There’s a hole in the heart of the modern design practice.
The companies that hire designers can’t be seen to be political; after all, their clients come from every walk of life. But those very same companies then espouse values that, in today’s charged and vitriolic political climate, amount to a political statement all the same. A commitment to inclusion, no matter race or creed? Political. A commitment to social inclusion? Political. A commitment that every citizen deserves access to the polls? Political! A commitment to act upon the global scientific consensus that climate change is real? Political, yet again!
Last November, after the 2016 presidential campaign came to a close, the professional design association AIGA/NY convened Citizen! Designer! Now!, a town hall event centered around the question of what role design should play in this time of tumult. Many participants still hadn’t quite processed how their lives, businesses, and families might be affected. They didn’t know what they could do to protect the enduring and universal values of tolerance, inclusion, and social progress.
One story stood out. One of the event’s panelists, Jake Barton, founder of the design firm Local Projects, happened to be in Washington, D.C., the day after the election. His firm had been talking to the foundation behind President Obama’s presidential library, which is designed to be an educational hub for the South Side of Chicago. Barton was at the White House to speak with Obama about the project.
The mood was somber. Obama’s staffers were downcast and shocked; some seemed to be on the verge of tears. The president paused to measure the room. “Look guys, we didn’t need hope when things were going well,” Barton says Obama told them. “Now is when you need hope.” But optimism shouldn’t be measured by how you feel. It should be measured by what you do.
To push the community forward, the board of AIGA/NY, of which I’m a member, is turning Citizen! Designer! Now! into an ongoing initiative. We’re starting with a pledge to act. To date, that pledge has been signed by some of the best design firms and designers working today: Pentagram, Base, Huge, Work & Co, Google’s Jonathan Lee, Wolff Olins’s Forest Young, and Local Projects’s Jake Barton, to name just a few.
We’re hoping to add more. We’re hoping to add you. The pledge is both concrete and action-oriented. The hope is that signees will push themselves to greater service, and greater engagement with the communities they live in.
The pledge asks that individuals signees commit to:
- Voting in every local election open to us, not just once every four years—while encouraging our friends and family to do the same
- Choosing at least one cause to focus on for learning, knowledge-sharing, and volunteering
- Meeting with fellow Citizen Designers to share stories, tools, learnings, and new action items at least once a quarter
- Attending a local governance session once a quarter
The pledge asks that companies commit to:
- Allowing staff time off to vote in local elections as well as national ones
- Dedicating resources to at least two civic causes per year
- Donating time or resources to support the broader community of Citizen Designers—whether by serving as host, organizer, or sponsor
- Encouraging employees to either donate one working day a quarter to civic causes — more if possible — or participate in internally led civic projects