Graphic Design for Social Good: an Interview

I was approached recently by a graduating college student who’s interested in entering the non-profit world as a graphic designer. They asked why I decided to work for a non profit and ideas about being a professional designer without a degree in that field. I’m really passionate about both topics so thought I would share my opinions here as well.

My education
Missouri State: it’s a public state university, not a fine arts school, but at the time I was attending it was nationally recognized for having a killer graphic design/illustration program. Not being able to afford a private art school, this was the best option for me.

By the time I was a senior, I was really worried about the field I was getting myself into. I hadn’t even started and was already getting burned out with advertising and marketing! My teachers had a strong emphasis on professional integrity and using your design skill as a force for good, but I feared that no matter where I went beyond classroom, my job would be convincing people to buy things they didn’t want and didn’t need.

[An aside: Since then, I’ve really been encouraged by discovering that almost all good designers have this fear, which is why there is currently this growing movement of ‘design for good’ pro bono designers, who focus a portion of their energy on a problem they care about without compensation. The compensation is knowing that the message you’re crafting will make a positive impact on society, plus the higher level of creative freedom you get when you forgo pay. Win-Win….sometimes.]

So, is my first non-freelance design job and I can’t imagine a more worthy cause I could participate in. Upon getting the job I gave myself a crash-course in water systems / utilities and international development because, although curious, I was totally uneducated about the topics beforehand. I wouldn’t say I have comprehensive knowledge now, but for the sake of communication I think it’s better to strike a balance between technical accuracy and common language that my audience is going to be familiar with.

Our mission is a cross between Raising Funds to support the programs that we actually implement in the field (unlike a lot of US non-profits that just act as a fundraising arm for a big NGO) and Raising Awareness/educating people about the Water Crisis. These two goals make the work for our Communications team a lot more interesting than the old-school sad-eyed poster child approach.

Regarding a degree
I’m probably biased, but I have a hard time imagining myself being successful in the design field without having gone through a degree program. Not that every class was great, but the experience of getting professional critique and art direction from my teachers, and absorbing the creative energy of a classroom of 12-20 designers, was extremely valuable to my education and seems difficult to reproduce. I mean, the entire final[ semester was singularly focused on building a kick-ass portfolio. You might see if you can audit a class at a local school? It would be worth looking into. I think its worth noting that, for a majority of design students in my graduating class, graphic design was their second or third degree program they’d participated in or graduated from.

My best advice for learning design outside of an academic program would be:

1) Experience. Create your own assignments/projects or do random projects for other people. Posters are a great place to start: they’ve got a limited scope and really challenge you to distill your message into somthing impacting and visual.

2) Apprentice. If you have any friends who are designers, see if you can shadow them for a few days and see their workflow, techniques, toolbox, how they interact with clients. Don’t do this until you’ve gotten through some practice projects and are frustrated with your process… you’ll get more out of the apprentice experience that way.

3) Books. Get familiar with basic art history and graphic design through the past century. 95% of modern graphic design is recycled from previous eras and if you learn how those styles work you have a better foundation to start from and better appreciation for what you see. See if you can find a book list from a college curriculum and order the ones with the most pictures. (aside: I put “books” here instead of “read” because its more important, at least for me, looking at the examples than reading the literature. IMHO graphic design books are THE WORST when it comes to pretentious writing!)

Well, reading back I see I haven’t talked very much about what my current job is like yet, so that’ll be in the next update. What do you think? What have you seen that most inspires you? In graphic design? in engineering? in the developing world?