Influencing the bigger picture. Back to Discussion

9th July 2021

Published by
Kate McGuinness

Can design really affect social change?

Communication design is just one thread in the complex web of social discourse that helps shape our opinions, beliefs, and actions. Design is pervasive, existing in every nook of our lives, and whilst its effect might seem largely invisible, design holds the power of influence.

Creativity has immense potential to transform a culture, and designers are well-poised to incite collective action. Trained to identify problems, explore solutions and exercise the art of persuasion, visual communicators have the potential to be a catalyst for change.

In a heavily distracted world, it’s challenging to cut through the noise and extract the messages that matter most, but as the Kātoitoi 2020 collection shows, a number of Aotearoa designers are making the conscious choice to disrupt the status quo and let their voice be heard.

It can start with a story, an idea or a korero; and like the call of the small manu - the kātoitoi, if that story has a strong, distinctive voice, its noise will travel far. When amplified by a powerful tool like design, messages can take flight, creating a ripple effect that spreads far and wide. Designers show us how small actions can quickly take on a life of their own and when people listen and engage, interesting things can happen.

This essay examines how Aotearoa designers, from individuals to studios and larger agencies, are tackling political, cultural and social issues that touch us here and further afield. To further understand their design mark, we need to recognise the importance of creative agency, what it means to have the courage to act, and how creative voices can be amplified – gathering collective interest, with the goal of leading to tangible impact.

Kate mcguiness illustration digital 2000x3000px

Designers with agency

In 2020, dramatic events quickly unfolded, and within the turmoil of social, political, and environmental challenges, designers showed courage to confront the past, face the now and prepare for what’s ahead.

Where there is collective strength, ideas can challenge existing models of power. In 2020, we observed a shift from the individual mindset to a more communal perspective, placing more emphasis on practitioners to question: what does this work mean for my community and the planet?

Through the growth of digital platforms and social media, communication design has taken on its own political life, though not always for the right reasons, it’s about how we use the tools. Users might still be up against targeted political advertising, but in a ‘democratic’ digital landscape, there is the opportunity to insert your voice and see what unfolds.

Mate Act Now Campaign katoitoi V12

Mate Act Now, a campaign to raise funds for the Australian Bushfire Relief Fund carried the ethos that: “A poster won’t change the world. People’s actions will.” The campaign inspired 300 creatives from New Zealand and around the world to show their digital activism and ultimately had a global reach of over seven million. The creators explain, “Design by itself can't affect change but people can — they just need to be empowered and have the intention to act.” Despite the limitations of lockdown during which our digitally powered voices or in this case our social media accounts and our smartphones...what we choose / or choose not to share is the new ‘protest line’ and helps to define the media landscape and show what we stand for.”

When we start to consider our intentionality, the tone of our message, and the tools we harness in our work, we see how passionate communication design can be used as a vehicle to incite discourse and create real impact.

1 4 The Movement jr2
1 4 The Movement jr3

In the carefully curated campaign for Footnote Dance’s ‘The Movement’, Creature demonstrates intentional design with heart. “Drawing inspiration from the power of the arts to amplify important conversations and provoke change, The Movement is a quadruple bill of powerful new works. Each dance tackles a different issue that has importance to each of the choreographers, ranging from environmental through to societal,” Creature explain, “Inspired by activation campaigns, we photographed each dancer in high energy expressions, creating a campaign that embraced the diverse range of dance pieces.” The aesthetic is fluid and alive, showcasing themes electrically charged by the social discourse they stem from – bringing these important narratives to the forefront.

There is a long history of the creative arts’ influence on social and political interaction. We need only look to music, theatre, and fine art with its long tradition of storytelling to see how these forms can bring large communities together and be a catalyst for real change. When design and self-expression work to counter historical ideologies and long held beliefs, we can see design that empowers, elicits support, and exercises real agency within a community.

Ecology Ropes 4

It takes courage to disrupt

It’s a challenge to step out. As a small nation, a pervading self-consciousness often looms over our actions and we feel a resistance to diverge from the flock. But as design artefacts in Kātoitoi show, departing from the status quo is a necessary and natural response to the limiting narratives we may be surrounded by. Intentionally stepping away from homogenous or colonial worldviews can be essential to bring other stories and practises to the forefront.

