08 November 2006
Jacques Lange, Icograda board member 2001-2003
Jacques Lange, Icograda board member 2001-2003

"The role of the graphic designer is to focus the public's attention; make information - especially difficult-to-understand information - accessible; foster emotional reactions (i.e., sympathy, concern); provide powerful words and images that move people to action." - Ellen Shapiro (USA)

On 11 and 12 December 2002, more than 80 participants from 15 countries gathered in Barcelona, Spain, for an Icograda Regional Meeting to explore how graphic designers can make a positive impact on society. Entitled 'Graphic Design for Social Causes,' the Meeting introduced participants to four social issues through presentations by experienced non-governmental organisations: Humanitarian Aid (Medecins Sans Frontieres), Citizen Participation (La Lluna), Urban Ghettoes (Urban Technology Consulting) and Rural Development (Red Cross). The aims of the meeting included the creation of connections; stimulation of dialogue and exchange; and the development of new thinking on how graphic designers can contribute to meeting the challenges of human need. The results of the workshop are currently being compiled by the Secretariat of Design for the World - co-organisers - who will publish a report by early February on their website.

One of the actions that stem from this Icograda Regional Meeting, is a series of articles that would identify challenges, document best practices and stimulate debate on this issue. As a starting point I have distributed a snap survey to several hundred prominent personalities to assess the industry's view on how graphic design can contribute towards meeting human need. The response was overwhelming and I realised that this is a topic that lies close to the hearts of most graphic designers.

This article deals with selective responses from the first group of respondents.

To counter the diversity of interpretations of what 'design for social causes' entails, I provided a sample definition: "Graphic design for social causes incorporates visual communication services that are rendered on a commercial or 'pro bono' basis to NGOs, aid and activist organisations that focus on current social, economic and environmental issues that threaten humankind in 2003."

Results of the survey

Rhetoric, creative experimentation or real solutions?
Are graphic designers making a real impact in the area of social causes?

History proves and contradicts the question of graphic design's role and success in solving social causes. During the World War era in the early 1900's, millions of common men and women responded to the "I want you!" campaigns aimed at mobilising the public to join in the war efforts. However, there seems to be little response to the avalanche of anti-smoking campaigns, which surfaced since the 1960's. The question at hand seems to be unanswered...

According to the survey results there seem to be two schools of thought related to this. One school believes that graphic designers are successful in solving the needs of commercial clients, but fail in the sphere of social causes. Why? Milton Glaser (USA) stated that the biggest reason for failure is a lack of "understanding the root causes rather than the trivial." Sharon Poggenpohl's (USA) comments amplified Glaser's opinion: "The biggest challenge is that so many designers envision themselves as technical or aesthetic experts and fail to respectfully address the audience they wish to communicate with. They don't know enough about their audience and the practical needs or actions that would help them." She continued: "Much 'pro bono' work is done for self-serving aesthetic and promotional reasons - whether it works or not is not a serious issue." Sadik Karamustafa (Turkey) expanded: "Every year thousands of posters about social causes are produced for awarded exhibitions, self-promotion etc. They do not serve any social cause." Shapiro added: "There is no one who's a softer touch than a designer with the promise of a creative opportunity and perhaps a design credit or award."

The second school of thought believes that graphic design cannot solve major social problems, but that it can contribute to raising awareness. Anders Suneson (Sweden) commented: "Sometimes we describe design almost as a religion. It plays an important role, but we can't walk on water. Graphic design is important in focusing on problems and in helping the good forces to get some self-confidence - to lift the good example and to expose the evil." Stefan Sagmeister (USA) stated: "Good stuff is noted, bad stuff is not. We have done both."

Most respondents believe that a graphic designer's contribution to projects aimed at social causes should be intensified and that designers should collaborate to increase their success rate at making a sustainable impact. They also feel that local and international professional organisations should increase their efforts in organising and managing long-term projects aimed at supporting design for social causes. Examples that were mentioned included the lobbying for tax benefits for 'pro bono' work and centralised coordination of resources, mobilisation of participants, recruitment of sponsorships and negotiation of free media space.

Worth the effort? Worth the cause?
What are the biggest challenges facing graphic design for social causes?

Most respondents mentioned funding as the biggest challenge. Steinar Amland (Denmark) commented: "The graphic design industry currently struggles to survive. Philanthropy requires sufficient surplus energy, finances, earnings to justify working 'con amore'." Shapiro added: "Staying in business while providing services to organisations that make a difference is a big challenge." She expanded the debate: "I was a 'Sappi Ideas that Matter' winner a few years ago, and was distressed to realise that although the designers had to provide 'pro bono' work to their cause of choice, the grant money could pay the printer and paper company full-fee. Unfortunately this [kind] of competition only reinforces the concept that the designer's time and creative energies are of lower value that those of other 'vendors'."

Sagmeister contributed to the list of challenges: "You are often working for committees, directions can change very quickly, clients are often not design savvy and don't appreciate the value of design." These and other issues often cause friction and conflict between designers and clients. Karamustafa stated that conflict were sometimes inevitable because of the social cause clients' lack of marketing knowledge and experience. Garth Walker (South Africa) endorsed these sentiments: "Egos, committees and so on provide the biggest challenges. ['Pro bono'] clients seem to think they can pick and choose at leisure... Social causes are usually problematic as they involve: 1) do-gooders with their own agendas; 2) committees; and 3) no money - in my experience 'pro bono' clients are the worst." Shapiro expanded: "They ['pro bono' clients] assume they are entitled to free work, set up all kinds of creative restrictions, and sometimes suggest that if you don't do things their way a slew of other designers is just waiting in line to do free work for them. It is often expected that photography, illustration and printing will be donated."

Conclusion: Do designers care?
Yes they do - according to the responses received from this survey. They care about the impact that they are making and are critically assessing it. Poggenpohl said: "Designers must be politically and socially active... they must be skilled communicators - make good arguments, analogies, images - and get the message into the right venues where they can make a difference."

Almand concludes: "It's an important path Icograda has embarked upon, and it will take time before the idea becomes more than a fascinating theme for conferences and workshops, and becomes widely spread as a means of enhancing the professional satisfaction of graphic designers, as well as opening up doors to for non-profit projects. If it could be proven that working 'pro bono' leads to commercial projects, much would be achieved."

Future articles in this series will deal with the impact of personal ideology, personal and group investment and best practice examples for design for social causes.

About Design for the World
Design for the World is an international NGO created by Icograda, Icsid, and IFI with the support of the Barcelona Centre de Disseny (BCD). Its aim is to ensure that professional designers, through their skills and experience, can help improving the lives of people in need.

The website of Design for the World is a valuable resource for concerned designers from all disciplines. They can familiarise themselves with many opportunities for volunteering their professional services to needy causes.