Design and social change

January 14, 2008

activism / culture / design

To give a little perspective on this post, I began creating websites in August of 1997. I was 14 years old. Back then, knowing how to make a site with frames made you look really cool. Yahoo! didn’t own Geocities. Google didn’t exist. AltaVista was a big deal. Netscape was fighting hard against Internet Explorer.

User generated content, for most people, boiled down to hosting a free guestbook where people could leave comments about the whole website. Commenting on individual pages? Users collaborating to create high quality content? Didn’t happen, for most of us.

For the entire time I’ve been creating websites, I have been intrigued by the possibilities that come from the web, and from design as it exists on the web. Possibilities of expression, exchange of ideas, open communication, and any number of other things that, although I knew they were cool, had potential that I didn’t understand back in the days of free hosting on Geocities.

Since I was in art school, I have been increasingly interested in the ability of design, both on the web and in general, to encourage change in society. Web design is interesting because it puts a bunch of different parts of a bunch of different media together. There are concepts of various kinds of graphic design (posters, magazines, newspapers), architecture, and any number of other things. This is part of what makes it exciting. All of these media, including web design in itself, have ways of presenting messages to society in powerful ways. Ways that connect with people.

Sometimes, the job of good design is to get out of the way. To keep the user from paying attention to it by avoiding flashy kitsch and overall busyness so they can really pay attention to the content. Sometimes, though, the job of good design is to work with the content. To be a part of the content. These are the best websites. These are the ones I want to create. This is why design, in and of itself, began to grab me as a real way of engaging with and challenging society, to bring about change in individuals and push for change in societies.

From time to time, I run across organizations and opportunities that exist to promote design as a way of enacting social change. I try to keep up with and learn from these. One of these is Design Can Change, which does multiple things. It brings together designers who care about issues of climate change and the environment, and it also serves as a poignant and beautiful message that pushes for action.

There are also Centers for Sustainable Design, combinations of theology and technology, beautiful responses to human crisis, and any number of other things. I want to continue learning about these kind of things.