The Role of Design in Social Activism

February 28, 2017 | | View Comments

For designers, getting involved in social activism can be an invigorating yet daunting personal challenge. We have incredibly valuable training at hand; from empathy to communication to the ability to rapidly prototype and iterate. We have also seen the incredible display of passion and compassion that designers embody, from local community issues to nation-wide rallies that have taken shape in the recent months.

Navigating design when it comes to social activism is more difficult than it seems. How do we identify who we are designing for, and what are we trying to accomplish? How do we manage the demand from our community while maintaining our design principles?

We recently hosted UNITE: Design for Social Activism, where Chicago thought leaders George Aye, Dawn Xiana Moon, Jeremy Abrams, and Misuzu Schexnider shared their experiences, challenges, and ideas.

Here is what we learned.

Understanding implementation vs ideation.

There is a disparity in the perception of time when it comes to design for social activism; the urge for immediate change can outshine the cumulative history of events that led to the need for change. When looking at our political climate, we may think that the current state of affairs is due to November’s election, but the fact of the matter is that this has been a long time in the making and, more importantly, change will also be a long time in implementation. George Aye (Greater Good Studio) poses the question, “every year we have Chicago Design Week. Why is there no Implementation Week?”

This is essential to understand as part of the design process; and of life itself. Activation is one thing- we must raise awareness, create a community, and identify goals and milestones- and that first step can be riveting and motivating. Without continued perseverance, however, social missions can lose steam quickly, either fizzling or developing a poor reputation due to slow results. Designers have found traction along with difficulty in the growing popularity of design thinking principles and the like, as folks grow to expect the desired outcome to materialize as quickly as rapid prototyping. It is just as important to identify and communicate the long term goals and strategies to retain a powerful – and empowered – audience.

Identifying and narrowing down your target audience.

Designers, activists, and artists have an added challenge of determining who their target audience is, and what the goal is within that audience. Are you looking to change individual people? Change behaviors? Change expectations?

While the dream answer might be “to reach everyone,” it behooves you to identify who exactly you are trying to reach and why. Misuzu Schexnider (Generation All) spoke about her work in elevating awareness and support of neighborhood schools in the greater Chicago area. The goal audience might appear to be “all Chicagoans,” but she found she must narrow this population down to people who live in the neighborhoods where those schools are located, and address their individual perceptions and needs in each community. While daunting, the effectiveness of this approach can lead to higher yield and more personal connections than a city-wide approach.

Conversely, Dawn Xiana Moon (Raks Geek/Artists Against Hate) had to identify who to avoid spending time and energy on. Her work focuses on diversifying and connecting artists in the performance and/or nerd space, primarily working with Asian Americans and the LGBTQ community. She has found that opposing sides are frankly not worth the time; it is more essential to reach those on the fence or looking for a community to connect with than fighting over core values that cannot be changed.

Focus on connection, not partisanship.

Although our viewpoints might seem polarizing, we are all just humans. Chances are, there are circumstances in life that we share, like belief in a common cause, shared connections – or the inability to debate through a fiery mouth of hot sauce. Rise Movement’s Dumb Debates do just that; break down the barriers of defensiveness and allow people with opposing viewpoints to voice their opinions while bearing ridiculous challenges, including debate-long Twister games or hot sauce challenges.

Designers who are trained in empathy are able to use those skills to find a connection other than our political stances or lack of exposure. Aggression, though seemingly easy, can often only be met with aggression. Progress can only be made when the people you are trying to reach feel welcomed with an opportunity to learn.

We thank our amazing leaders George Aye, Dawn Xiana Moon, Jeremy Abrams, and Misuzu Schexnider for sharing their experiences and artistic approaches to monumental challenges. We believe that design can change the world, and these individuals prove that they are well under way.

Banner image courtesy of the Protest Banner Lending Library.