World-Changing Brand Design That Works: 5 Case Studies

The new book Designing for Social Change is an inspiring collection of projects that prove graphic design isn’t all corporate logos and glossy page layouts.


So you want to change the world. But all you’ve got is a graphic design degree and an exquisite knack for frothy page layouts. No problem. In Designing for Social Change: Strategies for Community-Based Graphic Design, author Andrew Shea ticks off 10 strategies for navigating your own socially relevant design project.


Some of these are common sense (identify the community’s strengths, promise only what you can deliver). Others perhaps less so. For instance, Shea calls on designers to “confront controversy,” which at first might sound too, well, confrontational. People don’t want some outsider to sweep in and start howling about what’s wrong with them. But Shea insists that tackling sensitive issues–misinformation about predatory lending in poor neighborhoods, say–is the designer’s job and will ultimately help generate better ideas. Here are some of the strategies that the projects above use:

  1. Build Trust.
    No Hooks Before Books was a promotional campaign for an after-school boxing program in West Baltimore. At first, graduate graphic design students Mark Alcasabas and Virginia Sasser volunteered to do a quick redesign of the program’s flyer. Then they started to bond with the kids, teachers, and trainers. Soon, they’d earned enough trust to whip up other promo materials, including a crisp 32-page tabloid newspaper aimed at attracting donors.

  2. Promise Only What You Can Deliver.
    “Avoid trying to solve all of the community’s needs,” Shea writes. The narrower your scope, the better. The creators of Safari 7 wanted to teach city dwellers about the natural environment they live in–which could’ve been a huge undertaking. Instead, they whittled down their idea to something they could manage with limited time and money: a self-guided tour of urban wildlife on the 7 subway line in New York. By MTWTF and Columbia University’s Urban Landscape Lab.

  3. Prioritize Process.
    Shea urges designers to follow a standardized design process no matter how messy the project gets. For Made in Midtown, a campaign to preserve midtown Manhattan’s declining Garment District, the Design Trust for Public Space laid out a scope, budget, and timeline for the project, and stuck to it. This was crucial because city officials were threatening to lift key zoning laws that protect the Garment District’s manufacturing hubs; the Design Trust and its assorted partners had to disseminate their message fast. They created a website, filled it with vibrant data visualizations, and mounted a pop-up exhibit. The strategy worked. The city eventually dropped its rezoning proposal.

  4. Design With The Community’s Voice.
    Public Architecture tapped MendeDesign to create The 1% User Manual, a guide that encourages collaboration between architects and nonprofit organizations. How do you design one manual for two very different communities? Jeremy Mende’s clever solution was to take two volumes and bound them together inversely. One side is written for architects; the other for nonprofits.

  5. Immerse Yourself.
    Green Patriot Posters was a bus ad campaign in Cleveland that positioned environmental advocacy as an act of patriotism. The designers’ original vision was to extensively research what sustainability themes resonated with people around the city. Unfortunately, they never secured enough funding, and in the end, the ads–which went up on 80 buses–didn’t have much of an impact. Edward Morris, the project leader, says the campaign would’ve been more successful had he and his team immersed themselves in the community.

Check out our slideshow for more details. And may InDesign drones everywhere be inspired to venture out into the world and help others prosper!

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D