The value of graphic design should never be up for debate. It surrounds us and is a valuable part of communicating in a modern world. I guarantee that if you stopped for a few seconds and looked around your office you would see many subtle unobtrusive ways in which graphic design has permeated your workspace. It’s in the layout of the apps on your screen, the logos on your office supplies, the designs on your favourite mug, the colours of your pack of breath mints, and even in the clothes you wear. Products aren’t made on a whim neither. They are carefully illustrated and designed on-screen and paper way before they are ever prototyped. Every part of our modern life is influenced by design be it good, bad, and even ugly. In order to discuss why design should be used for GOOD, we must first talk about the practice of design and its ability to motivate people.
Design skills, much like creativity can be nurtured and developed. I’ve seen students that knew very little of design, become excellent designers through perseverance, desire to learn more, and practice. Another reason I believe design is a unique skill that can be developed is based on the fact that it doesn’t rely solely on artistic merit. Some people would even argue that art and design are separate in their focus and function and should not even be compared. Although the goals of art and design can be similar one would argue that design aims to create pragmatic clarity in the world around you while art focuses on creating a profound emotional response. Furthermore, there’s a fallacy of thought going around that ALL graphic designers can draw (paint, sculpt, photograph etc…) and vice versa. But, I know this is not true. Sure there are a lot of graphic designers that can draw and a lot of traditional illustrators that can design, but these skills are not mutually exclusive. So where am I going with this train of thought…Oh yeah… NOT EVERYONE is a graphic designer. Yet some of the tools that people have at their fingertips can make them think they are. If everyone is using the same tools the same way creativity stagnates and no one is making anything worth paying attention to. It is this recognition that improves the value of professional graphic design.
Graphic design is considered a profession by those that value its power to influence perceptions and change minds. You need to look no further than a political campaign to see how much emphasis is placed on looking the part. Patriotic, confident, trustworthy, readable, legible, simple and in the correct party colours are all characteristics of good political campaign graphics that can help influence opinions and reinforce party values. Some graphics have become synonymous with a specific community or group. For example, just seeing the rainbow flag in a storefront is an indication that the store is LGBT-friendly. Similarly, some colours have become synonymous with specific political parties and to deviate would be confusing to their constituents. Heck, even evil regimes know the power of design in trying to add legitimacy to their twisted causes, commanding attention, and instilling fear of dissent. It is for these reasons that I am careful and deliberate in how I apply my design skills. If you aren’t using your skills for good what’s the alternative?
Of course, every designer has to squeak out a living from their craft. But I don’t think a compromise of values has to occur to make it work. Honesty and authenticity is a mark of good design. Social enterprise is on the rise and more companies are adopting a truer approach to design. Yes, there’s always going to be hyperbole, metaphor, allusion, and humour to help point out comparisons and convey visual messages in relatable terms, however, when the end goal is rooted in truth it can be argued that this is good design. I would also argue that so long as the design doesn’t seek to do harm, but instead brings a smile to our faces or makes us think then it is GOOD.
Imagine if every humanitarian nonprofit organization saw enough funding each year to keep staff and do the best work possible for the communities that they serve. We would likely see poverty decrease, health and well-being improve, education systems get better, greater equality, cleaner environments, sustainable growth, and an improvement on the happiness index. However, this is not the case. In fact, we see many nonprofits struggle to keep going or settle for something less than ideal in order to keep doing the valuable work that is required of them. Of course, there are a number of nonprofit organizations that do overwhelmingly good for themselves, the costs of their marketing and overhead are often quite high, but the amount of money that gets invested into their projects is also high. These high earning nonprofit organizations are often the ones that can afford to run national campaigns and work with an agency of record or support an entire marketing department complete with their own dedicated graphic designer. They’re polished, legit, and make their donors and contributors feel special. They have a name that people have heard of and know. It’s great to help them and contribute to their causes but a small contribution doesn’t go very far. Consistently volunteering will go further, but it isn’t always possible to carve out the time (especially if you’re an independent contractor). This is why I will sometimes offer my skills and expertise on a limited basis to projects of importance for nonprofit organizations. This is why I choose to use my graphic design skills for good. By empowering organizations with fresh design work based on their immediate needs you are able to give them confidence, legitimacy, professionalism, and a visual voice they otherwise would not be able to afford. The hope is that in turn, they will be able to raise the funds necessary to grow their profile, do more for their community, and become successful enough that they can afford to pay for professional services when required.
However, there is a set of criteria for nonprofits that I follow in assessing whether or not I will do the work pro bono:
- Is the nonprofit organization improving lives? Their cause needs to be something that is for the betterment of people within the community and the organization cannot be seen as discriminatory in any way.
- Does the nonprofit organization employ other creatives? The organization can’t have an agency of record or currently work with a graphic designer. If an organization has paid for graphic design in the past or can afford to pay they do not need my help for free.
- Are they registered? They must be a registered nonprofit organization or be in the process of becoming one.
- Are they a large nonprofit organization? The nonprofit organization must be small. If there is a large number of people on staff or the funds that are raised each year are such that marketing should be within their budget I likely won’t work with them. This may seem harsh, but I want to work with nonprofits that really need my help and avoid being taken advantage of or stealing a job from someone else.
I also have to consider my approach and what gives my services value by asking myself a few questions first:
- Do I have the capacity to take on the task? I need to have the means to help and make a difference. I am by no means a social enterprise. I need to make a living with my creative skill set, which is why I need to limit how much work I do for free over the course of a year.
- Does the nonprofit organization I want to work with know the value of my services? It is important to place value on the services rendered even if no money changes hands. I try to dedicate $5,000 or more in free services to nonprofit organizations each year. I will usually send an invoice even if the invoice is just a statement of costs with a 100% discount.
- Is this something I believe in and will it be FUN? Finally, a pro bono project needs to have a fun factor. If the job is going to allow me to be my most creative, be experimental, add to my portfolio, and allow me to learn more that is often payment enough. The job also has to help do some GOOD for a cause I believe in.
To conclude my ramblings, I have found that it is important to realize the power of design in making positive changes in the community. By helping those in need while following specific criteria we can help to direct focus where it is needed most to make the biggest impact. If we are always seeking to convey messages of truth we can feel good about the work we do. This is the importance of using graphic design for GOOD.