We received a thought-provoking collection of questions from our members for John Emerson, founder of Backspace and Social Design Notes. Thanks to all of you who participated in this session.

Backspace is a design consultancy based in New York, dedicated to research, development and promotion of design in the public interest.

Since 2002, John has published Social Design Notes, a blog about the intersection of design and activism. He also wrote and designed Visualizing Information for Advocacy, a booklet that introduces advocacy organizations to the basic principles and techniques of information design.

In addition to writing and research, he has designed websites, print and motion graphics for media companies as well as non-profit organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the United Nations, and United for Peace & Justice.

With his dedication to design and social activism, we were interested to learn more from him, and here are his thoughts on some questions that came in:


How do you envision social designers will be able to rescue issues of sustainability and environmental stewardship from green marketing and duplicate efforts worldwide? How do we make the practice of the balance of resources and wise use of energy a true world effort and not let it fade into a marketing campaign?

It's always frustrating that some projects receive so much hype and attention while other more worthy projects, do not. But then I think there will always be green marketing, and big corporations will almost always have bigger marketing budgets than the folks in the trenches doing the good, important work.

For instance, I think the way to create massive change is not through inventing better gadgets or by individuals changing their lifestyle, but through social movements, political change, and public policy. Design has a vital role to play here, but it's so much easier for a "mainstream" design press to focus on selling you a greener gadget because it fits nicely with existing models and doesn't challenge the status quo for advertisers.

One way to counter that marketing is do a little of your own. For independent producers, this often means tapping into existing networks: email lists, professional organizations, websites, neighborhood establishments — working the friend-of-a-friend network. Large segments of the public are also increasingly turning online for news and entertainment. New media makes it fairly easy to publicize your efforts with minimal overhead, and offline, creative guerrilla marketing can make a big impact on a small budget.

In some cases you can pursue a legislative or legal strategy to regulate marketing. Folks have had good success pushing cities and states to limit the forms of marketing in their communities. The folks at IllegalBillboards.org have been able to push for the removal of illegal billboards. Regulating the content of marketing can be a challenge, but is also possible.

I'm not sure what duplicate efforts you're referring to, but I think there's nothing wrong with folks learning from one another. In fact, I'd say it's important to test other models and results and share what works and what doesn't. Duplicating experiments and comparing results makes good science better and separates a truthful conclusion from a faulty one.

It's easy to get distracted by the hype and marketing, but ultimately, I think the thing to do is to focus your energies on projects that matter.


What distinctions do you deal with when visualizing information across cultures? What should designers be aware of when designing outside of their own cultural norms?

I think the best thing to do is to listen. That is, observe, research, talk to people, and most importantly, test your design with your target audience. Color, style, even type choice all have potentially different connotations when designing across cultures.

But these cultural "constraints" can lead to a more interesting solution. One example: I designed a website for a non-profit organization that tells the stories of Israelis and Palestinians collaborating on projects for peace and understanding. As I quickly learned, the design had to avoid dominant blues, which have Israeli associations; dominant greens, which have Islamic associations; and even saffron orange, which is a color used by one of the ultra-nationalist parties. The resulting design used earth tones, browns and yellows. This was not only more culturally "neutral," but also added an interesting dimension to the project. Since much of the conflict is perceived to be over turf, the color scheme referenced the earth and had a nice "grounding" effect in the background.

I live in Rio de Janeiro, and one of the main problems here is violence, which historically, has been promoted by the growth of parallel micro-power and corruption, this affects the behavior of individuals. Assuming that sustainability requires an interdependent net of vectors to achieve it. In your opinion, what are the perspectives for sustainability and sustainable design in a scenario like this? Is activism an option?

These are entrenched social, political and economic systems, but I think there's definitely a role for activism. I recommend looking at the work of Transparency International. They are an international network of organizations fighting corruption. The national organizations are fairly autonomous, but publicize and share strategies within the network. Some of these strategies are quite design-driven, and could certainly benefit from design assistance.

As for violence, you can look at the causes of it, the incentives and deterrents that have worked to successfully reduce violence elsewhere. Linking this to sustainability and sustainable design, one idea might be to bootstrap job training or employment in green industries or sustainable design workshops. When folks have an economic, creative and personal stake in a project, when linked to ideas that means something more, it can put violence into a different context.


