20 November 2009

Designism 4.0

Designism 4.0

The Art Directors Club hosted Designism 4.0 this Wednesday night in their New York City gallery. This was the fourth annual event on design and social change there, and after last year’s ambitious program was cut short by the Vice-Presidential debate this year’s program was significantly streamlined — four slideshows, a roundtable, and one big question: how to do good work and still eat.

The speakers were:

Helen Walters, editor of “Innovation and Design” at BusinessWeek, moderated. A few projects and models were discussed:

Corporate Sponsorship

Mark Randall showed the Urban Forest Project. In fall 2006, the Worldstudio invited 185 designers to contribute designs for banners for New York City streetlights using the metaphor of a tree. The resulting banners hung in Times Square for three months. The project brought some color, irony, and a whiff of eco-consciousness to the heart of the city. After the exhibition, the banners were sliced up, sewn together, and recycled into stylish tote bags designed by Jack Spade. The colorful one-of-a-kind bags were then sold to support the Worldstudio AIGA Scholarship fund and the AIGA/NY Mentoring Program.

Soon designers in other cities began to inquire about bringing the project to their own town — and local city officials started call as well. For instance, a forestry official Googling in Albuquerque, New Mexico stumbled onto the project and called. The project, he thought, would be a great way to promote urban forestry, as well as the mayor’s agenda.

Since NYC, the project has since run in Baltimore, Denver, and Albuquerque, with upcoming installations in San Francisco, Toledo, and Washington DC. (See http://ufp-global.com for more.)

The NYC project was a labor of love for Worldstudio (who had already worked with the Times Square Alliance as a client) and even with sponsorship, the Studio did not break even. Learning from their experience, and in response to increasing demand, Worldstudio developed a different financial model for taking the project elsewhere. Interested cities are asked to pay an modest initial seed funding for the studio to conduct a feasibility study to seek out sponsors, local partners, and non-profits to benefit. This funding and the resulting sponsorship ensures that the studio can continue to cover its costs.


Paula Scher figures around 50% of her work is free. Her high-priced commercial work supports this. Challenging the whole “social change” discourse, she noted, “I don’t care about society. Just me.” Simply put, she wants to do work she likes and finds fulfilling. Paula showed images from her work with the Robin Hood Foundation, Public Theater, and Friends of the High Line. Many of her pro-bono projects have lead to long-standing relationships: 9 years working with the Friends of the High Line and 15 years (!) working with the Public Theater. Attractive logos, printed materials, and even stylish signage attract attention, raise the project’s profile — and ultimately funds.

Taking money from a client, she argues, changes the relationship. She figures 90% of her work with paid clients is spent in meetings convincing them. When there’s no money involved, one can spend more time making things, is less beholden to the client, has more creative control, and doesn’t necessarily have to attend all those meetings. With this in mind, she has actually refused money from non-profit clients. Regarding her wayfinding designs for the High Line, she feels the strength of the work actually suffered once City officials got involved and insisted on paying her a stipend.

Service Design

Bill Drentell has attended three conferences on design and social change in the last month alone. There definitely seems to be a growing interest in this compared to the design field, say, 10 years ago. Bill presented a quick summary of the recent conference in Aspen he helped organize with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Designers at the invitation-only event focused on 6 social issues. He spoke less on the topic of business plans for designers (unless you count Foundation support) and more on: “what would happen when you let design lead the way?” Each social issue was adopted by a team of designers. In brief, the issues and outcomes were as follows:

