In Defense of Good

Design motives in a trendy marketplace.

Photo: Fereydoon Family - Man Holding His Thumb Under His Chin.

I'm not a community organizer. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a journalist or someone who rallies a crowd with a powerfully moving speech. I’m not an electrician, a businessman, a mechanic or a waiter. I happen to be a designer.

I like using visual communication to convey information or to inspire people to action. I like working with different types of people from different backgrounds who have different needs and goals in our visual, media-driven culture. And I take the need for us all to be citizens in this increasingly complicated world seriously. That’s why I find it refreshing to see the good design movement really begin to take hold.

It isn’t hard to see how designers can be out of touch at times. We can come off like our only responsibility is to “the design,” that our role begins and ends there. We simply make a piece of visual communication beautiful and let the magic of the marketplace move the shoes, the Cokes/Pepsis, the coal trains. But looking at our job so narrowly – simply acting as accomplices to that derivative, that oil spill, that lust to be thin – is not a good thing. Are we comfortable being an army of little capitalists so immersed in the “free market” that we refuse to ask the tough questions and only seek to flex our aesthetic muscle?

To design for a project is to support it. What the good design movement is doing is essentially communicating our support of equality, sustainability, fairness and hope. We are stepping out of our comfort zones, looking at what exactly it is we do all day and finding opportunities to build rather than just sell. We know that design should work not only to better itself, but our communities as well – both local and global. So why is good design the target of criticism?

People often question the motives of designers who work on social projects, saying “they just want to feel better about themselves,” and it’s frustrating. What’s wrong with designers wanting to feel better about themselves and their work? Why isn’t anyone questioning the motive of designers working on Nike, Coke or Pepsi accounts? Just what do we want design to be?

Do we really want our best visual communication to be in favor of Burger King? Do we really want our finest efforts going toward shoes? Is this the rightful place for design? Should the best creative minds of our generation be so focused on high-gloss dishonesty?

I don’t think so. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that many other designers don’t think so either.

We have to get past the “we design and that’s our only responsibility” mentality. When we design, our choices matter, our intentions matter. That’s why we’re all designers anyway, right? We like to be seen and share in the world at large. All these good design efforts – professionals and students actually giving a damn about what’s happening out there and wanting to help make things better – is a profoundly good thing. Trend? Maybe. Seismic shift? Let’s hope so.

Whether we like it or not, designers do pick sides, just like fonts and color palettes. Which side are we better suited for: The fast-paced, high-gloss of a Just Do It campaign, or the slow, messy process of designing a more fair and equal place to live?

Justin Kemerling is working toward being a community activist designer, justinkemerling.com.