Design Activism

Last night I had the pleasure of speaking to the wonderful Ladies, Wine and Design. community in Newcastle: A monthly salon night connecting creatives in the North East of England. My talk theme was ‘Design for Good’, with donations going to my choice of charity – the Angelou Centre. The Angelou Centre is a black-led women’s centre based in Newcastle upon Tyne. They support black women, children and women of colour locally, from training and development to fighting to end violence – their work is incredibly important.

By Mandy Barker

It was an inspiring evening where we got to chat all things social change, inspiring content, recommended reading and how we can make change using our skills as creatives. Shout out to everyone on the call, please do keep in touch! And thank you to Dan, Sarah, Marion and Jessie for having me as a guest speaker for the event. 💙

The presentation

Design for Good

I wanted to recap some of the main themes in my presentation, that focused on ‘how to’ not ‘why’ do design for good. Everyone is now doing Design for Good, the world is in chaos, we all know we have to make positive choices of the work we do. I flipped this on its head, as I believe we should now be focusing on Design Activism. We must be active to make change. It’s no longer enough to sit behind a screen and making something look good. Be active.

 

How Sail Started

I spoke about how Sail started, back in 2016. I left a Newcastle Branding Agency to set up Sail with no money in the bank, no support, no ‘assets’, no real ‘plan’. But I did have passion and drive to make this work. I followed what felt right. I am in no way advocating this is the right way to do things, but for me; it worked. I suppose I am a natural risk-taker, I thrive on change, business and activism is not for the faint hearted…

Words Bare

My first project was self initiated: Words Bare – an exhibition which showcased stories of the LGBTQ community. As a lesbian women, I have faced much prejudice or inappropriate comments for simply holding hands with my girlfriend. I wanted to challenge why this is still happening; so I started gathering research from other members of the LGBTQ community to showcase these experiences. This project was passion driven only, there was no money involved; just hard work. I had no expectations, but I booked an exhibition space in Newcastle which meant I couldn’t go back. Words Bare only grew, it exhibited across 4 years. It was effortless because I believe in it, even if it helped to challenge only one persons views around gender or sexuality. It helped me find a community, and validated that other people cared about what I cared about, and gave me the confidence to really drive Sail in this direction.

 

Community

As a business, it’s as important to show your work as it is to show your community and the people around you that make the business what it is. People want to see behind the scenes, they want to see the people in the team; not just the ‘director’ – be active, go to events and share stories and opinion. Don’t just be a faceless portfolio.

Design activism

Don’t just say it. The clue is in the word. Be active. Your decisions can be activist, you don’t necessarily have to be on the front line of a protest. What you buy, who you connect with, the suppliers you use. Lot’s of questions came up around how to challenge prejudice in a room where you a minority – I am no expert on this but I do know first and foremost, you have to make sure you are in a safe space to do so, and second; try not to get angry, it only makes people defensive and is not constructive. Instead, ask questions about why people feel a certain way, this helps them work through their own thought patterns and decisions and will open up a conversation instead of an argument. Disclaimer: I am ALL for getting angry, and completely support the Black Lives Matter Movement. But have learnt the hard way from lived experience, of challenging those that have said inappropriate comments based on my sexuality. I am starting to realise the power of asking why people think a certain way (and I’m learning constantly, currently reading Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race; highly recommend).

 

Finding your passion

You will know you have found this when you have something more than money that gets you out of bed on a morning. It doesn’t have to be a ‘world changing something’, it can be a sector you love, an in house job for an organisation you care about, your own business or self initiated project (i.e Words Bare). I am not and have never being motivated by money; but at the same time, you have to live, have a valued skill and are not a charity – it’s all about balance.

 

Projects you care about

If, as a freelancer or start up, you can’t find the projects you care about, create them. Do self initiated stuff. It will help you grow.

 

Your network

Is. Everything. Use it. You will be surprised at how joined up it is, for Sail, it’s from London to LA to Newcastle to Scarborough and everything in between. People that care about what you care about are all over the world; and you have an instant commonality: purpose. Say hello and it will only grow. Don’t force this, be patient.

