Design from the heart

In a world saturated with commercialism, it's hard for charities to promote their causes. Mark Penfold finds out how designers can help and what they get out of it.

The design industry is predicated on the idea that graphic communication influences decisions. But we live in a world beset by social and ecological problems. Natural resources are running out, overpopulation is rife, and developing nations are plagued by violence, drought, famine and disease.

Italian graphic designers Tommaso Minnetti and Pasquale Volpe believe the creative community has a duty to use its skills to change society for the better, and their Good 50x70 poster competition is a chance to prove that this faith is not misplaced. Backed by charities such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International, as well as bodies including the AGI, their initiative represents an important and often overlooked side of design - social communication. "The communications industry is the best in the world at grabbing people's attention and getting them to act," they say. "The aim of Good 50x70 is to use these skills to highlight more important things than beer and trainers. It's a competition to raise awareness amongst the creative community of the power we have to be a force for good."

It's easy to be cynical, yet we can still be galvanised by the plight of others, as demonstrated by the response to the 2004 Asian tsunami and the likes of billionaire Bill Gates who devotes huge sums of money to the prevention and treatment of malaria. So where's design in all this? Kalle Lasn, editor of the radical magazine Adbusters, says design is part of the problem, in thrall to commercialism run amok. He believes that design needs to break loose and find a non-commercial aesthetic that is up to the task of talking about war, rather than sexiness. But is the situation so cut and dried?

Minnetti argues, "It's through your involvement, the things that you think about and that you put into action in your daily life, that you make a difference." Design is at heart a practice. It's through doing that designers get to grips with their subject, and hopefully change it for the better. Good design has never been about flashiness for its own sake: it's about solving problems.

He feels that the most common error is one of scale. "A body like Greenpeace doesn't need yet another generic poster about the environment," he says. Designers need to be less ambitious and turn their attention to smaller, more local problems. If the cause is too big, it's impossible to determine whether you're making a difference, which inevitably makes you disillusioned. The goal of the 50x70 competition is a case in point: "To do something we could be proud of that we could show our mothers."

The rebrand of the charity Media Trust by London agency Form is a good example of design having a positive impact. Shifting the trust's identity from a piece of 12-year-old clip art to a single-colour logo cut its print bills, freeing up more money for good causes. There are also the unquantifiable but vital benefits of improved branding. "A strong, reliable brand can make a huge difference to the perception of a charity," says Form's co-founder Paula Benson.

London's Start Creative is another agency playing its part, throwing its creative weight behind The Elders, an independent group of public figures who campaign to solve global problems. The Elders include Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, KofiAnnan and Aung San Suu Kyi, and are funded by 'Founders' such as Sir Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel. Whatever you may think of the concept, it's clear that this initiative echoes the attempt of Good 50x70 to familiarise and humanise the world's problems.

"You could argue that every business has an impact on society, so you should take a little responsibility," says Start's co-founder Darren Whittingham. "We create value and awareness of companies or services. Surely you have to have some responsibility to create awareness about other things that are going on?"

However, Mark Tipper of international digital agency Reading Room highlights one danger: "People who really get into a particular charity can be a bit blinkered." Identifying with a client's needs and goals can provide designers with great inspiration, but over-personalising is counterproductive. Design has evolved certain ways of approaching problems for good reason. These tools are what charities need access to; they can get sympathy elsewhere.

The obvious question when designing for worthy causes is, how much do you charge? By common consent, charities get a better deal than commercial clients, but a total freebie isn't always best. Benson says: "By charging some kind of fee, it gives a value to design and forces people to have some clarity in their decision-making."

Money isn't the only reward, however. Thomas Stritz at the Hamburg-based agency Kolle Rebbe points out, "Campaigns that were developed for charities often win important awards." And he should know: Kolle Rebbe won Yellow and Black Pencils in the 2007 D&AD Awards for a campaign for MISEREOR, the overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Germany. Additionally, charity work can pay off in terms of R&D. "We find that the shortage of money and the saturation of the market forces us to be more inventive," says Tipper. "The lessons we learn can easily be applied to our other work."

Designers don't have to create the poster that ended global poverty; it's just a chance to give something back and get involved in doing something good. And they may even benefit as much as the causes they're helping.