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Book review: Design Activists Handbook

Posted by Marc van Gurp | 16-02-2013 22:00 | Academy | Category: Design, Ethics, Reviews

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I started my working career in a printing house. It was in the late seventies, early eighties during the turbulent times in Amsterdam. The glory days of the squatting and anti-nuclear movement.
It was a logical choice to start my working career within those movements. Because of my study and interest in graphic design it all began in a human and environment friendly printing house. Looking back it was an important step in my life.
Consciousness of the things you do. We discussed almost everything. From the choice of printing paper to the content of the printed work. Together and with the clients and suppliers. That wasn’t easy sometimes. Buying a printing press was difficult because of the industry cartel. Recycled paper was hardly made. And suppliers laugh at us when we asked for linseed oil ink.

Those memories came back while reading the Design Activist Handbook from Noah Scalin and Michelle Taute. ‘How to Change the World (Or at Least Your Part of It) with Socially Conscious Design’ is the subtitle and it perfectly describes what the book is about.

David Berman in the foreword:
“It’s easy to dwell on the world’s troubles, but we live in a truly remarkable time. As designers, we are the stewards of knowledge. And it has never been easier, never less expensive, never more immediate, to send messages over great distances to larger and larger populations.”

He is right. A designer is the center point between client (or a cause) and the intended audience. Therefore a designer have the power to influence both sides. That applies not only to graphic designers but to all applied arts.

Just step inside your mental time machine and go back to the Bush vs. Gore presidential election in 2000. All those confusing ballots and hanging chads in Florida should be coming back to you right about now. It’s not a stretch to say that design— or in this case the lack thereof—may have changed that election’s outcome. If there had been a clearer, more functional ballot, would Al Gore have become president? And perhaps adopted the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions? We’ll never know, but it’s a reminder of how much power stems from design, both good and bad?

What really surprised me about the book is that it is not a political work in general. It is a very practical guide.

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The book contains a number of questionnaires.

The book is divided roughly into two parts. The main part is the practical guide with chapters about materials, clients, responsibility etc. It isn’t about design in the first place. It is how to become a designer with a conscious mind.
The chapters are interspersed with interviews and portraits of designers and design collectives.

One of the most important parts in the book is the multipoint philosophy which Noah Scalin has determined for his own company

- Provide high-quality design for clients whose work benefits the communities in which they are located.
- Work with clients who are not involved in the creation of cigarettes, alcohol or weapons.
- Work with companies that are not involved in a labor dispute nor are targets of a boycott for its labor or environmental practices.
- Attempt to make designs that create a minimum of waste and do as little harm to the environment as possible.
- Encourage clients to use environmentally sensitive printing processes and materials whenever applicable to a design.
- Create pro bono designs when possible for nonprofit organizations with extremely limited resources.
- Donate 10 percent of profits to nonprofit organizations.

These aren’t the golden rules for being a design activists. It is what Noah think it suits best in his philosophy. Each designer makes other considerations.
The client issue is a difficult one. Would you make an annual report for Exxon Mobil in which they announce a new sustainable course? Tough question and very personal. I would do it if I believed in their sincerity. That would take some talks and tough questions.

Being a design activist doesn’t mean that you have to run your own company. Working from inside a corporate environment or a traditional agency can make a big difference too.

In-house designers can have a positive influence beyond the projects they do for their clients and the public in general. There’s also all the day-to-day happenings inside the office. Are you and your fellow designers operating in a sustainable and ethical way on a day-to-day basis? You probably have some influence on everything from recycling office paper to choosing vendors who operate in an ethical manner. Survey your day-to-day work environment for ways to have an impact.


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The book really hits me. It brought me a lot of memories. Although I stopped designing years ago I still work the conscious way. 
The book has tickled me to go back to designing. Because creativity can be such fun. For yourself and for making this world a better place.

The book can be found at your local independent bookstore or online through your preferred retailer including MyDesignShop, Powell’s, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Noah Scalin talks about his book with Diane Gibbs:

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