Isthmus Group’s design ‘Marine ecology ropes —Te Wānanga’ suggests a tangible solution to serious ecological issues by incorporating local indigenous knowledge. The plans incorporate ecology ropes and supporting waka floats, both, “ integral part of the project and... a successful environmental and ecological initiative that will help improve the biodiversity and health of Tāmaki.” The collaborative project is an innovative initiative for Tāmaki Makarau, and by “...locating the Marine ecology ropes here, [it] draws attention to seawater quality issues in Tāmaki and asks the question around advocacy. One project will not fix the problem, but it can highlight it and demonstrate solutions.” As the design team demonstrates, action doesn’t necessarily mean simply identifying problems, but rather, exploring new opportunities, and for this project, working collaboratively with indigenous experts to better understand the issue.

Kimberley Zhou Screen Shot 2021 06 04 at 3 51 55 PM

Kimberly Zhou’s student project ‘STEREO[TYPE]’ is a critical examination of typeface design used in Chinese takeaways/restaurants. The research delves into the cultural implications of using type as, “a visual shorthand for an entire group.” Zhou explains, “The objective of ‘STEREO[TYPE]’ is to enlighten the morals of designers about the responsibility of visual communication.” The project explores, “the idea that there are many different paths taken by a typeface from its creation, to its status… The case studies use critical thinking to situate the typefaces and show products that hold cultural commodity, to sell the culture and to define its authenticity through the stereotypes they’ve used.”

Both Isthmus Group’s and Zhou’s projects highlight cultural perspectives and knowledge that have historically been overlooked. Their research and design output performs a social commentary about how western methods should make room for other world views – allowing for more diverse approaches to complex issues.

By nature, designers are sensitive types, there’s an awareness of human needs, a curiosity about other cultures, perspectives and understanding how others live. Through a shared visual language, designers have the agency to put commercial interest aside and use the tools at their disposal to empower themselves and others.

Every Kiwi Vote Counts Meddler3

Amplifying voice

The process of amplification begins with one call, traveling rapidly across large expanses to connect with other voices. Public arenas for self-expression and exchange can energise others into a social movement or action. In our heavily distracted world, visual storytelling and social media appears to hold more influence and sway than statistics and facts. Digital media can play a critical role in this process; messages travel quickly, and response is instantaneous. Emotionally charged content on social media can really touch us in a way that influences our decision making and sharing back-and-forth conversation invites us to become part of something larger.

Using social media’s exponential reach, the tongue-in-cheek ‘Meddle in the New Zealand Election’ (from the non-partisan initiative ‘Every Kiwi Vote Counts’) campaign contributed to the highest turnout of overseas voters on record. “We found the real barrier was that they (oversees Kiwis) didn’t think their vote mattered...” the creators commented, “our challenge became to wake them up to their collective influence as a voting bloc – letting them know their vote mattered – and to provocatively invite them to get amongst the NZ election.” Despite a low budget, “Through “provocative context (spread of misinformation) we were able to mobilize more overseas Kiwi than ever before.”

When it comes to addressing power inequity through design, Aotearoa designers are working hard to identify what matters most to them and giving themselves permission to speak up. Part of the process of decolonising design involves a broader agenda, where we are not afraid to depart from the status quo, break the rules and ‘ruffle a few feathers’ so to speak.

Examples such as this are not simply confined to the kaupapa of ‘Politics and Action’ within the pūranga (archive) either. A great deal of the collection carries political undertones which tells us that perhaps designers are inherently political in their approach and engagement with any brief’s connection to the environment, social and cultural injustice.

Aotearoa can aim to design a world in which we all belong; where we can experience a healthier, more equitable future. Like the small kātoitoi shows, there is power in voice and expression, and as the 2020 archive shows, our designers are poised to amplify theirs.

This essay by Kate McGuinness and illustration by Carol Green is part of a commissioned series of essays, interviews and artworks commissioned by Creative New Zealand for our 2020 pilot of the Aotearoa Design Archive.

Creative NZ

Sign in to take your place in our national design conversation by commenting below.