 

Perfection

This is a big topic that we all related too, don’t let it hold you back. If you are a creative, no doubt you will learn this the hard way. I did, by trying to please other creatives ‘above’ me; I have in the past been a natural people pleaser. But remember, clients have different expectations to designers. You have a skill, believe in it. Design (activism) isn’t about being perfect it’s about being human, and doing things whilst they are relevant (this often means acting QUICKLY – you can’t do that and be perfect). Also, perfect does not exist, it is subjective.

Say yes

Back in 2017, I was asked to be on a panel for the Design Business Association about Sail being a ‘small giant’. I was terrified, this was alongside iconic directors and world-famous studios Elmwood, Arup and Thompson Brand Partners. Two of which, in 2015; I applied to work for, and didn’t even get a response. Two years later I’m sat on the same ‘level’ speaking about business impact. I was on a panel with three other white, privileged middle-age men. Patriarchy strikes again. I had no choice but to say yes, what an opportunity!

 

Say no, too

What you say no to shows your values more than what you say yes to. Do you really want to take that job if it means selling your soul, just to get more money in the bank?

 

Say hello

In 2019, I ended up in LA, delivering a creative workshop to the incredible Jameela Jamil and IWeigh team. This meant silencing ‘imposter syndrome’ – I had done this many times before, and people are just people, always remember that.

Always have a brief

Always. Even if it’s just a checklist of four words….

 

But always rip it up

Push it, break it, be prepared for the unexpected. Mediocre work is not activist. Such important subject matters should have powerful work to support them. Do them justice. Don’t just add to the noise.

 

Think Wrong

To do this, remember that a convincing impossibility is much more powerful than an unconvincing possibility. Irrational beats rational hands down. You can make things happen.

 

Absorb and learn

This was discussed a lot – I spoke about how important it is to always question why something is good. Constantly learn, read out of the sector. I have never read as much as I have in the last four years. I read behavioural psychology, anthropology, system change, social change, racism, self awareness etc etc. Read, listen, watch, absorb it. Don’t just sit in a ‘design bubble’ – there is a whole world out there.

 

Believe in yourself

And when you don’t, find others that do. In 2017 I nearly gave up on Sail, it was hard work, sleepless nights, gruelling long days and I wasn’t making enough money to pay myself. My accountant at the time convinced me not to – she said ‘I know you can make this work, it’s working; look’. Sometimes that’s all you need, a bit of confidence from someone else.

But be prepared to put your need aside

You have to make sacrifices – social events, living standards; if you are growing something from the ground, or dedicating your life to activism; you’ve got to start small. I lived very cheaply for the first 3 years of Sail, and still do. This is easy for me, because Sail isn’t about ‘growth’, it’s about impact.

 

Be kind

Always give people your time, you never know when your paths may cross (i.e the Design Business Association panel above!). Also remember to be kind to yourself, you are not a machine, activism and the creative industry can be exhausting independent of each other, let alone together; know when you need a break.

 

Find people that care about what you care about

We have an amazing team at Sail, that share the same purpose and values. We share joint decisions, have full transparency, are non-hierarchal and are always looking to be better, to question our own priorities and privilege, and challenge/debate each other daily. Being around a team that shares your purpose is the most important thing I want to say here, because you can have more impact together, and it makes you love going to work in the morning. Be open, capitalism and working for the ‘directors’ wealth is dead….and wrong.

 

Book recommendations discussed in the group

  • Florence Given – Women don’t owe you
  • Chloe Brotheridge – Brave New Girl
  • Sam Conniff – Be More Pirate
  • Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race
  • Art of war – Sun Tzu

Quotes

‘Don’t take criticism from anyone you wouldn’t take an advice from.’ – love this quote from Anita!

Don’t give up, keep working hard. Thanks for reading 🌎

Any questions, please feel free to get in touch! Mandy@sailcreative.co.uk.

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