As visual communicators, we as graphic designers have the ability to influence society. We have the potential to do great--both good and bad--things. Many designers who are proponents of social design, such as Victor Papanek, believe that "designers and creative professionals have a responsibility and are able to cause real change in the world through good design." While it certainly is well within our capabilities as graphic designers to create social change through our work, it seems that we don't usually reach our potential in this respect because our skills are most often used to contribute to and perpetuate commercialism and consumerism. So is it really feasible to design socially conscious work?
In theory, yes, it is absolutely possible. The world we live in is shaped by design at every level. Visual communication is omnipresent throughout the world. Through visual communication, we as graphic designers have the capability to shape society. The work we do as graphic designers can sell, persuade, educate and inspire. Graphic design is everywhere, and thus, so is the opportunity to create social change. To say that creating socially conscious work is only feasible in theory would be incorrect because social design does exist, but (for the most part) it is limited in practice.
In practice (for the most part), however, it is not. This is because our skills as graphic designers are most often used in advertising and marketing to contribute to and perpetuate commercialism and consumerism. Today, the production of visual communications consists essentially of advertising. John Berger says, "Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world." But we as graphic designers have the ability to contribute so much more than this.
The challenge facing the design community in particular is how to expand what we do to have a greater impact in the area of social change. How do we create space for designers to do this type of work at the professional level where concern about the bottom line is often the driving force? Often what holds a designer back is the prevailing attitude that executing social work only falls under the category of pro bono. "Giving back" is an altruistic idea, but with limited time and resources it's often not realistic. This attitude has to change in order to create a sustainable model that not only promotes this type of work, but also encourages it in the marketplace.
Berger, John (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books.
Papanek, Victor (1971). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, New York, Pantheon Books.