Design Activism

Design Activism is an emerging movement that puts design as a central focus in solving basic civic and societal problems. People are starting to realize that good design is more than just making something look pretty, but is a key element in making products and services better, useful, and ultimately helpful to solving small as well as big problems in the world.

This idea was brought to my attention this past March when Elefint went to South By Southwest, a huge music, film, and interactive festival and conference in Austin, Texas. We listened to Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America give a keynote address about her organization and what they do. Knowing very little about CFA, I thought it was going to be a dry and technical talk about coding. It turned out to be an inspiring speech on local activism and about using your talents to be a better local and global citizen. CFA is a grassroots social change organization that tackles problems in local neighborhoods using the talents of local hackers, coders, and programmers who want to use their talents to do something meaningful for their community. Other organizations like Design for America and IDEO work to provide real solutions to pressing social, public, and consumer problems by taking the design out of the hands of the often bureaucratic and cumbersome government and into the more innovative and nimble hands of designers.

It’s easy to get entrenched in day to day projects for clients, but it’s also important to stay connected to the more immediate world around us. While we do work for companies that are doing great things in the world, being directly involved in that impact is something special. The city that Elefint calls home, San Francisco, is implementing a program now called ImproveSF. Currently they have a contest to redo the current plaintext SFMTA logo. The idea is to crowdsource the work to local designers and choose the best one. The winner will have its logo displayed as the new face of the SFMTA as well as have an article written about them in The Bold Italic. While it isn’t a campaign for social good, it is a great way to connect talented designers to their community and its a step in the right direction of having people more involved in the more immediate world around them.

There was recently an article in the SSIR that talked about a global design service corp much like the peace corps that aims to send the best and brightest designers, engineers, architects, etc out into the world to solve all kinds of social problems. The article goes on the mention that there is a huge demand for these opportunities but very few programs available. Design Corps, an organization that works in housing and development, and Design for America, are leading the way.

Even Elefint’s newest designer, Rachel Silverberg is getting involved as well. Rachel recently participated in a Hackathon aimed at solving some of San Francisco’s most pervasive social problems. More on that later…




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