When Design Doesn’t Change

By March 27, 2013 2 Comments

In this column I usually pump up the merits of good design, particularly graphic design, and how it can implement social change. While the fact that designers have the power to do good is indeed a truism, recently I’ve been considering times when implementing graphic design as an agent of change just doesn’t cut it. In other words, a design FAIL of sorts. Not in the sense that the FAIL means design isn’t part of the solution, but rather how design only makes up part of the bigger picture.

I am constantly appalled and baffled by the amount of trash I see on the city streets and sidewalks as I drive or walk by bus stops. I once (okay, twice) got into an altercation by handing someone’s trash back to them after witnessing them throw it out the car window. While it’s not a social problem among the magnitude of homelessness or human trafficking, it’s a disgrace to the community and our environment, and a reflection of just how gross humans can be. I’ve thought about this issue in depth and even discussed it with friends numerous times — how do we keep everyday citizens from throwing paper trash on the ground?

In the 70s Mayor William Donald Schaefer launched a campaign to make trash cans look like basketball hoops, encouraging passerby to “Jam one” in. (He also sold potholes as Valentine’s Day gifts.) A few years ago local ad agency Planit took a stand against litter by implementing an anti-litter campaign, some elements of which are still evident on trashcans at bus stops and on garbage trucks. Were these successful and how do we know that they were (or weren’t)?


Don’t Mess With Texas celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2011 as the most successful anti-littering campaign ever. Started in 1985 by the Texas Highway Commission, the campaign targeted “Generation L”, 16-24 year olds who drive, eat fast food and smoke. It featured country singers in TV ads and billboards. Discovering that children who see their parents litter are more likely to litter themselves, the campaign began to reach out to elementary schools and push an educational approach. Their research showed in 2001 roadside litter had dropped 52 percent since 1995, and in 2005 it had dropped 33 percent since 2001. How this research was conducted I’m not sure, but their approach seems to be working.

While these anti-litter campaigns are memorable, real social design should mean finding ways to engage public participation and gauge effectiveness in these pursuits. The behavior has to be changed, but how? Designing a catchy ad is only one approach. Part of it could also be teaching through the generations. Part of it is instilling an awareness beyond the self. Maybe maintain nice bus stops with attractive trash bins to create a sense of pride. Try designing a system to monitor congested bus stops during high volume usage to create awareness.

Sometimes to design for social good means to question the methodologies of why you’re designing in the first place. Get out, ask questions, talk to neighbors, form a coalition, listen. The solution is not (and should not) always manifest as a clever headline with a punchy palette. Sometimes picking up a shovel, attending a neighborhood association meeting or mentoring a teen does more than a Clone Stamp tool ever could.



Author Jami Dodson

Jami Dodson is a designer, writer and thinker with extensive experience in creative services. When not designing or volunteering at greening events, you can find her at the farmer's market or enjoying a manhattan.

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