Burgers, beer, and social change: A journey to designing for good

Since the tender age of 15, I’ve longed to be in the business of selling things. Not actually selling them, mind you, because being a salesperson in the flesh is high up in my top ten list of nightmare scenarios, right after public speaking and careers involving math problems. No, I dreamed of selling things through the noble cause of advertising. Before I could legally drive, I crafted my first storyboard for a car commercial and decided to pursue a career as a creative in the advertising industry.

Thanks to my artsy maternal genes, I ended up on the path to becoming an art director. I steadily built a career as a designer — first designing brochures and reports for public utilities and transportation agencies, and then later, ads and promotions for burgers and fries. I worked in marketing for a fast food brand, and for the first time saw my work on a national stage and left my fingerprints on a recognizable brand name.

I also had the unique opportunity to design menus that complied with various state calorie count laws. As I typed each staggering (often 4-digit) number for a combo meal — paired with a 30-ounce liquid sugar bomb — my heart sank and my excitement began to wane.

An internal struggle was brewing. Part of me cheered on my burgeoning career making cool stuff for big brands, and the other part was ashamed at my complicity in our nation’s obesity epidemic and consumption addiction. A queasy feeling came with being the person behind the shiny signs shouting, “Buy me, I’m delicious!”

I looked for a new gig — one that would let me sleep better at night. Ironically, I landed at a branding agency that specialized in the food and beverage industry. I graduated from selling burgers and shakes to steaks and beer.

I convinced myself this was step in the right direction. It wasn’t fast food, I told myself, so it would be different.

I did a lot of exciting, killer work during this stint. I grew rapidly as a designer, which had a lot to do with being surrounded by some of the best designers I’ve worked with. I pushed myself to tread water and compete with them daily to prove I was worthy of their company. In this respect, it was a wise career move. It made me a better designer, and I’m grateful for that, as well as the big names and cool projects that I got to put in my portfolio. But steaks and beer were fun and sexy only for a limited time (my fellow restaurant industry marketers will chuckle at that pun.)

“I like beer and burgers,” I would say to myself. “Drinking beer and eating burgers aren’t inherently bad. I’m just persuading people which beer and which burgers they should buy, when they inevitably decide they want to buy them.”

This mentality worked for awhile. But eventually, my inner turmoil came bubbling back to the surface. I tired of laboring over the design of things that told people they should buy triple (or quadruple) the amount of food they needed because it was a great deal. There was a special kind of fatigue that came with spending all of my creative energy cooking up new ways to convince people they needed to drink more, eat more, spend more, to no end other than quarterly sales and profit goals. What I wanted to do was tell them to eat more vegetables and balance their portion sizes. Turns out that is neither profitable for restaurants nor enticing to consumers, and it definitely isn’t as simple as it sounds, even though most of us know it’s good advice.

I resented my work — but what I resented more was my participation in something that was antithetical to what I believed in. I believed (based on the work of many scientists, researchers, and nutritionists) that as a country we were consuming too much unhealthy, empty-calorie-filled food, and that it was contributing to obesity on a grand scale. And I was personally contributing by dressing up and polishing the very things that said we should indulge every whim when it came to consumption.

I started to look for a new gig again, but this time around I was more than a little jaded. I read the same, tired design job posts over and over:

“We work with cool clients and big brands. You’ll get to do killer work by using your brilliant creativity to sell our clients’ stuff, and maybe even win some industry awards. By the way, we have beer on tap in our office!”

I didn’t want beer on tap. (At least not at work. On the weekends, that’s a different story.) I wanted to do meaningful work, the kind that felt like a net-positive for the world when I went to bed at the end of the day.

I had no idea what that meant for my career. I started to consider a career change, having doubts about my prospects as a designer if I wanted to pursue a more purposeful path. I wasn’t even sure how exactly I defined purposeful work. In the midst of this quarter-life crisis, my house almost burned down, and I was forced to reckon with my own materialistic lifestyle and how I defined my own fulfillment. I realized not only did I not want to keep selling “stuff,” I wanted to stop buying so much of it, too.

One morning, I read a new post on my daily job hunt routine. It went something like this:

“We work for nonprofits and mission-driven organizations. Must be interested in designing for social change.”

The job was 800 miles away from my apartment in Orlando, Florida. Two months later, my husband and I packed up our life and our Chiweenie and drove those 800 miles to DC so I could start a new adventure in designing for good at Burness. Selling social change is no small feat, but I find even the mundane tasks rewarding. If I make a piece of communication that helps one person further a cause an inch, or makes their job marginally easier, I’m creating that net-positive, and getting a good night’s sleep. It’s a win-win.

There are plenty of hungry, talented, and eager designers who will gladly take my place selling the many wares our consumer economy has to offer. I’m often in awe of the things my design peers achieve in the business world, and I know they find meaning and purpose in the work they do. I think that’s fantastic. In fact, I would implore my fellow designers to take stock of their circumstances regularly. If you are feeling jaded, or unfulfilled with your work, it doesn’t mean that you chose the wrong profession. Perhaps you haven’t found the kind of work you’re meant to do or the kind of place you’re meant to be. We all have a set of values and a personal compass that guides us–finding the work that aligns with yours is ultimately what will create a net-positive in your life.

But, I will leave you with this. Imagine if even ten percent of the world’s designers decided to use their innovative ideas and creativity to design for good. What would the world look like, then?