Lessons from Creative Pros: How Designers Can Use Their Skills to Create Social Change

by Patrick Faller

posted on 11-29-2017

Designers are masters of communication, and they are increasingly leveraging their skills beyond their commercial work to focus on social issues to help communicate and elevate the messages and missions that are close to their hearts.

At Adobe MAX 2017, speakers shared their experiences taking their design skills and applying them to work they believe in, often without a financial payoff at the end. Here are some of their tips for using their design powers for good, and doing it well.

The power of strong, simple visuals.

MAX speaker Bonnie Siegler, founder of design studio Eight and a Half, is a believer in the power of a single, impactful visual to stir emotions and inspire action. She’s deeply politically engaged, and has used her graphic design skills to create posters and invitations for both the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns.

“Our job is communication, so we do that thing better than your average pundit on TV. It’s about combining a strong simple message, with a strong simple visual, and everything can change from there,” she said.

Siegler has been inspired by historical political posters pointing to the power of images during the Vietnam War to affect public opinion. She says that looking at posters from that time, you can sense how powerful, heartfelt, and sincere they are — adding that when activist designers create work for a cause they believe in, the authenticity of their message shines through. “As we’ve seen over the years, those people are the people who change the world,” she said.

Bonnie Siegler. Image Source: Lynda.com

Her main piece of advice for designers and artists who want to impact social change with their work is to focus on one main point in their work without cramming too many messages into their designs. She adds that complex ideas — or too much messaging at once — can cause people to tune out, especially in the 21st century, as we are often bombarded by messages across multiple channels simultaneously. Still, she says activist designers are more powerful now than ever.

“10 years ago even, it would have been difficult to get the word out. You would have had to team up with a campaign. But now we have Instagram, Twitter, and hashtags. You can do something in the morning and it’s around the world by nighttime. The power is in your hands.”

Infusing strategy in your designs for social causes.

Like Siegler, Justin Ahrens has also used his successful commercial design practice to support social causes. He’s the founder of the design firm Rule29 and has been deeply involved in Wheels4Water, which has helped more than 10,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa get access to clean drinking water. He’s done everything from designing its website to taking part in the fundraising bike rides himself. He says at the heart of this project — and any successful venture designers undertake to do good work — is strategy. “Without strategy, it’s all doomed from the beginning,” he said.

Justin Ahrens. Image Source: HOW Design

Once designers identify the causes they’re passionate about, they should ask themselves if their skills are really needed to create positive change — according to Ahrens. If the answer is yes, they should identify how they can use their skills and talents to create specific deliverables or attract more people to the story.

“There’s not a story that you and I can remember that didn’t have some sort of point to it. If we’re going to create any impact, we have to understand the challenge, the message, or the cause we’re trying to explain, expand, or empower people around. If you don’t understand those things, then you’re really just creating art,” he said.

“Just creating art for art’s sake is not a bad thing. But if you want to create change, then there has to be a point to it, and then there has to be some action involved.”

MAX master class takeaway — designers have a unique ability to make the world a better place.

The ability to create a poster, a website, an app, etc. puts designers in a unique position: they can use visual and multimedia experiences to move people in ways that words alone cannot.

“Especially when you start to get into more creative forms of storytelling, video, a simple motion graphic, that’s hitting more senses than one, and that can really make an impact. You can almost make someone taste something from a picture,” said UX designer and MAX Insider Tim Hykes. He’s used his UX design skills to create many campaigns with a social change objective, like 28 Days of Black Designers.

And while Siegler, Ahrens, and Hykes all concede that work which may be meaningful to you might not always change the world, they also know that it could have a trickle-out effect, and inspire others to take their own steps to create positive social change. Such is the power of good design.

“The best thing I can say is: Everyone may not listen, but there’s always going to be that one person, and you can use your design skills to change their life. Don’t do it for the glory, don’t do it for the fame. You’re doing it to change the hearts and minds of individuals,” said Hykes.

Every year, Adobe MAX brings the world’s best creative minds together to learn, share, create, connect, and play. Stay tuned for more lessons from the event’s creative pros, and head over to Adobe MAX’s website for more information.

Topics: Creativity, Design

Products: Creative Cloud