Public Policy: Design and The World Around Us

Now, this title might confuse some people who aren’t in the field or who may just be starting out, mostly because when we as a society think of design, we don’t also immediately think about public policy or healthcare or social change. I think we can all conceptualize that, yes, there might be some design in these aspects of life just to make them look presentable and consumable, but the impact of graphic design goes much farther than just adding a fresh coat of paint and a branding manual for a movement.

Design, just as with any creative vocation, has a process, a method to the madness that brings us from initial brief to completed project. We cannot skip portions of our process and expect get to a successful result. It includes research, it includes first drafts, second drafts, eleventh drafts; it involves second opinions, inspiration, feedback. It’s an entire scientific process that is unique to every designer and every firm. That being said, most of us already understand what a process is. When scientists go through their own grueling scientific research process in order to reveal something new to the world, we generally listen. When policy makers go through deliberation to come up with new bill, they must go through a trial and error process until the bill becomes a law that we all must follow. So why is it when us in the creative field think we’re onto something, it always seems that only those within our niche are listening? Designer’s understanding of the process allows us to become integrated into it just as much as any scientist.

I’m not saying the future of quantum physics or genetics actually rests in the hands of a designer and not someone who specializes in that field, but just as a lot of other aspects overlap the sciences, many fields overlap design as well. Public and Foreign policy, consumerism, social change, technology, business, psychology, marketing, entertainment— so much of how we see and enjoy the world can be linked to some form of design.

Probably the most common way people link design to important aspects of our community would be through campaigns and infographics. A well-designed social campaign, advocating for some cause, whether the population agrees or disagrees with it, does sway the masses. A carefully crafted icon can indeed go viral and become the latest pop culture symbol of resistance. This sort of following is what can inspire the public into action and bring a voice to a movement that may not have a one.

Effective infographics present what most people would see as complex data and a lot of technical jargon into a visual form that captures the imagination, easily explains the information, and bridges the gap between the research and the public. There are people in the world who can read a report and understand it entirely but if you’re anything like me, visuals just make an idea sing. I’m a visual learner and just being able to actually see what’s attempting to be told to me tends to work way better than a lecture; and I’m sure the same could be said for most of you!

We like ease. We have become accustomed to snippets of facts in less than 280 characters. To really grab the people’s attention, the world of activism, marketing, and public influence has turned to graphics because they understand that design can be used to visualize the potential future in front of us— and, more importantly, to gauge whether or not this the future we want to create.

It is always about trying to pin the future down. This is something we are absolutely not interested in; when it comes to technology, future predictions have been proven wrong again and again. In our view, it is a pointless activity. What we are interested in, though, is the idea of possible futures and using them as tools to better understand the present and to discuss the kind of future people want, and, of course, one’s people do not want.
— Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, from Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming

Just as with the work done by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, a growing number of other like-minded designers are becoming involved in design research labs across the world and are attempting to push the boundaries on what design thinking can be involved in. While the world of speculative design and this level of forward thinking with no client in sight might seem daunting to some designers, it is a reality we must all be aware of.

All those who work for the government have the means, the education, and the innovation to bring something new and bold to the table and it’s their daily choice if they keep doing the same old, same old or if they lace up their boots (or perhaps loafers?) and try to better the world. Medical professionals, lawyers, scientists, mathematicians, students, teachers, factory workers, social workers, historians, artists, musicians— everyone who has an education in something has a voice and, I’d say, a responsibility to use what they know to bring some form of positive change into the world whether it be at a local scale or an international one. And designers are included in this list.

We do have a voice and what we do does have value to the modern world. We, as a necessity of our occupation, think differently. Design thinking, or the concept of identifying alternative strategies for seemingly simple problems in order to generate better solutions, is a brilliant way of thinking that not everyone is using. The lack of this sort of thinking is what produces stagnant ideas and short-term solutions that, in the end, we all have to pay for. So, please, allow the dialogue to begin, allow the conversation to start because if everyone everywhere used some form of design thinking and were formulating good solutions, there probably wouldn’t be as many problems as there are currently in the world. Design is not really the end of what designers do; we mostly create solutions.

And, for those of us that do decide to pursue a better tomorrow, your idea must follow that previously mentioned process. Everyone’s process is different, but for the idea to remain successful, a lot of work must be put into it. A law doesn’t get put in place just because enough people like it or everyone agrees it’s a good idea. All that research, planning, and development has to happen before it gets the green light for implementation. That’s how foolproof ideas are created. That’s how we target an idea so that it can efficiently and successfully help it’s intended audience.

Color, form, aesthetic; all these aspects of design do help the cause but without a strong strategy, the metaphorical backbone to the entire project, the idea loses its luster. It’s the melding of thoughtfulness, consideration for the audience, what impact this design is meant to have plus the visual cues that will come together to support the end goal.

Moving forward…I feel guilty! After all this talk about using your voice for positive change, I realized I let down one of my chances to do exactly that! As many of my old design school peers will remember, our final thesis to finish up our degree was to pick a social problem that means a lot to us and try and find a solution for it. I chose Puerto Rico’s unstable relationship with the US; how can I bring awareness to the fact that Puerto Ricans are treated as second-class citizens in terms of rights? How can I let people know on the mainland that such a tiny island is being run by the US Congress and still has so many problems, debt and poverty— nearly all of it caused by US policy?

I was happy with my project, and proud of what I did…and I haven’t touched it since graduating. That topic still resonates with me and now, with a little more experience under my belt and a louder voice, I feel I could do it better. Do it bigger. Now, there’s a lot of problems that hit home with me starting with illnesses that affect my family members, poverty in my community, inequality towards women, and I’d love to tackle everything head on with full force, but I think it’s time for me to head back to basics of design thinking. At least I know what my next personal project is going to be!