06 November 2008
Randy J. Hunt
Randy J. Hunt

Photo by
Luke Wolagiewicz

This October, the Art Directors Club (ADC) hosted the third edition of "Designism", an event exploring the role of creatives in social activism and responsibility to instigate change. Randy J. Hunt writes his review of the event's proceedings for
DESIGN 21 Social Design Network.

Designism 3.0 was the third installment of the annual event hosted by the Art Directors Club in New York City on 2 October 2008. The event series was conceived by Brian Collins, the brand-building mastermind formerly of Ogilvy BIG and now COLLINS, as a forum to highlight and address design for social action. It's worth noting that Collins was the architect behind the We Can Solve It brand for Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection.

Last year's event caused a small tremor in the design community as Vanity Fair's Michael Wolff called into question the intentions and validity of many of the participating designers' claims. His perspective, at the same time brutal and refreshing, was that everyone uses design as a disruptive force (including advertisers), so the real way to be disruptive is to not design.

What this third installment lacked in controversy it made up for with verification and opportunity. Verification that the design community is not only deeply interested in the idea of design for social change, but also that a number of designers are turning this interest into action in various innovative ways. Designism 3.0 was, in short, about results.

Allan Chochinov, a founder of the design super-site Core77 began by jokingly stating he was "a fan of Designism when it was in beta." Chochinov was billed as delivering a manifesto for designism. Injected with humor, he offered up five things Designism designers must do:
  • Use the word "consequence"
  • Acknowledge privlege
  • Tell the truth
  • Celebrate life
  • Don't wait

The highlight of the evening was the line-up of presenters - people who had identified various needs, often close to their own personal experience, and addressed them through the language of design. In a speed-course of case studies, about a half-dozen designers were invited to review their projects in an allotted span of five minutes each. The stand-outs were strikingly simple, underlining how powerful "just doing it" can be:

Taxi Design, a design and advertising firm, redirected money they would have spent on a 15th anniversary celebration to address a cause. What resulted was the 15 Below Project, a program to help homeless Canadians survive the winter. Taxi designed a jacket that could be stuffed with newspaper to insulate and protect during the most harsh days of the Canadian winter.

Lara McCormick, a freelance designer based in New York, created Hope, Help and Healing materials to connect with recovering drug and alcohol addicts by framing stories from their peers. She partnered with NCADD (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) to distribute posters and brochures to over 90 offices, then later to college campuses, high schools and more.

Brainforest, a design studio in Chicago, presented Creative Pitch which takes surplus art supplies from the design community and gives them to students in underfunded schools.

A handful of these projects benefited from financial and material support through Sappi Paper's Ideas That Matter program, whose exhibition opening took place in the Art Directors Club gallery prior to the Designism event.

"Designism" originally was coined by Milton Glaser, one of if not the most famous graphic designers living today. Glaser has participated in all three events so far, lending his life-long experience and philosophical framing of the themes in the context of design. "Art is a survival mechanism of the human species, otherwise it never would have survived," he said in this year's event. His was an eloquent address to the audience similar in content and tenor to his keynote earlier in the year at the School of Visual Art's Where the Truth Lies: A Symposium on Propaganda Today. Revisiting themes of propaganda, intention and responsibility, Glaser left the audience with many memorable points. "Beliefs must be held lightly, because certainty is often the enemy of truth," he explained with, yes, an air of certainty.

Prolific design author, critic and educator Steven Heller was set to moderate a panel that would have concluded the evening, but the long-running event was cut short to make room for the U.S. Vice Presidential debate between Senator Joe Biden and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. To conclude the evening, Heller gave an abbreviated presentation of his tongue-in-cheek evaluation of contemporary political graphic design which he refers to as POTUS Typographicus.

Catching up with Heller post-event, he explained the change in tone of this year's event compared to the last. "Each Designism goes in a different direction. Last year a critic was invited and he stirred up the dust. This year, an election year, social projects were the core, while a link to the election was programmed in. That said, not opening any of the talks to comments and questions from the audience was an energy problem."

Heller contributes to The New York Times' Campaign Stops column, in which he covers the graphic design of the current U.S. Election. Asked if he sees design playing into the campaign differently today than it has in the past, he responded, "Yes and no. The Democrats seem to be more sophisticated about their graphic identity. To that extent design is important. The Republicans seem to follow convention. Overall, I don't think design plays more than a tangential role in a campaign. But content framed by design is highly significant."

With the distinct purpose of giving Designism attendees and designers at large the ability to identify and connect with projects in need of their talents, the Art Directors Club in collaboration with the action network Idealist.org launched Designism Connects. Not unlike DESIGN 21: Social Design Network, the site helps cause-related organisations find and communicate with design talents.

This article originally appeared on the DESIGN 21 Social Design Network website on 9 October 2008 and has been republished with permission.

About the author
Randy J. Hunt, a Brooklyn, NY based designer, is director of Citizen Scholar Inc., an organisation that provides design consulting and creative services for cultural institutions, educators, artists and social entrepreneurs, and a co-founder of Supermarket, a curated online collection of design products.

About DESIGN 21
DESIGN 21: Social Design Network's mission is to inspire social consciousness through design. It connects people who want to explore ways that design can positively impact our communities - ways that are thoughtful, informed, creative and responsible.

About the Art Directors Club
Founded in New York in 1920, the ADC is a self-funding, not-for-profit membership organisation whose mission is to connect, provoke and elevate creative visual communications professionals around the world.