John Waters | Essays

Design Ethos: A Bugle of Change

Image from Jessica Little's Youth Photo Project, winner of a 2010 Sappi Ideas That Matter grant

For too long now the ethos of graphic design — the fundamental sentiment that guides the practice of design and the activities of designers — has been understood as a link between suppliers and consumers. Many designers have defined their primary role as communication problem-solvers for their clients (suppliers), providing communications materials that create desire and motivate target audiences (consumers). This is not altogether wrong. However, it is woefully misleading, limited in scope and lacks clear values.

If we do nothing more than change a few words in the key phase — from link between supplier and consumer to bridge between information and purpose — we suggest a much broader arena of activity and imply substantially increased value. Today’s graphic designers do much more than solve communications problems. They research social, cultural and commercial trends, analyze changing values, brainstorm ideas and convert their findings into new messages, artifacts and experiences. Yes, this is sometimes about solving a communications problem. More often, it is about defining what the problem is and where opportunities exist for new ideas.

This is the mission of design thinking, which Tim Brown, in Change by Design, succinctly defines as, “…to translate observations into insights and insights into products and services that will improve lives.” How simple yet profound.

It is time to change the way nearly everyone views graphic design.

Here’s a good example. And it’s an idea that just won a 2010 Sappi Ideas That Matter grant. SCAD graphic design MFA student Jessica Little, working with photography MFA candidate Frazer Spotwart and Jason Riffe, a SCAD alum and fashion photographer, started the Youth Photo Project (YPP) in 2008. The idea of YPP was to educate, inspire and then promote the photographic work of at-risk youth as a means of raising awareness and funds for their future. The YPP group provided 40 black-and-white disposable cameras to the youth of Covenant House, one of the largest privately funded childcare agencies in the country, and after providing basic instruction on photography, left the students to carry the cameras around for two weeks and document their lives. The cameras were then collected and processed by members of the YPP group. The images were culled with the assistance of Julian Cox, curator of photography at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and Click, the first gallery show, was held in December 2008 at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery in Atlanta.

This was about more than creating and displaying images, and it was certainly more than solving a client's communication problems. It allowed underprivileged youngsters to look at their world from a different point of view, it brought awareness to Covenant House, it allowed visitors to the show to interact with the photographers and members of Covenant House, and it served as a fund-raiser, as all proceeds of the show were donated to Covenant House. With the grant from Sappi, this program will continue and expand, and YPP will soon have a new website.

Here’s another example. A simple idea that started back in 2002 and has grown to become a global collaboration of multinational corporations and NGOs in countries around the world. The idea is that handwashing with soap is the single most cost-effective health intervention. According to the Global Handwashing Day Toolkit, “A $3.35 investment in handwashing brings the same health benefits as an $11.00 investment in latrine construction, a $200.00 investment in household water supply, and an investment of thousands of dollars in immunization.”

But here is the best part. WASH United, a coalition of international and African civil society organizations, United Nations agencies, governments and leading actors from the world of football, developed the Blue Hand Game. The game involves covering a leather ball with blue chalk, explaining to the children playing the game that the blue chalk represents germs, then throwing the ball back and forth among the participants. After about two minutes there is a hand check and all participants can clearly see they have some “germs” on their hands. This is a terrific example of visual communications as a primary education tool, design as a means of social change, and multi-group collaboration as a process to make it all real. This is the new design ethos.

"Words are the bugles of change," Charles Handy wrote in The Age of Unreason. "When our langauge changes, behavior will not be far behind."

Editor’s note: From October 7 to 9, the Savannah College of Art and Design will host the Design Ethos conference to discuss the future of design and designers’ responsibility to the world. Speakers include Jonathan Baldwin, John Bielenberg, Cheryl Heller, Terry Irwin, Cameron Tonkinwise and Change Observer’s William Drenttel. For more information, designethos.org.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design

Comments [16]

I think the argument reaches too far in assuming that ideas developed by graphic designers are graphic design.

If any ideas about graphic design should be changed, it's that graphic designers should stop trying to contextualize actions and ideas within the practice of graphic design. An anthropologist could just as easily claim that their practice is in play with these examples, same goes for photographers or footballers (depending on the shape of that leather ball).

Better to consider that things may be done with graphic design than as graphic design. This is the era of the collabo and mash-up, the sample and the collage. Best to think of new ideas in a holistic sense, a goal-oriented creative synthesis, with the outcome as the definition.
Nate B

Maybe I am reading the article incorrectly, but I believe that is what he was saying Nate.

