Design for Change: An Inside Job?

It has been a privilege—and actually an inspiration—to witness and participate in the thoughtful dialogue in the design community about if and how we, as designers, can make a difference in the world.

As an in-house designer working squarely in the business sphere, I wonder if in addition to the entrepreneurial and philanthropic initiatives started by designers, there’s also a route within the more traditional corporate landscape. Could in-house designers act as internal change agents, influencing the way companies operate and behave from within?

This proposition certainly pushes the idea of what we can contribute to business well beyond our normal function of creating design artifacts for our clients, but my initial Pollyannaish response is a heartfelt yes. And I think we owe it to our communities, and to ourselves, to try.

Good or bad, ethical or unjust, businesses—more so than governments, religions and academia—affect our personal lives and the global environment in profound ways. Each of us bears witness to a seemingly endless barrage of corporate trespasses on our society that can be angering and upsetting: think of the exploitive behavior of financial firms and pharmaceutical companies, for instance. It’s enough to turn even the most optimistic designer and citizen of the world into a hardened cynic. Yet while I find that all this malfeasance feeds my righteously indignant ego, I realize, on a deeper level, that it’s a problem that must be dealt with if we want to improve our lives and benefit our communities.

As a group, designers possess a powerful set of talents, beliefs and aptitudes that are often lacking in today’s average corporate culture, but that are uniquely suited to effecting change for more responsible, humane, and sustainable business practices. We are innovators, problem solvers and hard-core implementers. We’re empathetic, focused and keen observers of our environment, and we put challenges and assignments into a context that allows for effective, appropriate holistic solutions. We typically eschew corporate politics, bureaucracy and territoriality.

That said, even if one accepts the premise that “corporate creatives” possess transformational potential, there’s still the question of whether we can actually change the behavior of our business-minded colleagues and clients. Is there a place in the seemingly indestructible left-brain corporate wall for us to get a toehold? Can we establish the relationships needed to make positive progress?

I have heard of and experienced evidence that supports this possibility. An internal design team at a large computer company successfully fought for an open-office architecture—and the accompanying collaborative ethic it encourages. Other departments, witnessing the benefits, soon followed suit. In another example, there was a design manager working at a software company who became that firm’s first designer to head the development team for a major software product—a position that had previously been held exclusively by programmers. And I’ll never forget the time, while leading a creative department at a large pharmaceutical company, when my team convinced upper management to allow us to commit corporate blasphemy, to work with a competitor’s design team, to share effective proofing and regulatory compliance practices—an important process that benefited our consumers.

None of these anecdotes signals a great trend, nor are they producing sweeping changes, but I’d like to believe that, in small incremental ways, they’ve had a positive impact and point to an unrealized potential that can be tapped and brought to bear on errant companies. I hope that one day designers will walk into meetings empowered to shape the focus of major strategic initiatives, as needed to uphold sustainable and socially responsible standards.

I am really not sure if it is narcissistic—or worse, unrealistic—of me to entertain these ideas. I’m extremely curious to hear from other designers if they believe what I’m proposing is accurate and achievable or naïve and delusional. Given the paucity of powerful options to better our world on a global scale, I certainly hope it’s the former.

About the Author:

Andy Epstein started his career as a freelance designer and illustrator with clients as varied as Bacardi, Canon, Bantam Books and Merck. Jumping into the world of in-house in 1992, Andy created and grew in-house design teams for Commonwealth Toy and Gund. He later restructured and expanded the hundred-person creative team at Bristol-Myers-Squibb and consulted at Johnson & Johnson. After a three year stint at Designer Greetings leading an in-house design team responsible for the company’s product lines and Point Of Sales materials, Andy moved back into pharma heading up a 65+ managed services team at Merck.

Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative”, a book on in-house design, in partnership with F&W Publications in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, an association dedicated to providing support to in-house designers and design team managers. Most recently he was head of INitiative, the AIGA program dedicated to in-house outreach and support where he expanded on his efforts to empower in-house teams and raise their stature in the design and business communities.