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Design for good, represented by 10 colorful circles. Illustration by Julie Campbell.

Big Ideas

Build Solidarity, Tackle Exclusion, and Redefine Success: 10 Ways to Use Design for Good

Impacting the world for the better was on quite a few minds this year. From challenging the status quo to creating space for joy (literally), here’s the best advice from 99U thinkers using creativity to make the world a better place.

We looked around saw how design had a tremendous positive impact on society this year. From crafting new products aimed at accessibility to bolstering democracy, here are 10 inspiring ways creatives applied their craft to making the world a better place.

1. Don’t expect a user to be satisfied with the status quo.

ELIA is a free font that low vision and blind users can learn in—purportedly—an afternoon. It’s just one of a constellation of products, like text-to-speech technology, aimed to bring more assistive technology than the single option of Braille to the U.S.’s eight million blind people. “We are focused on helping people achieve greater independence and literacy,” says founder Andrew Chepaitis. “It’s been really challenging. But I’ve had faith that this initiative is the most worthwhile I could spend each day.”

Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful. Image courtesy of Fetell Lee.

Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful. Image courtesy of Fetell Lee.

2. Fill overlooked spaces with joy.

IDEO’s Ingrid Fetell Lee believes the aesthetics of our surroundings—like bright, happy colors—are a powerful tool to enliven a community. She’s developed a syllabus of joyful design that she hopes will be a resource that brings aesthetic delight to overlooked spaces like nursing homes, public housing, and schools in underserved neighborhoods. “I’d like to see the places that house the people who are most vulnerable designed with as much aesthetic sensitivity as the places that house the people who have tons of resources,” says Lee.

3. Volunteer to redesign your government.

The Center for Civic Design brings the elegant solutions of design to the complex needs of voting. Simple gestures like directions that say ‘turn ballot over’ or text that works for assistive apps can have a profound impact on our democracy. “The potential role of design in government is to change how government works,” says Civic Design’s co-founder Dana Chisnell. She suggests designers bring their much needed skills to the table. Get started by volunteering as a poll worker in your next local election to see the kinds of challenges and questions voters have.

Carmen Herrera photographed in her New York studio. Image courtesy of Herrera.

Carmen Herrera in her New York studio. Image courtesy of Herrera.

4. Prioritize long-term fulfillment.

The world whispers ‘money’. Your clients demand your creativity and hard work. But you, and only you, are the one who makes room for fulfillment. That means developing muscles around taking a step back and applying a healthy dash of perspective. According to lifelong designers who have been around the block a few times, one secret to a fulfilling career is seeing the big picture—thinking in systems, not pixels; in decades, not deliverables. Or, as abstract artist Carmen Herrera, who got her first Whitney Museum retrospective at age 101, says: “Patience, darling, patience.”

Image of the iconic Rainbow Flag. Photo by Ink Drop.

The iconic Rainbow Flag. Photo by Ink Drop.

5. Make a banner for people to gather around.

The history of identity-driven banners got a colorful new chapter when Gilbert Baker developed his iconic Rainbow Flag, which celebrates LGTBQ culture. Baker “created a symbol of hope and inclusion for an oppressed minority at a time when their efforts at liberation were new,” recalls Baker’s estate overseer, Charley Beal. Create community and impact with symbols that help people trumpet their identity and their solidarity.

6. If you’re in the room where it happens, influence what happens for good.

Naresh Ramchandani and the Pentagram team at Do the Green Thing believe creatives can have a powerful positive influence on their corporate clients. Use the access of being in the room to expand a corporation’s idea of what success means. “Too often, commercial creativity is self-serving for a corporation and their P&L,” says Ramchandani. “Put something good into the world.”

Designer Marie van Driessche presenting on World Interaction Design Day in New York City. Photo by Joe Anastasio.

Designer Marie van Driessche presenting on World Interaction Design Day in New York City. Photo by Joe Anastasio.

7. Provide choice.

Not everyone thinks or functions like the person designing a product. People take in information in all sorts of different ways—whether due to preference or ability. One choice can’t suit everyone’s needs. To design for all, inclusive designer Marie van Driessche advises colleagues to make sure their products include multiple options for how to engage.

8. To tackle exclusion, find a place outside your comfort zone.

Automattic Head of Inclusion, John Maeda, went all the way to Appalachia to break out of the comfortable grooves of his usual mindset. The goal? Find how people were being excluded from Automattic’s product, and then design for them. “How do we find exclusion?” Maeda asks. “It’s by being in environments unlike the ones we’re used to.”  

9. Create space for joy at home in order to bring joy to work.

Your company’s culture, not just its work, should reflect its mission. Jason Mayden, founder of healthy play startup Super Heroic, makes sure that the spirit of prioritizing imaginative play for children extends beyond the office doors. “We have an open, healthy dialogue that’s focused on promoting work/life balance,” says Mayden. “We have to play with and enjoy our families in order to embed joy in the work that we do. It’s imperative that we live what we speak.”

Indhira Rojas is the founder of Anxy, a magazine about creatives' inner worlds. Image courtesy of Rojas.

Indhira Rojas is the founder of Anxy, a magazine about creatives’ inner worlds. Image courtesy of Rojas.

10. Remember, you’re human.

There are times where you’ve hit the sweet spot. The world is onboard with your passion. The planet is throwing opportunity your way. Care for yourself as thoughtfully during the boom seasons as the low times. Don’t let opportunity get the better of your health. “When you want to create impact, it feels like the sacrifice and the hard hours are all worthwhile,” says Anxy founder Indhira Rojas. “And then you faint in the subway and you remember that you’re human.”

More Posts by Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. 

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