Citizen! Designer! Now!

How can design inspire, inform, and empower?

AIGA NY hosted a townhall discussion to address these questions and define design’s role in the Trump era.

Moderated by AIGA NY board member Cliff Kuang, I was honored to be part of a panel including Jake Barton, Principal and Founder, Local Projects and Christine Gaspar, Executive Director, CUP: Center for Urban Pedagogy.

Part therapy session, part organizing brainstorm, the event generated urgent imperatives from varied perspectives for designers fired up to take a stand:

Don’t be discouraged.
Destruction and defeat can galvanize action. It took the tearing down of Penn Station to usher in protections for Grand Central Station and to make us rethink our relationship with the architecture of the past. Designers should see this moment as an opportunity to protect the rights that matter to them.

Help craft the rallying cry.
We have to design like writers again. Writers and designers share the burden of staleness of imagery and lack of precision. All of the Orwellian heavy-hitters: meaningless words, pretentious diction, passive slogans are standing in the way of uniting the broad left. What’s the single, fresh arresting phrase that will shake us out of our complacency? That’s what we should all be thinking about, talking about, working on.

Don’t start from scratch.
There is temptation to be creative and start something new, but devoting your talents to an existing movement can be the fastest and easiest way to make a significant impact. Plug into local government or offer your talents to small nonprofits that may soon be losing funding.

Create better experiences for activists and organizers.
A new generation of citizens are getting involved politically but there are a limited number of things they can do—sign a petition, attend a protest, show a sign of solidarity. All of these things are important, but they are dead ends. What comes after? Designers should further discuss how can we design better experiences for activists and organizers in the coming year.

Listen to someone you disagree with.
Designers are trained in empathy. We can use these skills to bridge the gap between right and left through dialogue—whether we are having a one-on-one conversation or designing a social tool. Just as we do during a design critique, we should separate the person from their work. Don’t critique the person; critique their words to facilitate a meaningful dialogue about volatile topics.

But don’t just listen. Create.
Part of our advantage as designers is that we’re able to wield precision and abstraction with the same sword—but we don’t do it frequently enough. Designers should proactively produce more content to reach both broad and specific audiences across the country, especially in red states. Listening too attentively and being too patient allowed for the other side take control of the narrative in the 2016 election.

Pop your bubble.
Get out of your comfort zone and look for partnerships and collaborators you have never considered. What opportunities lie beyond your network? Who are the underserved or overlooked members of your community who could benefit most from your services?

Turn your talent to government.
The rise of UX design over the past decades has made consumer products effortless to use, and now it’s time for designers to turn their focus to how government works. There is a lack of involvement in our electoral system because of the high barrier to even understanding how the law works. Designers need to simplify government so that ordinary citizens can take part and challenge outdated conventions (such as voting on Tuesdays).

Work where you are.
Not all designers can work at nonprofits or purpose-driven agencies (though we are hiring). Enact change at your current job through the images you choose, the stories you tell, and coordinating with departments such as HR to increase diversity or start a corporate volunteering program. If you see something offensive, speak up. Don’t be afraid of discomfort. Stay confident and have difficult conversations. Push yourself, your workplace, and your clients for equity.

Run for office.
What if designers were also policy makers? What if before penning legislation, politicians conducted user research? Use your design skills outside your current profession to create lasting change.

Hungry for more? You can watch the full discussion here: