The Superhero Designer: Using Design Skills To Solve Pressing Problems

by Patrick Faller

posted on 07-17-2017

Design is a powerful tool. It can empower designers (and those hoping to become designers) to create a rewarding life for themselves, both professionally and personally. But a growing number of design professionals are looking beyond their own lives when it comes to using their tools for good. A recent post on Y Combinator’s Hacker News section asks the question, “What pressing world problems should a graphic designer work on?” The response has been immense.

“I went through the 80,000 Hours course and felt inspired to do work that matters…As a designer, what would be a pressing problem that I could work on and potentially even get compensated for the work in order to stick with it and pay the bills,” asked user Softwareqrafter.

80,000 Hours is a free advice portal for anyone who wants to break into a career that “helps solves the world’s most pressing problems,” and it appears to be inspiring many designers to get busy with helping others. Here on the Adobe Creative Blog, we’ve looked at several who are doing just that. Here are some of their stories, along with some of the best responses to Softwareqrafter’s call for help.

Designing Better Healthcare Systems

Throughout the Y Combinator post, the number one area designers identified as having substantial problems that need design fixes is the healthcare industry, particularly in the United States.

“Healthcare user experience sucks…Find a job at [the companies] who account for more than half of all hospital information systems and help clinicians avoid tragic errors, make faster and better decisions, understand health records more clearly, capture ideas/observations/memories,” wrote user Evanwolf.

That’s the path UX designer Andy Vitale is walking. In 2001, his office became the target of the first anthrax attack in the United States. What followed, in his words, was a poor health care experience rife with “distrust, anxiety, and feeling of helplessness.” After receiving a clean bill of health, he devoted his life to creating better health care systems for users. Now he’s the UX Design Principal at 3M Health Care.

“When it comes to health care, the slightest error can not only have financial implications to all parties, the difference can be life or death. To me, there are no higher stakes, which is the primary reason that drives my cause to improve the healthcare industry,” he said.

Designing Systems To Keep People Safe

Other Y Combinator users responded to the question by providing their own examples of design work they’re doing to solve pressing problems, like Zavulon, who creates information systems for first responders.

“Our applications literally help save lives. There’s a lot of interesting design challenges, for example, emergency dispatchers look at our CAD (computer aided dispatch) software for many hours on large monitors. How do you design it so their eyes don’t get tired? And then cops look at the same software on their laptops as they’re driving to respond to an emergency. How do you make a notification ‘suspect is armed’ stand out so they notice it among all other data?”

Making important data clear and easy-to-access in emergency situations is exactly what design firm IDEO is doing with the Center for NYC Neighborhoods. It worked with non-profit to redesign FloodHelpNY. The website takes two complicated issues, flood insurance and flood risk in New York, and presents crucial information for homeowners in an easy-to-understand way.

“[It’s taking] human-centered methods of talking to people, understanding the language by which they already contextualize risk, and using [those insights] to make risk more tangible and actionable so people who are not necessarily experts in that domain can understand it. We think that this type of design as a whole has a really great and powerful role to play in making cities and risk-prone areas more resilient, generally,” IDEO creative technologist Peter Olson told Fast Company.

Designing to Save the Vulnerable

Several responses said using design to effectively convey big social issues on a smaller, more understandable scale is a serious need designers can fill.

“There’s a general design problem of translating abstract massive problems (like world hunger) into something bite sized that people can relate to and act on (like feed one starving child). Vast problems like climate change, water shortages, human trafficking, drug abuse, systemic poverty, lifelong education, criminal justice. If you can help on this challenge, you can drive change and make a career for yourself,” wrote one user.

This is something Micah Bennett did in her previous career, but she went on to use UX design to take her work even further. While working as a program officer for the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration, she created a portal to help rescue and resettle LGBTQI refugees.

“When you’re building something, UX designers can be the greatest advocates for users,” said Bennett. “There are so many tactical problems these refugees are facing – access to information, proving the persecutory conditions in their home countries, knowledge of their rights…To have UX designers involved gives me hope that we will provide these systems with tangible solutions.”

Designers like Bennett, who now works for design firm DesignMap, and Andy Vitale at 3M are just a few great examples of UX designers who’ve blazed a trail for people like Softwareqrafter. They’re using design skills to solve pressing issues around us.

“Always Ask Yourself What You Can Do Today”

The idea of using your design skills to impact major positive change may be intimidating at first. On the Y Combinator post, there are several pieces of practical advice on how to start. Designers are just people, after all, and user Neomeo says becoming a designing superhero is best done one day at a time.

“Always ask yourself what you can do TODAY, however small it may seem. You may not be Elon Musk, but the path to that kind of impact is created step-by-step with every small interaction. Every relevant experience is a learning experience. Volunteer, find an open-source project, talk to others who are trying to solve problems too, and network with like-minded people. We all start out as little cogs in a big machine, but together we can change the system, one step at a time.”

You can check out the full comment board over on Y Combinator’s Hacker News, and keep your eye on the Adobe Creative Cloud blog for more examples of designers doing good.

How are you using design to create positive change? What’s your advice for designers who want to use their skills to make the world a better place? Let us know in the comments below.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

Products: Creative Cloud