that are “frontline, common-person” experts.

Sarah admitted that she didn’t know the solution. And, even though a majority of the judges were looking for a physical product (even requesting a printed piece or PSA), Sarah’s approach was around collective impact and the embodiment of design thinking.

So, what is design activism?

Ultimately, De Andrea, Jake, and I developed one definition by merging our perspectives. Like Sarah’s gun control proposal, our definition is not a solution, but is a living product. In addition to being reviewed, prodded, analyzed, and revised by Jake, De Andrea, and myself, we want you to take to take the lead and define design activism based on your experiences. For us, while we came to an agreement in that moment, we recognize our perspectives will continue to take shape and form through life experiences, access to other change agents, and unexpected igniters. Jake is the not the same man he was pre-Occupy movement. And, De Andrea and I are not the same women we were pre-Ferguson. Truthfully, we may not be the same after the AIGA Conference and Sarah’s call:

“I believe that if I were to expect a politician to use his or her voice to better the world, we should expect the same from ourselves.” – Michael Ian Keys (#itsnotenough)

“I believe that if I were to expect a politician to use his or her voice to better the world, we should expect the same from ourselves.” – Michael Ian Keys (#itsnotenough)

On behalf of all of the designers at the AIGA Conference: Revival this past week, I am challenging you to take the pledge. The pledge to determine your mission, immerse yourself into the topic, collaborate with everyone, create for engagement, #daretoimagine, and see the world as changeable, and then go out and change it.

According to De Andrea, Jake, and myself, design activism is the utilization of design-based methodologies and tools as frameworks to bring about action, advocacy, or awareness on a social or civic issue. (And, not just politically fueled.)

Tell us: what does design activism mean to you, what's your mission, and how are you taking the pledge to design for impact?

Share your thoughts with us at @creativerxlab.