Designing Change: 10 Influencers

Designing Change is such a broad concept that can cover so much ground. Individuals and businesses are taking this to heart when it comes to pro-bono projects. But what types of organizations exist and what types of programs are developing to really take the concept of making a difference to the next level?

photo from Shutterstock

Designers have long struggled with preaching to potential clients the value of good design, and how it’s a key component to elevating their brand. I see cause-driven design as an area where design and communication professionals can show just how influential their craft is by moving forward the mission of a social cause that they identify with.

I started writing the Designing Change column for HOW nearly three years ago. It’s my ongoing quest to spotlight projects and individuals going above and beyond to use their talents as a designer and a communicator to “sell” something other than a product.

Design Business & Graphic Design Career Issue of HOW MagazineIt’s through my work on this column that I’ve discovered an entire network of organizations and programs that exist for this sole purpose. Some are connecting designers to causes in need of design services. Some exist solely to support nonprofit clients. Others are creating something entirely new all on their own. What they all have in common is an intersection of design and social change.

Read about 10 organizations, models, gatherings and groups that are making waves in the design world when it comes to inspiring designers to influence change.

1. Sappi Ideas That matter,

Longtime grant program Ideas That Matter has been fueling creative endeavors that contribute to social change since 1999, donating more than $12M worldwide in support of social causes. Sappi Fine Paper North America started the program to encourage  designers to utilize their craft in such ways. Each year, they issue a call for entries for grant proposals. A committee of independent industry leaders evaluates the proposals and selects those that will receive anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 in funds to support the project. “Ideas That Matter is our industry’s only grant program aimed at helping designers create and implement print projects that serve the charitable activities they [the designers] care about most,” says Patti Groh, marketing communications director at Sappi Fine Paper North America. “By supporting the best conceived projects with funding to produce the work, we felt we could help designers make real and lasting change.”

Four-time Ideas That Matter grant winner Doug Hebert will be profiled in the January 2013 issue in HOW’s Designing Change column. The booklet that he designed below is a part of a series that’s aimed to support and answer questions that the family members of a pancreatic cancer patient may have.

Understanding Pancreatic Cancer Booklet by Doug Hebert

Perfect for: Designers of any level with a well-formed idea in need of grant assistance. Find out more about call for entries information.

2. Firebelly Foundation,

Dawn Hancock is relentless in the best of ways. You place the phone on the receiver after speaking with Dawn and feel instantly better knowing that she is hard at work encouraging design for social good through a variety of channels. Firebelly now means so much more than the Chicago-based studio that she founded in 1999. Through the Firebelly Foundation, Hancock launched Camp Firebelly, an intensive 10-day immersion experience that challenges college students to address social issues through a collaborative project of their own design. Firebelly University is another program that serves as an incubator for aspiring social entrepreneurs. Over the course of nine months, the fellows learn how to turn their passions into careers.

Camp Firebelly Class of 2012

Perfect for: Design students aspiring to make a difference (like the Camp Firebelly Class of 2012, shown above). Or, established designers looking to become social entrepreneurs may be suited for Firebelly University.

3. School of Visual Arts’ Design for Social Innovation MFA,

Do you want to learn how to harness the power of design to create meaningful change through your work? The newly launched MFA Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City may be the graduate program for you. The program, chaired by Cheryl Heller (see her feature “Where is Design Going and How to Be There” in the November 2012 issue of HOW), has a curriculum that encompasses a broad range of issues including conservation, health, food and agriculture, poverty, women’s rights, social justice, fair trade, education and community revitalization. “SVA’s two-year graduate program is the first MFA program to help prepare designers to participate fully in social innovation in all its forms. It will provide students with the design tools, skills and experience they need to become creative leaders in social innovation — unlocking new worlds of potential through mastery of design thinking, innovation, social technologies, data visualization and communication design — at the intersection of business, society and the natural world,” Heller says in literature about the program.

School of Visual Arts Design for Social Innovation MFAPerfect for: Designers and non-designers looking to earn an advanced degree in the field of design for social innovation.

4. Youth Design,

Youth Design, piloted in Boston, was founded in 2003 by Denise Korn (second from front right in photo below), principal/owner of Korn Design. The program introduces talented high school students to careers in design through a summer internship program where they work with designers of all types in professional environments. The idea is to cultivate design interest and a potential career path for inner-city kids, all while planting the seed for students to attend college and major in a creative field. “We want to really cultivate the next generation of diverse professionals,” says Dhakir Warren, Youth Design program manager. “To help them see the correlation between academic persistence and economic viability.”

In addition to students receiving a paid summer internship and a feather in their cap when it comes to applying to design programs, they also receive the invaluable experience of working with a mentor who is at a senior level. According to a Youth Design brochure, mentoring organizations range from boutique graphic design firms to the creative departments of major corporations, and from printing companies to advertising and technology agencies. “Empowerment is an amazing thing. When students are empowered, they’re vested in a positive outcome in their future,” Warren says. “Their experience in this program really helps them matriculate into college.”

Youth Design, founded by Denise Korn

Get Involved: Youth Design seeks mentors to host interns, sponsors and donations to help the program be available to more students, and volunteers to help Youth Design recruit mentors and organize events. Find out more.

