What can designers do collectively to advance social causes?

Communication designers have always played a role in advancing socially relevant issues. Since one of the special attributes that a designer brings to problem solving is empathy, it is not surprising that there is a strong affinity with causes that affect the human condition. As society looks with ever-increasing consciousness at significant social issues afflicting people everywhere, we see in our membership an intense interest in finding ways to use their talents to play a positive, socially significant role.

Members look to AIGA to trumpet the value of designing to business leaders, the media and the public. Over the past decade, we have taken a course of demonstrating value by doing valuable things, which led to such initiatives as Design for Democracy. Now more than ever AIGA's efforts in enabling members' social engagement are just as important as its traditional role in inspiring design excellence and in communicating the value of design to business.

Sustainability is not just about being “green”

The AIGA Center for Sustainable Design recently unveiled the Living Principles for Design, distilling the collective wisdom found in decades of sustainability theories and bringing them to life in the first quadruple-bottom-line framework. The Living Principles weave together environmental protection, social equity, economic health and cultural vitality to generate a comprehensive roadmap for responsible, sustainable design. AIGA will submit the framework for global adoption at “Xin: Icograda World Design Conference” in Beijing and has enlisted designers worldwide to share best practices, guidelines, tools, case studies and general support for a broad range of design disciplines.

Design for Democracy is not just about elections

Although the 2008 general election is fading into memory, the efforts of AIGA Design for Democracy continue to influence election and polling place design based on nonpartisan, information design principles. AIGA members nationwide have provided counsel to a variety of states and local jurisdictions; there are AIGA employees working as Election Design Fellows in secretary of state offices in Washington and Oregon; and we are helping to advise on specific government forms for various states. Design for Democracy has developed a design policy advocacy kit for anyone with a desire to make an impact through effective information design. In addition, we will be initiating an RFQ process before the end of 2009 to keep a database of interested firms who want to be involved in public projects in the future. At the same time we are creating legislative and administrative opportunities for designers in explaining mortgage terms, credit cards, Medicare and veterans' experiences. Each one of these efforts offers the chance to build recognition of the design profession by demonstrating that designers can make a difference in the civic experience.

Designers can think globally and act globally, too

AIGA has also launched initiatives to engage designers with global problems. AIGA is the only design association in the world with consulting NGO status at the United Nations, giving us the right to comment on agenda items in the economic and social realm before they reach the General Assembly. We have worked with the UNDP, the UN's global development network, to design banners on the human condition to be hung outside the Security Council, and have arranged for designers to develop subsequent annual efforts to promote the findings of the Human Development Report.

AIGA's Aspen Design Summits have focused on how design can influence positive change in global conditions. The 2009 Summit in November—a joint venture with the Winterhouse Institute and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation—will explore at least five case studies on designers working on health, food, education and community needs. These summits will continue, and AIGA will work with the Aspen Institute and other international forums to place design on the agenda of meetings of global leaders and corporate CEOs.

The Aspen Design Challenge was launched by AIGA and INDEX: to generate exceptionally creative and original design thinking by design students to raise awareness of global environmental issues. On the inaugural subject of the global water crisis, more than 200 entries from 26 countries were judged by an expert jury; six were selected to work with design leaders and business consultants to improve their pitch to venture capitalists, social entrepreneurs and foundations, which occurred in Copenhagen as part of INDEX:'s week long celebration of design that improves life. Joanna Szczepanska, a student from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, was awarded the INDEX: | AIGA Aspen Design Challenge Prize, a $10,000 grant to be put towards implementation of the winning project, based on a proposal for encouraging urban gardens, saving water and increasing urban food production. In December 2009, a selection of projects will be exhibited for participants of the World Summit on Climate Change.

UNICEF became so interested in the Challenge's approach toward encouraging innovation that AIGA has now partnered with UNICEF in helping them address the problems they encounter in serving children around the world and responding to crises. Every other year, beginning again later this year, AIGA will issue another challenge as a joint effort with UNICEF and INDEX:. The next challenge is likely to revolve around education issues in the third world; schools will be encouraged to create teams of students from design, business, engineering and sciences to tackle the problems, with the intent that the solutions will be sustainable in business terms as well as humanitarian dimensions.

Get involved today

AIGA's intention is to introduce the role of designers in these situations in order to broaden the public's understanding of the potential design can play in solving complex, universal problems. AIGA can help facilitate the involvement of members in social causes. However, the real strength of AIGA begins at the individual level—it begins with you. Share with us what you're already doing. And if you're not engaged in a social issue but would like to be, consider the question: What can you do?

About the Author: Richard Grefé is the director emeritus of AIGA, the professional association for design, the oldest and largest professional association of designers in the United States representing the interests of 27,000 designers working in a variety of communication media and dimensions, ranging from type and book designers to new media and experience designers. AIGA, o ver twenty years under Ric’s aegis, has become a leading advocate for the value of designing, as a way of thinking and as a means of creating strategic value for business, the civic realm and social change. Currently he is teaching “Human-centered designn for social change” at Wesleyan University. Ric earned a BA from Dartmouth College in economics, worked in intelligence in Asia, reported from the Bronx County Courthouse for AP, wrote for Time magazine on business and the economy and then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following an early career in urban design and public policy consulting, Ric managed the association responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and led a think tank on the future of public television and radio in Washington.