What do you know about graphic design?
Is it this?
A meme of a photoshop fail.
whatever guess you had you are probably right.
Graphic design under visual communication is one of the most used tools in our century to communicate about anything. Graphic design is almost everywhere and anywhere from traffic signposts to book cover for schools books to billboards to social media posts. Furthermore, its purposes vary from information to persuasion. The popular one though is persuasion through advertisements and propaganda posters. However, though, this blog is not about what graphic design is or its purposes of graphic design but its impact. This blog is about the impact of graphic design concerning social change and the role of the graphic designer and their responsibilities. This blog’s goal is to create an awareness of the impact of graphic designers in social change.
To understand the impacts, we need examples from both ends of the spectrum will be used to understand the impact of graphic designers for social change.
One of the examples is the cover of the November 1991 issue of Kangura.
(The cover of the November 1991 issue of Kangura., 2018)
Translation: Tutsi Race of God (Which weapons are we going to use to beat the cockroaches for good?)
This cover among many other media mediums was used to encourage people to murder their fellows. One action among many that led to the Genocide against the Tutsis in 1994.
Another example is some adverts around us that make us want to have things that we don’t need or make us compare ourselves serving to the human condition of being unsatisfactory. Graphic design role in this context as Victor Papanek (Papanek, 1970) rightly expresses it persuades people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have in order to impress others who don’t care. Both examples show how visual communications can influence us to make bad decisions or makes us feel insecure.
In 2011, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank collaborated with Nail Communications a design agency to raise awareness about the hunger in Rhode Island. The aim of the project was to increase donations from younger community members. The idea was that nothing could be done to stop hunger so they created cans of nothing to be sold in a local food retailer as a campaign. As an outcome, Rhode Island Food Bank sold 14,000 cans which generated over $50,000 donations and it also changed the community’s perception of hunger. (Reese, 2018).
Another similar campaign: Feed SA, aimed to tackle child poverty and hunger in South Africa. The organisation Feeding SA for disadvantaged people withTBWA a disruptive design agency, worked together on these ads to increase donations since there was a challenge of increasing homeless and hungry people. Decals of hungry, begging streets were placed at the bottom of the supermarket trolleys bearing the website of Feed SA and the line “See how easy feeding the hungry can be! Any food placed in the trolley seemed to be given to the child. As a result, the message was seen by hundreds of customers every day for the cost of a few decals which increased donations and boosted the website traffic. (Feedsa,2018) (Ethicalmarketingnews.com, 2017) Although these ads might be problematic for some, it communicates a clear message of which the consumer had to take action for the cause.
Another example is Surfrider’s campaign to protect the ocean from plastic. Surfrider Foundation is an organisation in the US designated to protect the ocean, waves and beaches. The campaign falls under climate change, it is persuasive and yet informative about the usage of plastic in the ocean. It calls people to act against the rise of plastic in the oceans.
All of these examples portray that the impact of graphic design, how it can be used to influence people to do good and it can help people make better decisions that benefit not only them but the community at large only if the designers are willing to go the extra mile.
On the graphic designer viewpoint though, designing these posters despite its consequences, it’s the job that brings food on the table. It doesn’t matter what your opinions, ethics and values are. First of all, on the work itself; your artwork gets rejected because the client wants a lot of information on your work which is ugly compared to how you would have designed as a minimalistic. So you follow the rule “ the customer is the king/queen”, so if your own opinion doesn’t matter on your artwork for the client why should you have anything to say about the values and the ethics to the client? You need the money to pay rent and buy food for yourself or your family. It doesn’t matter what the client tells you as long as you are getting paid. You don’t have a choice but to abide or do you?
There is also a choice. Heskett said that (Reese, 2018), the role of a designer is important because they influence a lot of how the community lives, from what they eat, wear and buy to what they do just because of how design affects the everyday lives of individuals. He continues on that through visual communication designers contribute to and reflect the social and cultural identities of society. Shifting the focus of design to humanity since it is beneficial for designers to discover the societal influence they have and to ask themselves what message their current work is communicating to the world. (Reese, 2018).
Well, it is possible as much as graphic design can be used for the bad to persuade people to join a movement that degrades other people or undermines themselves through its power of visual rhetoric and imagery. That same power can be used for good as long as the designer decides to take that step and risk it for change. It can happen when that designer wants to become an activist for a certain cause based on their values. It can be possible when the designer knows the power of their skills and knows how to say no to the unethical. It is possible because it has been done.
Therefore, it is up to visual communicators to identify creative ways they can use their skills to create awareness of social issues around and even better influence people to make decisions that benefit the community by partnering with like-minded organizations or by creating businesses or organisations that tackle the social challenges they are passionate about.
Some of the ways in which a designer can use their power for the good of the community. The first way could be that creating a design agency or social enterprise/ organisation that tackles social challenges through visual communication of which it can also do consultancy work with organisations or public sector. Another way is being part of the public sector as mentioned above by working with like-minded organisations by being its creative director.
In conclusion, food for thoughts visual communicator or not. Who are you? What are your values and ethics? What matters more to you; is it the money or is it the lasting impact of good change in your community or is it both? Once you are able to answer those questions, it wouldn’t be hard for you to find work that speaks to you and benefits you and the people around you in any field.