Question: can design really change the world?

‘Designers have enormous power to influence how we see the world, and how we live our lives’

David Berman

Can design really change the world?

Between 6am-6.10am this morning, I came in contact with the following brands: Aquafresh, Yorkshire Tea, Herbal Essences, Apple, Sony, JBL, Twitter, Weetabix and Twinings (and I’ve probably missed some). How many brands have you come in contact with today? 20? 50? 100? Designers create most of what you see, buy, use and experience. We cannot ignore the fact that design is a business, design is used to communicate and raise a following. But, can we also design/communicate our way to social change? Yes. Because history has proven the power of design both politically and commercially. Activism in design is growing.

Design is a tool used to communicate. It can also create a following. But, not always in a good way. In the past, it has been used to further a political agenda. Let’s go back to 1930, the German Nazi Party, one of the most powerful brands in history. The propaganda around the Nazi campaign turned what was an ancient symbol of good fortune (Coca Cola used it, Carlsberg used it, the boy scouts used it), one of the most feared symbols in history.

Swastika logo, symbol
Image by Steven Heller

The party used the art of persuasion through propaganda and the mass media in order to influence popular opinion, to get a following for one of the most horrific events in history. Using print, they constantly showed the ‘ideal’ aryan as the ‘master race’ to discriminate and terrorise others. And the scary thing was, it worked and had horrific consequences. 

‘Branding, like science, can serve wonderful purposes, but it can also be a dangerous tool in the hands of the wrong masters.’

So, to turn it on it’s head, can we use design for the opposite? To make positive change? Absolutely. This has been done and proven, activism in design is becoming part of a regular goal amongst independent studios, young graduates, and the bigger agencies. It also allows you to be creative, experimental and sometimes controversial politically. Some cynics say a lot of commercial brands are jumping on the bandwagon of activism, using it as a means to ‘tick boxes’ or get media attention. There are always going to be critics, but again I feel this only has a positive effect of furthering awareness and starting dialogue about said subject. No matter the intentions, if organisations are creating campaigns/brands/communications that challenge old/discriminatory perceptions, or provoking people to do a little more, it all contributes to social change. It can raise awareness or challenge. Here is a recent campaign I saw for Bodyshop:

campaign poster

The intentions are good, inclusive and positive, challenging homophobia. I’m sure any members of the LGBTQ communities smiled inside when walking past this campaign. I know I did. 

Here are a few other examples that provoke, influence and communicate strong principles:

New York Times: ‘The truth is more important now than ever’ – a response to the recent American election. Check out their powerful TV commercial here.

New York Times Campaign 

This Girl Can: I’m sure you all remember the huge impact this campaign had when it started two years ago. I never get tired of watching this. Entertaining, empowering and provoking. Genius.


4 Creative – Election shut down. E4 shut down for the first time ever, for a period of 12 hours over the general election period. They wanted to encourage young people (their target audience) to vote. During the 12 hours they showcased character, Darren living his daily life. Whether they contributed to encouraging young people to vote or not, it certainly got people talking about the elections. 

All of these examples are entertaining and yes, probably do have commercial intentions. But, they start conversation. As creatives, we have the skills to communicate issues. We have a social responsibility to dedicate some of our professional lives and skills to working with those that push forward change. 

‘Designers have enormous power to influence how we see the world, and how we live our lives’ David Berman writes, in his book Do Good (PDF version here). Design has power, persuasion and influence. How we use those characteristics as designers is down to our principles as people. 

Sail Creative was set up to work under strong values of social change. We love working with organisations that push forward equality and good intentions the world; and when we do, we are proud of that. We are passionate social change, so charities, public sector organisations, the arts, and independent businesses that want to serve fair-trade, quality coffee and give service with a smile just to make that one persons day a little bit better – we would love to chat. We love working with people who believe in what they do, and who have principles to make the world a better place, in a tiny way, or a big way. It all helps. We also undertake personal projects, such as ongoing LGBT project Words Bare.

We have created a special something to mark a special national equality day that is coming up…keep an eye out in your post box…!

Thought provokers: 

‘Designers are falling over each other to kiss corporate arse’. Jonathan Barnbrook.

‘Imagine what would be possible if designers did not participate in the export of overconsumption and the unbridled fulfilment of greed. No one understands the powerful mechanism behind these manipulations better than design professionals, and we have the creativity and persuasiveness to make positive change. We must act, be heard…and sometimes simply say no by designing a better yes.’ David Berman.

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