  • Rural poverty: Hale County, Alabama is one of the poorest in America. It’s also the site of Rural Studio, a student-driven architecture program focused on architecture for the poor. Attendees of the Aspen conference worked up a new economic development program, and a plan to raise money from the public on the Internet.
  • Sustainable food and obesity: Instead of targeting behavior change, the project focused on sustainable foodshed development.
  • Rural health care: The group married Dr. Jay Parkinson’s cutting edge, online Hello, Health program to the resources of the Mayo Clinic to develop an online platform for doctors supporting rural health interfacing with their patients and managing visits via the web.
  • Emergency education: UNICEF has a big metal box they drop into emergency situations containing classroom materials for 6 months of primary education in 4 classrooms. UNICEF came to the conference wanting to develop another box. Instead, the conference team developed a radically different approach: to open source the kit, put the development of the curricula online for peer review and decentralized production. Materials would be produced “just in time” at facilities closest to the site of the emergency.
  • Adolescent hygiene: Girls in developing countries are often ridiculed or banned from school altogether when they have their period. To address this, Elizabeth Scharpf founded an NGO in South Africa to develop a ultra-low-cost sanitary napkin. The conference team connected her with folks from UNICEF and wrote up a business plan for her.
  • Healthy aging: The conference team developed a marketing and implementation plan for the Centers for Disease Control’s program to promote “5 after 50,” five tests to stay healthy.

Social Entrepreneur

For every pair of shoes TOMS sells, they give a pair to a child in a developing country. Founder Blake Mycoskie talked about how it began. He was vacationing in Argentina, drinking red wine and learning the tango when he met a group of folks collecting shoes from the rich neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and delivering them to children in poor areas around the city. Shoes help prevent water-borne illnesses as well as Podoconiosis, the absorption of silica through the feet. And the shoes help the kids stay in school as they are a required part of the school uniform. Since children grow out of shoes quickly, this was a steady source of material. But Blake thought he could do more.

He deliberately chose not to start a “charity.” Though the capital he used to start TOMS could have given away 40,000 shoes, by investing it in and building up a shoe company, he has been able to give away 150,000 shoes. TOMs employs 5 graphic designers and 2 shoe designers out of a team of 40 employees and relies on design to tell (and sell) its story. The shoe design itself carries some of the poetry: the TOMs shoe is based on a traditional Argentinean farmer’s shoe (though with tougher, more comfortable materials, and more arch support.)

In 2006, a writer for the LA Times discovered TOMS and wrote a story. After appearing on the front page, Blake sold 2,700 shoes through the website overnight (though he only only 400 pairs on hand!) “That’s when it became a business,” he says.

The evening ultimately came to a discussion of the pro-bono vs entrepreneurial approaches. Increasingly, it seems, designers are turning to self-started, self-authored projects where the designers themselves develop the idea and business plan, invite partners and find funding. Bill Drenttel recalled the phrase “post-client design” and noted all of the designers on the UNICEF team in Aspen had spent time in working in developing countries. Many on their own dime.

Worldstudio actually shies away from pro-bono work, since many of its clients are non-profits and don’t pay well.

Paula Scher noted, “all my work for free is for groups in New York City.” Recalling a poster design project in her student days at Yale, she felt unqualified to work on hunger in Africa and recalled the irony of stepping over sleeping homeless people in the New Haven train station on her way to talk about poster designs on Africa. “What are the issues in your own community?,” she asked.

When asked by one audience member about what sustained them between their busy, successful practices and their public work, the speakers turned it around: It’s not about us. What sustains you? What floats your own boat?

The evening was a definite shift from previous Designism events. Gone were Tony Hedra, Milton Glaser, and Steven Heller. And no mention of Designism Connects the designer / non-profit matching site announced at Designism 2.0, launched at Designism 3.0, and co-founded by the Art Directors Club itself. But the question of emotional and practical sustainability for social design work is a good one. Indeed, there’s more than one way to do it, and many other alternatives could have been addressed.

While I quite liked some of the work presented, I was ambivalent about of the politics of many of the projects and found some downright problematic. Sprinkling Internet dust on a social issue is a good way to win buzz and foundation support (especially when little brown children are affected,) but may not be the best use of resources, particularly when the affected parties are not part of the discussion. But, I thought Bill Drentell’s “we’ll see how this works” attitude was appropriate. He noted that not everyone from Hale County thought it was a good idea for designers to move into the area. Though, he says, by the end of the weekend they were all smiling. I also found once again that the focus on charity and service delivery failed to address the real, root causes and public policies behind many of social issues discussed. But that’s a topic for a longer essay.

It’s good to see designers engaging, trying things out, and asking questions. And it’s nice to see the Art Directors Club making an ongoing commitment to hosting this discussion. On the question of how to institutionalize social design, this seems like a promising start. I just hope it goes further.