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The real world and design’s role in change

From 1997 through 2001, when I was a student there, the sign announcing Temple University’s Tyler School of Art to the world on one side, announced “The Real World” to those of us within it’s confines on the other. Someone had tagged the back of the sign with the saying, and it remains symbolic for me to this day. On the inside we were students in our creative bubble, but the other side is what really mattered—whatever we would go on to create out there would have influence on more than just classmates and professors. Out there is where we could create real change. And I believe that design has the power to play an immensely important role in creating social change.

Change is constant. It has been a constant in my adult life over the past decade, to be sure. And one thing I’ve realized is that we can spend our lives chasing stability, or we can begin to understand that change is to be expected, and change does not need to be negative. And more than that, if we are really astutue and engaged, we can even be a part of effecting informed, positive change. This applies to everyone, everywhere; but to designers, I think, more than most.

Right now I’m interested in discovering all the possible ways in which design can intertwine itself with politics, policy making and technology in order to effect change. I would argue that design and politics have always been intertwined, with design playing it’s primary political role in activism—outside the system. Could we transform design so that it occupies a role inside the system, as a major agent of change?

I think we can. But it requires stepping outside of ourselves and the societal role we are taught to play in design school and by our peers. It requires becoming more involved in both politics and the business world.

The life of the socially conscious designer, we are taught, is one where we embrace Adbusters over the advertising industry and protest rallies over the boardroom or the White House Office. We’re taught to thumb our noses at the system we are trying to transform. But I would argue that working inside the system can be an incredibly effective path to change. 

Everything a designer creates makes a small impact if we want it to—maybe it opens someone’s heart and mind, or starts by changing their worldview just enough to allow us to do more of that work for them in the future. We might do well to consider effecting change within the system by working in-house or in the advertising or public relations industries and using empathy to open hearts and minds where one might least expect to find open hearts and open minds—to arrive at a better, more empathic creative product. 

Or maybe effecting change looks more like getting invovled in elections and campaigns. Let’s look back to the Bush vs. Gore presidential election in 2000, with all of those confusing ballots and hanging chads in Florida. It’s not a stretch to say that a better designed ballot may have changed the election’s outcome. We’ll never know. But it’s a good reminder of how much power design carries—both good and bad.

When I was a student at Tyler, the thought of “The Real World” secretly terrified me a little every time I passed our side of that sign. Going out there meant taking off the training wheels and learning how to pursuade more than just those who already understood where I was coming from. It meant understanding other worldviews and being challenged to break through them to a place of mutual understanding. This is a lesson I’m still learning—and embracing—every day, nearly 15 years later. It is a lesson that I hope all designers will take to heart, whether it be via activism or working within the system. 

Alyssa YeagerComment