Conceiving ideas "holistically" is the point of the article.
Steven Allen

Thank you Steven. This is precisely what I was trying to say. Graphic designers need to get beyond the narrow definitions commonly used to define what we do, and focus on the implications of what we do.

Graphic designers also need to develop a new language for what they do. Solving communications problems for any client who will pay the bill is just not enough.

For a different slant on this topic, you might want to read "Is it time to rethink the T-shaped designer?"


I absolutely think that designers should summon all of our capabilities to work for the betterment of our world, but in doing so we should not forget what it is that makes us distinctive and valuable. In the mad heady rush for solving the world's problems, sociological and otherwise, I am concerned that we are forgetting to develop deep skills and expertise in the visual arena. Such understanding of visual form is not formalistic, it is foundational. Design students: beware of what you don't know and too often are not being taught!

What this article speaks to is the need for designers (and all thinkers, for that matter) to be fully engaged as human beings. I don't think it's about redefining or changing the language used to describe what we do. I hate to be a cynic, but that sounds to me like a new angle for our sales pitch. The examples shown, while initiated by designers, have more to do with humanity than design. That's why they matter. At any rate, great article. Thought-provoking, as usual.

When I first started reading this, I thought about college and all of the GD 101's I took. It seems to me they need to broaden the range of information that is being taught. It's good to have history, because without it we wouldn't be here, but it's also important to keep up to date with what's going on around you. This article just strengthens the point that we all need to live in the moment and take in what's around us. Design is constantly evolving and so are we, so I applaud this article for showing some of the ways some of us are already doing that.

Is painting just colours on canvas? Of course not. It used to be, in 1810. What defines painting among other arts, is a certain approach.
The same with graphic design. Do a certain medium or certain tools create graphic design? Or it's just someone's approach visible in some object / action, that tells us: oh, you must catallogue it as graphic design. If I can show to a child, what bacterias are, by playing a game, do I really need a printed manual? What would be in that manual, the best? Pictures of children playing with a blue chalk ball. If this is the right visual shortcut, why not to cut the shortcut shorter, still visually?

The Blue Hand Game is certainly brilliant and probably a very effective teaching tool. But, what makes it an example of "Design" or "Design Thinking?" Couldn't just as easily have been thought up by a school teacher seeking a good way to impart information to his/her students?

Tim Brown's definition of design thinking sounds to me like it could be the mission statement of countless NGOs. It is, in essence, simply this: We're going to go out in the field, see what problems exist, and figure out what we can do to make peoples' lives better.

I met some Catholic Nuns this year who developed a program to educate unemployed inner-city women (many of them single mothers) to become certified nurse assistants then help them get jobs in the field. It acknowledges and addresses a number of problems, and makes a real improvement in the lives of the women who go through the program. Very inspiring. The nuns designed and implemented this whole project--which has been very successful. So I guess they were doing design thinking in the process? If they were, they probably did not even realize it. They'd call it "ministry."

What I am getting at here is that lots of people engage in stuff that sounds an awful lot like "Design Thinking." Is Design Thinking exclusive to people in the design profession, or to people with a design education? I kind of feel like it is an overreach for designers to try to brand this as "Design Thinking" and claim it as their own.

If the Nuns I mention were NOT doing Design Thinking, then why not?
Rob Henning

I have always understood visual design (Graphic, Photography, Typography) as a small but integral part of a larger mission. It just happens to be the part that I can do. Whether you prefer to describe this undertaking as "Design Thinking" or "Ministry" is not as important as understanding the power it has over driving people towards specific and positive actions.

Designers obviously have differing opinions of what "Positive" means, however. Do I make the world a better place or do I pay my rent? All I can say is that there a lot of people worse off than me who are working towards these goals and still living incredibly rich lives. A question I often ask is: Will I feel good about this work when I'm explaining it to someone I respect?

This kind of designer will always work towards the betterment of the world and improving the lives of people around them, and their creations will always be more honest, unique, useful and yes, beautiful than the designs created by those simply and crassly targeting consumers.

So yes. The nuns were doing this right, no matter what you call it, and yes I think you can practice this type of design and still maintain a healthy amount of cynicism. :-)
Matt Ipcar

My question is this: As graphic design shifts to incorporate non-visual and format-agnostic approaches to solving social problems, will our newfound motivations and intentions as designers shift as well? If we're not careful, will we be right back where we started with a convoluted web of overlapping commercial interests propelling our creative work?

As "design thinking" grows as a pitchable buzz phrase and is used as a means to market to clients our intangible contributions as designers, I caution all of us who engage in the practice of creative problem solving to be wary.

