Representing reality | Designing for sensitive societal issues

Laura Macaulay is Creative Director at navigatebydesign. Over the past 18 years she has worked on the design of a range of socially sensitive campaigns on topics such as poverty reduction, plastic waste and online child abuse. Here she shares her reflections on how Graphic Design for social change is more important now than ever, looks at examples and provides her learnings for helping to engage the public through positively energised, visual messages.

I feel privileged to have some part to play in the visions of the non-for-profit organisations I work with, and as their Graphic Designer my job is to help give a visual voice to their social causes. The findings contained in the content can sometimes be troubling. The magnitude of this is very humbling – it forces me to stop and reflect; how can we as designers, make sure we play our part in helping to affect change?

I believe this is something we will increasingly be called to question, as we need more positive social action to benefit the world, our country and our communities. We have seen this most recently with the pandemic, black lives matter and the issue of climate change.

In AIGA, ‘Design for Good’ design thinking for societal impact is described as:

‘Any reality that is unmet or needs clarity, advocacy and/or a voice’.

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Here are my four key learnings to effectively engage the public, making the messaging relatable and help change the way people think:

1. Underscore with hope

This is a fine balance. We are not looking at ignoring the negative and the real problems; our job is to find a way to represent the reality in a way which will engage the public. We can do this by underscoring it with a message of hope; i.e. ‘this can get better, but only together with your help’.

This approach has proven to take social causes to a whole new level, reaching larger groups of people and progressing towards higher forms of social accountability and collective responsibility [1,2].

‘Positive psychology can help by imagining and envisioning a better life, even in harsh contexts.’ [3,4]

The alarmist approach of showing a stark image certainly helps to elicit a response, but is it more likely to ultimately disengage the public as they turn off? In the David Attenborough documentary ‘A life on our planet’, the producers wanted to end with people feeling hopeful. The programme is uncompromising in its depiction of the crisis in the natural world, but it does not leave the public feeling that all is lost.

According to the producers:

“The aim is not to try and drag the audience into the depths of despair, but to take people on a journey that makes them realise what is driving these issues and how we can also solve them.”

When Designer Paula Scher of Pentagram was commissioned to create an identity for the Mental health Coalition, featured below, she focused on a positive message of humour and togetherness. Using bold typographic statements such as ‘Being different is what we have in common’ and ‘Proud member of a dysfunctional family’.

Paula Scher Mental Health Coalition

Threaded throughout the campaign is the expression we all know and can relate to as ‘a square peg in a round hole’. This idea forms part of the typography with the counter of the ‘o’ in the words, represented as a square peg in the hole. The mark also appears in the branding Pentagram created for a digital storytelling platform called ‘How are you really?’ where individuals can share their experiences and personal stories.

The bright pop colours help to brighten the mood and are a marked shift away from what we normally see for mental health brands, helping to show the issue in renewed light.

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2. Make it relatable

A good starting point is to use an empathy map, this can help to gain insight into the people we are designing for. Traditional empathy maps are split into 4 quadrants (SaysThinksDoes, and Feels), with the persona in the middle. Empathy maps provide a window into who the public is as a whole. I pay particular attention to the ‘feels’ quadrant, as this relates to the audience’s emotional state. For example; what worries the audience? What does the audience care about? How does the audience feel about this, and what assumptions might they have?

If we can answer these questions, in partnership with the client, then there is a strong platform for trying to fulfil these needs.

Studio Dunbar beautifully illustrate this with their branding campaign for Alzheimer Nederland, as shown below.

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Studio Dunbar recognised that gaining sympathy was crucial to help raise funds for the charity. They choose to take the perspective of an Alzheimer’s patient and how it really feels to have Alzheimer’s. Text is overlaid on poignant photographic portraits with some sections ‘vanishing out’, representing how the brain changes with the effects of Alzheimer’s:

‘Our priority for Alzheimer Nederland was to speak to people’s hearts in a powerful way, but also quietly, without shouting – with impact and integrity’.

The Studio Dunbar example shows that in order to elicit a response, we need to make sure the content speaks to the heart of its audience, and what it cares about.

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3. Reframe it

To help the public see an issue in a new light, it can be helpful to place it within a different context.

We can become desensitised to themes, especially when presented with the same traditional visuals. What parallels are there, which might ignite the public interest, when given a totally different reference? Do we open up the frame or do we take a very close up view? Are we targeting the existing target market or are we trying to gain a broader reach?

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Multi-disciplinary artist, Corbin Shaw, cleverly ‘flips’ the concept of traditional, to help tackle outdated ideas of masculinity and its effect on men’s mental health. As seen above, he takes iconic football flags and banners, but instead of the typical support slogans he features bold typographic statements like “Save our bastard sons” “Soften up hard lad” and “We should talk about our feelings”.

According to Shaw this means he can infiltrate spaces like home-team football grounds whilst also broadening the reach of the message:

“My signature style is an accumulation of quintessentially British visuals but with a message that spreads across all cultures.”

Reframing the issue is a good approach to help to break down barriers, stretch the creative muscle, and breathe new life into a campaign.

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4. Find the story in the data

For each commission, I try to look at new ways of visually representing the data and sometimes complex processes and showing them in a way which can help capture peoples attention.

By creating something meaningful and which tells a story, we humanise it.

If we present information in a way which is too flat this can mute the human voices behind the figures. We are trying to help the public understand how an issue can have a knock on or ‘ripple’ affect and connect us all.

We know that densely packed, data heavy documents are not going to appeal to the time-pressed public. We are accustomed to consuming media in bite-sized portions, but paradoxically we still desire in-depth content and awareness. With this in mind, I explore ways of showing the data as simply as possible, to help the public ‘find the story’ in the figures, without having to spend time interpreting the data themselves. Once their interest is peaked, they can then move to the more in-depth analysis in the content of the document.

Facts and figures are of course very important, but in order for the public to read them, you need to start with the emotional and then move to the rational.

Final thoughts…

Working on a broad range of social campaigns over the years has taught me about the subtleties of design, and called me to question the role we have as designers.

Throughout the design process, I try to ask: is it true to the message and ambitions, does it respect the topic, and as designer; am I adding value to this social cause?

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[1] Peterson, C. (2008). What Is Positive Psychology, and What Is It Not? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-good-life/200805/what-is-positive-psychology-and-what-is-it-not

[2] Rose, N. (2013). 7 common Misconceptions about Positive Psychology. Retrieved from http://mappalicious.com/2013/12/06/7-common-misconceptions-about-positive-psychology/

[3] Thin, N. (2011). Socially Responsible Cheermongery: On the Sociocultural Contexts and Levels of Social Happiness Policies. In R. Biswas-Diener (Ed.), Positive Psychology as Social Change (pp. 33-49). New York: Springer.

[4] Scollon, C. N. & King, L. A. (2011). What People Really Want in Life and Why It Matters: Contributions from Research on Folk Theories of the Good Life. In R. Biswas-Diener (Ed.), Positive Psychology as Social Change (pp. 1-14). New York: Springer.