Graphic Designers: Here’s How To Make a Difference Right Now

The ReSchool game is a card-based learning tool we designed to help participants explore the possibilities of new pathways for learning -

When people hear “design for social impact,” it’s often design thinking or human-centered design practices that come to mind: research, frameworks, and Post-Its. (All of which are fundamental to Greater Good
of course — and our Post-It budget is epic.)

But another branch of design’s family tree — graphic design — 
often gets overlooked when it comes to doing good.

Graphic design actually has an incredible role to play in creating solutions for social impact. And if you’re a graphic designer wondering what you can do to make the world a better place right now, it’s a powerful way to apply your skills.

What graphic design can do

Nonprofits (rightly) focus hard on their missions. But good design can super-charge an organization’s ability to do good work, get funded, and communicate with people who need to hear a message.

Graphic design can do things like:

  • Spread the word about why a nonprofit’s focus matters — conveying urgency around issues such as the effects of adverse childhood experiences or the need for diversity in the national bone marrow registry
  • Create usable interfaces for tools that help people; for example, an iPad app that helps parents and teachers educate kids who have autism
  • Deliver clear, well-designed communications that make a solid case to foundations and donors — marketing materials and presentations that build credibility and show impact

For a lot of organizations, graphic design is exactly what they need to make their mission more effective.

Three Types of ACEs. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

How graphic design for social impact is different

If you’re used to working at an agency or with corporate clients, graphic design for social impact will be a bit of a shift. Usability — on the client’s side — becomes even more central when it comes to products and outcomes. Sometimes a PowerPoint or a Word template is all that the client needs, because that’s the most helpful thing for them at the moment.

One example: At a previous employer, I worked on a project for a major education foundation. We initially thought the outcome was going to be an elaborate website, with all these parts and pieces. But after some research, we realized that all the teachers needed was a PDF that they could share, designed in a clear and concise manner.

Taxonomy for Personalized Learning designed in collaboration with gravitytank and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

That’s not to say you’ll never make a beautiful logo or a brilliant layout, but there’s so many other benefits of applying your graphic design skills to projects that change the world.

Three big reasons to jump and work for social impact:

1) You’ll make something undeniably meaningful.

You can feel good that the work you’re doing has a tangible and lasting impact, more than with a pretty consumer package that ultimately ends up in the trash. Your work might actually help someone find a home. Or make school lunch healthier. Or help teens get information on sexual health. It’s a whole, huge world of ways to make a difference.

2) You’ll have a lot more creative freedom.

If you’re a young designer getting into this field, you won’t have the same book as someone doing design at a boutique firm. Your printed materials may not always get a budget-busting spot gloss. But clients are usually extremely grateful for good design — they won’t be hung up on the nuance of “I don’t like that shade of red.” They’ll be excited to get really good design, and they may not even have basics like brand guidelines. It’s incredibly rewarding to play a stronger, more visionary creative role that clients often immediately embrace.

3) You’ll have plenty of chances to learn new things.

In designing for corporate clients or with traditional design agencies, you might find yourself in a bit of a box. Maybe you’re at a company that only does digital marketing or branding, or that only does social media, or that focuses entirely on one sector. In designing for social impact, you might be working on the UI for an app one day and designing an informational poster the next day. One moment you’re learning about healthcare in Chicago, and the next you’re diving into early childhood education in Colorado. The possibilities are wide open. If you’re looking for a “blue ocean” you couldn’t find a bluer one.

So how do you get started?

Some agencies focus on design for social impact. Like Greater Good, for example. (And, we are hiring!) But really, this is an incredible time to make your own opportunities:

Reach out to nonprofit organizations who may need short-term help with their marketing and branding.

826 NYC chap books designed by Ciara Cordasco

If you’re already at a design firm, ask that senior leadership consider taking on more socially-conscious projects. Or ask to enter design competitions with a social focus.

Pasteur, Grand Prize award-winning design submitted by gravitytank to the Records For Life Competition by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Create and sell posters or t-shirts about the causes you are passionate about and donate the proceeds to the appropriate non-profit organizations.

Cajun Navy t-shirts created by Beau Bergeron to raise money for Louisiana flood victims.

Or make social media graphics for grassroots campaigns that need help looking sharp.

Social media graphic by Beau Bergeron, Partner at Founders & Co.

The need for this will only accelerate in the coming years, as nonprofits and activists work harder than ever for equality and human rights. Pick any cause, and good design can probably take that mission (and your creative work) further than ever.


A few resources: