Making the Impact of Design Visible

Creative Change Makers 2020: Four lessons from a conference on the social and environmental impact of design

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We are constantly surrounded by design – in our homes, our study spaces, the apps we use, the websites we visit. And while we may notice whether the design is good (and especially when the design is awful), we rarely stop to ask ourselves: is the design doing something good?

Bernard Hay, the Design Museum's Senior Learning Producer, opened the Creative Change Makers Conference with an important message: 

"What we perceive as high-quality design often has an extremely negative impact on social issues and mental health."

Attractive design often has a dark side. Think of the fashion industry, which produces 10% of the world's carbon emissions, or smartphones, which are one of the main sources of toxic waste. Yet their attractive and, crucially, constantly renewing design makes us continue to buy these items, contributing to climate change and subsequently to our own climate anxiety. The designs we encounter on screen, too, are often "toxic": what makes websites and apps pleasant to use can also make them distractive. For many people, these distractions get out of hand, making us feel unproductive and anxious. 

"Good" design is dangerous, often addictive. 

"We live in an addicted society," Chrissy Levett, the founder of Creative Conscience, said, "because we have lost our sense of connection with nature and with our community. And we must use our creative powers to change that." 

To turn these words into action, Creative Conscience have been empowering young people to bring about social change through a variety of meaningful projects. And while there was a number of issues they tackle – from fighting body image anxiety with body-positive fashion films to combating loneliness with origami – they all fall into the same category: ethical design.

Ethical design refers to products and services that are created in a way that pursues positive morality over profits. For physical products such as makeup and cosmetics, this means eco-friendly packaging and cruelty-free testing. But it applies to graphic and editorial design, too, – and particularly to social media.

It is perhaps unnecessary to say why we need eco-friendly packaging (otherwise check out Creative Conscience’s article here), but the ethics of other products are a more complex issue. In the recent years, social media has been particularly notorious, as the digital services we use every day can often be harmful both to our mental health and the environment. They often facilitate bullying, promote unrealistic body images, irresponsible consumption and generally keep us away from more healthy activities. This year’s Conference focused on student projects that offered ethical solutions to these issues – and here are four lessons in design that help combat social and mental health issues.  

1. Use Your Skills to Fight Abuse

In the UK, one of three children will experience cyberbullying every year, and in the US this number is even higher. All of those children are at risk of intense emotional trauma, and some will even attempt to take their own life. In 2019, Jon Gruber, Dan Morris and Oleg Pak of Miami Ad School, New York, used their UI design skills to build an algorithm that used the profiles of cyber suicide victims to reply to instances of cyberbullying with a powerful message and the hashtag #WordsKill. (See video.) This is an important step towards ethical design on social media. And although it might be problematic to embody this particular design into existing SM platforms, Creative Conscience believes that all social networking apps and websites should have preventative measures against cyberbullying.

2. Show the Real People

There are way too many images of (staged and heavily edited) “perfect” bodies presented to young people in the media, which provokes insecurity and, in many cases, can lead to self-harm and eating disorders. Chyna Denton’s short film, “Imperfectly Imperfect”, empowers young women to embrace their imperfections and promotes diversity in fashion modelling. This is an important lesson not just for designers, who are gradually starting to use more realistic images, but for all social media users. We can stop the spread of unhealthy body images by clicking that “unfollow” button and turning to accounts that inspire and empower instead. Remember the Instagram egg that went viral?

3. Build a Safe Space

So, you have unfollowed all the toxic people on social media. What next? Christian Martin’s “Eden” is an app that helps people find calm spaces to explore online or on a walk. This project raises the crucial issue of reconnecting with nature in our urbanised environment. We are practically destroying our natural habitat with the current design of our cities (have a look at other ways Creative Conscience winners have approached this issue here), and helping people reconnect with the nature is not only beneficial to their mental health but is a great aid to the environmental cause.

4. Build a Community

The most important aspect of ethical design is facilitating positive interaction: in public spaces, on social media, etc. A number of fascinating projects tackle this issue: Ellie Gilbert-Ryan’s “Twofold” (origami events aimed at reducing loneliness) and Rosa Kim’s “Aware Online” (a platform for safe discussion of mental health) are wonderful examples of the diverse ways in which creativity and design can be used for ethical purposes.

It was certainly inspiring to see young people empowered to bring about social change using their creativity, and there are many more ways to use design for environmental and mental health benefits. The Conference certainly demonstrated that even if one is not directly involved with design, conscious consumerism and responsible use of social media is extremely important. The speakers definitely succeeded in raising awareness of the dangers of unethical design, and these lessons from the Conference are bound to have an impact in the future.

Alexandra Zhirnova

Alumna | Cambridge MPhil Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic | UCL Laidlaw Society Outreach Officer, UCL

Alexandra Zhirnova is a medievalist specialising in Latin literature. She has a special interest in women's history and manuscript culture and a mission to promote equality in academia and beyond.