As creating solutions with positive social impact becomes increasingly popular as a result of being promoted and articulated by designers, entities with vested commercial interests will wrangle the skills and insights intended for positive change and implement them to sell more of their product.

I am not saying this is altogether bad. Surely it's a positive thing if advertising efforts also create ripples of positive social impact. The Pepsi Refresh project. Levi's presence in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Levi's Workshops in San Francisco and New York as part of the We are all Workers campaign. These projects certainly strengthen communities and invigorate the cultural landscape. But they are still advertising campaigns. The end goal is still to sell more soda and sell more jeans.

So, if this discussion of design thinking's implications for the role of our discipline to have positive social impact grew out of a desire to redefine graphic design from a place of commercial servitude that "lacks clear values," we must remain aware of who and what is beginning to command our methods and skills. If design thinking is (at least in part) a reaction to an uncomfortably close relationship with commercial interests, we need to be careful that we don't end up practicing the same graphic design we're questioning.
Nicole Lavelle

Indeed, new approaches shifting graphic design into a field of real-world gameplay can surely be used as a new lid serving concealment of existing practices that "lack clear values".
But, in other hand, I am not sure, if any clear values exist, as everything we believe in, is culture-driven.
Whatever we look at, even the art, is a kind of market; so there is no escape.
Our goal is not to save the world - that's dangerous and impertinent - but rather to show that the small things can be different. Not necessarily new (it sounds like "NEW!"), just different - so once, we'll produce a chain reaction, because if the small things can be different, there is a way to change the bigger ones.

i agree with many of the sentiments above, this is a case of mistaken and changing identity. independent disciplines can no longer survive without including neighboring fields. the beast has in a way lost its face. the fields of design since expanding into new facets, blooming into new areas of human interaction, machines of human emotion and social change have begun to overlap. like folds on a brain they have become interconnected and have not only transcended medium but have emerged to perverse and encompass a trans-diciplinary demeanor. with it the conviction and responsibility to see how each part moves in the larger machine.

our brains are geniuses in finding patterns. at the basis, we make sense of everything from visceral reflex. the danger in this is it too breaches visual boundaries into our modes of defining more abstract thoughts. such as the designer.
which is the reason so many designer i think feel misunderstood by the client.
because so many seek to find rigid ways of systematically understanding "what we do" there foresight only sees the designer as a mere translator of business. i think and in some ways the designer is guilty of the same sin.

its trouble is in the simplification. its reduction. and the way it diminishes these complex ideas. we are all a bit of each other doing more and more. and so more and more do we realize that the designer is the problem-solver the creator, the storyteller, the scientist and anthropologist, the musician, artist, dancer, and potter. just as the potter is the musician is the artist is the designer... etc etc.
i think the emphasis is best left away from trying to define what the "graphic" is kept away from the title designer, and looked at only as a set of ideas.
ultimately we are all synthesizer people bound by the idea that was has be done and what has been said is still not enough. the builders, the thinkers, and the explorers of attraction.
Brandon Nygard

This dialog is the result of technology mainstreaming graphic design. The lines are blurred. Art and Design, which used to walk side-by-side, hand-in-hand, are now in bed together; a tangle of limbs and bodily fluids.

Delivery mediums and audiences exposed to those mediums have broadened (almost) immeasurably. Neither of the two mentioned case studies are graphic design. The originators came to each project with a message and devised a methodology to deliver it. Evocatively. Artfully.

The very principal of graphic design(ers) is that it performs as a service- a conduit of critical thinking and skill linking a message to its audience; not simply a collection of actions serving as a means to an end. Before cheap cameras, typesetting, printing and access to delivery methods were readily available, someone who wanted to convey a particular type of message relied upon experts to make that happen. That is no longer the case and so, graphic design has become a pedestrian and possibly antiquated term, misunderstood (still) my most, and adopted by many.

The problem is that most definitions of design don't consider criteria to evaluate the process and results.

We've worked for a while trying to establish these criteria, in opposition to the ubiquitous mercenary-understanding of the discipline. Please check this PDF:

Emiliano Godoy

Does it really matter what we call it? I hate the old "what is graphic design" debate.
As designers we are communicators, we translate unadorned information into a language of vision and sensibility. We beg people to hear our work for a living.
I do think that graphic designers may have a deeper vision and how to convey it than regular folks. If that means branching out into any area of thought, media, cause, or action- so be it. I don't need a label on something to appreciate it.
Chris k

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