How can someone get into the niche world of social design as a full-time profession?

In my experience, clients tend to hire you to do the types of things you've already done. If you want to design book jackets, it helps to have a portfolio with a few book jackets in it. To find work in social design, it helps to have done some.

Volunteering or offering discounted work for causes you believe in is a good way to build up a portfolio. I suggest finding an issue or non-profit group that speaks to your ideals and approach them. If that doesn't work, approach someone else. You can also check out Idealist.org, a great source for non-profit consulting work. Or else start a campaign yourself!"

Once you have a body of work, it's easier to apply to full-time positions or find consulting work. I've found that word also spreads and similar groups may start to seek you out as well. This all takes time, but this is how I've done it.

I started out swapping between corporate freelance work and volunteer projects on the side. Eventually, I found paid consulting work for non-profit organizations I like. Now the majority of my consulting work is for non-profits — though I still occasionally volunteer on the side. There's more of my story here.

One side benefit of this approach is that it's a good way to learn about different styles of management and different types of organizations and tactics. You get to see what works and what doesn't, both politically and for yourself. And, though it's not always the case, you sometimes have a bit more creative latitude when the design work is pro-bono.

Bringing together ideas from one of the last posts in your blog (Don't Buy Any Food You've Ever Seen Advertised) and one of the themes approached in your book (Information Design for Consumer Education), I would say that not only "most healthy food is not advertised", but also that most healthy food producers do not offer good, understandable and educational information about their own products. While it is very easy to understand why big brands would prefer to use lots of hyperbolic adjectives instead of clear information, it is hard to grasp why small-medium sustainable-organic-fair-trade producers do not "isotype" their data to the public and start to push new standards this way. If a great deal of consumers are ready to make informed purchases but the growing sector of "good products" producers are not ready to provide it, should not information designers and activists try to take over this task within this emerging sector (offering, for example, suggestions to redesign labels from products they know and approve) and use this opportunity to school consumers? Could you point me cases where that is already happening?

Absolutely. Public education about making healthy food choices is a great way for designers to get involved. Actually, many countries have agencies responsible for promoting public health. I imagine many of these are producing graphics in dire need of skillful redesigning. Find the folks who are working on these issues and offer your services. Or else start producing materials you think are more effective. Those folks may end up finding you!

But there's more to this issue than just consumer education. Center for Urban Pedagogy has done some interesting design centered research and visualization about why some New York City neighborhoods have less access to healthy foods than others. Their work has played into existing campaigns pressuring policy makers to lower burdens that keep grocery stores away (for instance, laws requiring new markets have a certain amount of parking) or creating tax breaks and other incentives for new and existing markets to stock fresh, healthy food. It's a Food Justice movement!

The flip side of this issue is of course why unhealthy food is so cheap and ubiquitous. In the US, the corn and sugar industries receive massive agricultural subsidies from the US government which keeps sweeteners cheap and plentiful. One result is that obesity-related factors are a leading cause of death in the US. The campaign against cheap sweeteners and agricultural subsidies could surely use design help as well.

And finally, I've lately been seeing lots of interesting local movements encouraging people to grow their own healthy foods. I've collected a few links about community gardens, artists and gardeners teaching people how to grow their own. I also recently learned about dinner co-ops as well, a way for small communities to shop in bulk and share the task of cooking a healthy dinner for each other.

From the point of spirit and manifesting what do you ultimately hope to accomplish and what is your hope for the long view?

Each of the campaigns I work on has its own long-term goals. When I work with a non-profit, I like to think that I'm not working for them, but working with them towards these goals. As a friend of mine put it: We work with our clients for the benefit of society.

In my research and writing, I'd like to promote the idea that designers can use their power to make a difference, that grassroots groups can use design to build social movements and political power, and that governments and institutions can use design to increase accessibility and efficiency. Long-term, I'd like designers everywhere see civic engagement as part of their standard practice, not just something extra.

Some days it seems like a tall order, but in the long view I hope to leave this place a little better than when I found it.


NOW: What would you ask Dawn Emerson of Chicago studio Firebelly Design? Click here to leave your questions for Dawn by August 31.

Posted August 26, 2009