5. PieLab,

The premise is masterful and feeds human instincts: Make pie and people will gather. But there’s more to it once you get past that tasty crust. PieLab, founded in 2009 as a Project M initiative in collaboration with Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization, Inc., hopes to foster more than a satisfied appetite. Situated in Greensboro, AL, the shop serves as a gathering place for people of all walks of life to come together and discuss community-oriented change, which may or may not involve design at the core.

The idea is simple: Empower people to make their community better, all while enjoying a sweet slice of pie.

Get Involved: Simply stop in to PieLab or a community gatherings with like-minded goals. The point is to engage in dialogue to create community-oriented change and initiatives. You can do that anywhere.

6. Joey’s Corner, (Designers & Studios Looking to Create Impact)

Designers and studios are looking to maximize their impact by formalizing their process to tackle nonprofit work. Two models that seem to be most prevalent are either nonprofit design studios, which exist solely to serve nonprofit clients on a pro-bono basis, or design studios that award their services a few times a year to a nonprofit on a pro-bono basis. Here are examples of each:

Michael Osborne, founder of San Francisco-based Michael Osborne design, started Joey’s Corner to honor his deceased son Joseph Michael Osborne. The goal of creating a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization was to help more nonprofit clients on an ongoing basis by having a dedicated staff of designers. Joey’s Corner evaluates nonprofits through an application process, accepting projects that align with their mission and availability.

Osborne, a recipient of Ideas That Matter grants, describes in a video produced by Sappi why Joey’s Corner is his passion and why he feels like designers are in such a powerful position to positively impact nonprofits.

Michael Osborne Ideas That Matter

Click on the image above to watch the video.

Words to Ponder: Think about this quote from Michael Osborne: “We have a craft and a skill that most people do not have. And that craft has power. The end result of what we’re doing … is more meaningful in a huge way. One million times than what it used to be because we need it one million times more.”

7. Matchstic, (Designers & Studios Looking to Create Impact)

When Blake Howard, co-founder of Atlanta-based Matchstic, first opened the doors to his branding agency, he couldn’t help but say “yes” to pro-bono requests, but this often presented many obstacles in the day-to-day operations of the studio.

Something had to give — and it couldn’t be the paying clients. It was time to practice what they preach and apply focus to their pro-bono approach — creating On The House—Matchstic’s annual campaign that gives one deserving nonprofit an entire brand makeover. On The House takes on one nonprofit as a client for an entire year, breathing new life into every aspect of the brand. So far, they’ve overhauled multiple organizations, including a school for children with dyslexia and Atlanta Mission, the city’s largest homeless ministry.

Narrowing it down from hundreds of applicants to one for such a generous gift is a daunting task that involves a democratic vote among Matchstic staffers and an interview process with the three finalists. During the yearlong process, the agency seeks out and collaborates with Atlanta-based professionals, including PR firms, web developers, photographers and printers, asking them also to donate their time and resources in the same fashion.

The firm took on Beltline Bike Shop as its 2011 client, a neighborhood organization that gives children the opportunity to earn a bike through community service.

Beltline Bike Shop

Take Action: Do you work in a studio environment or are you a design firm owner? Consider a model similar to Matchstic’s On the House program. Focus on a pre-determined number of nonprofit clients per year in a pre-determined timeframe and hold an application process to find the perfect fit for your firm.

8. EPIC,

EPIC simplifies the process of designing for nonprofits by creating a model where expectations are straightforward when designer volunteers are matched with nonprofit clients. EPIC, supported by HOW and Print, provides an infrastructure in many ways, from choosing skilled volunteers to selecting Chicago-area nonprofits that have well-defined project needs. The two groups, matched together by EPIC, then work for a set time period of eight weeks in what they call a creative rally to complete the project. Compass to Care, which pays for the travel arrangements of cancer patients’ families, teamed up with EPIC for the creation of a website to support its mission and fundraising goals.

Compass to Care

Perfect for: Chicago or Minneapolis-based creatives looking to donate their services to a nonprofit for an 8-week rally. Apply to volunteer.

9. DesigNYC,

DesigNYC, founded in 2009 by a group of NYC design leaders, states its mission simply: Improving the lives of New Yorkers through the power of good design. Similar to EPIC’s approach, the organization connects designers to causes in New York City. This includes local issues of any type needing a design solution, such as a new identity and signage for Compost for Brooklyn.

desigNYC helps Compost for Brooklyn

Mark Your Calendar: On Wednesday, Oct. 3, desigNYC will celebrate its 2012 collaborations at its annual event and exhibit opening. RSVP to attend!

10. Gain: AIGA Design for Social Value Conference & Other Events,

AIGA offers several events that encourage and inspire designers to give back using their craft, including Gain: AIGA Design for Social Value Conference, which just wrapped up earlier in October. This event brought together industry leaders to share their approaches on creating social value. Speakers included Emily Pilloton, Project H Design founder, Patrice Martin, IDEO.ORG co-lead and creative director, and many more.


Best of luck to all of you as you aim to inspire the world around you through your design work. Keeping that inspiration alive by telling stories is how I hope to do my part. Please tell your story below in the comment field, sharing information about your projects or organization below.



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