#RESIST the urge.
Design for good has never been hotter…because it’s a flaming train wreck.
Stop the madness.
Shit’s fucked up, y’all. Shit’s been fucked up, but in today’s political climate (as well as climate climate), shit’s really being ratcheted up to 11. Kleptocratic, white supremicist cartoon villains have taken control of the United States government. Women’s health care is being defunded. Cops are still killing black people. We are dropping the mother of all bombs abroad while debating whether trans people should be able to use public restrooms in the land of the goddamn free. It’s all one bloody train wreck after another and none of the conductors will throw on the brakes so we can deal with the pile-up.
We’ve got a lot of work to do, and socially-minded designers are eager to take up their Wacom styluses in the name of justice. But before you ride your trusty white Priuses into the fray—whipping up awareness campaigns or branding this-or-that-social-movement—pause to consider where your work will do the most good and whether or not it might actually be hurting your cause.
It’s not the thought that counts.
This is the part where I tell you your heart is in the right place before I give you some tough love. Your heart is in the right place, but your head is up your ass. No amount of heart can fix a poorly thought out, if socially conscious, design.
It’s time for designers to stop confusing doing good with feeling good.
The standards of good design don’t change when you’re designing for good causes. For a design to be good—for it to be design at all—it needs to offer a solution to a defined problem, whether that problem is facing a business or community.
Still, so many designers leave the fundamentals of our discipline by the roadside as we pursue the high of creating the next viral graphic symbol of “the moment.” We’ve become an industry of Behance ambulance chasers.
Designers who, at their day job, wouldn’t move a pixel without considering a persona or creative brief leave their standards at the office when they start applying their skills to good causes — dribbbling out the first political statement that comes to mind. Abandoned is any sort of research, iteration, or critical evaluation of how well their design solves the problem at hand (if they’ve even taken the time to define it).
The latest example of jerking off and calling it philanthropy is the #PepsiCAN spec campaign, which seems to suggest Pepsi can repair the damage it did to its brand by trying to capitalize on the resistance…by further trying to capitalize on the resistance.
Two agency creatives [copywriter Sai He and art director Will Hammack of DDB San Francisco] have come up with a plan for the latter course of action — #PepsiCAN, a spec campaign that envisions Pepsi selling cans with redesigned versions of its logo to materially support certain pressing causes.
Sure, actually directing some cash to the causes from which it appropriates imagery is better than having Kendall Jenner take a steaming dump on them. (But really, designers, stop fucking appropriating imagery from marginalized people.) But the #PepsiCAN campaign shows an obvious, perhaps willful, misunderstanding of Pepsi’s original sin.
People are fighting for their lives and livelihoods right now. This campaign not only trivializes their struggle, it also exploits it. It’s saying that for a few cents a can (“Your spare change can spur change” lol), Pepsi can buy from these groups a fresh coat of wokeness with which it can peddle even more soda. Never mind that half of Pepsi’s lobbying money goes to Republicans. Never mind its role in water privatization and scarcity. They’re kicking a couple bucks to the NoDAPL water protectors, so we’re cool now.
#PepsiCAN is another example of creative types falling all over themselves to come out with cleverest take on a bad idea.
What’s worse is that #PepsiCAN accomplishes literally nothing except promoting the creative minds behind it, who “toyed with” the idea of creating a fundraiser for the causes in the campaign but ultimately decided they’d rather use those causes as props for a viral cold pitch.
Logos won’t protect us from the bomb.
It’s time for designers to stop confusing doing good with feeling good. That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for the former (or that the latter is bad). I happen to be a designer who hopes to leave the world a little bit better than it would have been without me. It’s natural to want to contribute your strongest skills to the causes that matter most to you; but as a designer, the strongest skill you have to offer shouldn’t be making logos.
And yet, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like an RFP for another goddamn logo. #PepsiCAN put a woke spin on an existing corporate identity. The #R4Resist spec campaign proposed a badge system for resistance movements inspired directly from Nazi Germany. And remember when designers’ biggest issue with Trump’s transition team was its poorly executed seal?
For a design to be good — for it to be design at all — it needs to offer a solution to a defined problem
AdWeek asks, “Could Pepsi Make Things Right With a Logo That Actually Made the World Better?” but doesn’t question whether or not logos can make the world better. Spoiler alert:
We’ve been sold so thoroughly on the idea that design can change the world that we no longer ask how. Cleverness has replaced effectiveness as the metric by which we judge our work. Get your poster series on Fastco Design and social change will sort itself after.
If we fail to think critically about the role design can actually play in addressing today’s pressing issues (and its limitations), we are doing a disservice to our industry and the larger world.
When the design industry celebrates work that is clever but hollow just because it shows a hint of a conscience, we are saying the best we have to offer as designers is feel-good flair. We are telling designers beginning their career that socially conscious design is most valuable as a way to get quick professional accolades—whether or not it accomplishes anything. And worse, we are taking attention away from the causes we are ostensibly helping by putting the focus on the shininess (or controversy) of our work.
The last defense of any designer who’s been called out for posting shitty, poorly conceived design activism for ego gratification is, “Well, at least I got people talking.” Yeah, about you, dickhead. The whole point of designing for social good is that it’s 👏 not 👏 about 👏 you.
Make work that matters.
If you aspire to design something that accomplishes more than getting people talking about the thing you designed, take heart. (It’s where you left it: in the right place.) Designers do have the tools to make a positive impact on the world. You may still even get to design a logo in the process, but that should come long after you’ve done the real work of a designer first.
Find real problems to solve. Pepsi’s PR blunder is not a problem for anyone except Pepsi and their new ad agency. Yet designers are doing free work that uses marginalized groups as blunt instruments to repair a dinged corporate brand. Why do we care more about the ups and downs of brands than the lives and wellness of real people? Designers would rather armchair quarterback Pepsi’s creative game — where the stakes are slivers of market share — than actually get on the field where human lives could be changed for the better.
The resistance not having brand guidelines is not a problem. Donald Trump’s shitty fav icon is not a problem.
Poison drinking water is a problem. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia are problems. Donald Trump is a problem. Take your pick!
Then go out and actually try to understand the problem you want to work on. Do that research thing. Talk to the people your design will help (or harm if you run off half-cocked). Make sure your design is informed by more than your desire to do (slash feel) good.
Maybe you already have a project in mind, but you still have to do the work of making sure it fulfills an actual need people have, it’s not repeating work someone else has already done, and that there’s an actual chance it will accomplish fuck all.
If this all sounds like Design 101, that’s because it is! And this is where we move from tough love to the good news: you already know how to design for good.
Design for good is design.
There are as many right ways to contribute to the world through design as there are designers. And the list of causes that need our talent and time isn’t getting any shorter.
Designing with a social conscience doesn’t have to be a side hustle, either. The work we do to make the world a better place and the work we do to make a living can be the same work.
Pitch your services to non-profits and other organizations making positive strides in the world. Or go work for them! Yes, you can design for good and get paid to design at the same time. Not only is it okay, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the issues and be able to devote the time to your solutions that they need to succeed. Win-mother-fucking-win.
Using design for social good doesn’t require a new set of skills, it requires applying the skills you already have as a designer with the same commitment you would to any other project. You know how to translate tough problems into elegant solutions through human-centered thinking, research, iteration, and soliciting feedback. So get to it! The train wreck is waiting for you.