None of the four black American students who sat at the whites-only counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 were designers. They were protestors, part of a growing movement to bring civil rights to all Americans. By sitting there, unserved for hours, enduring jeers and threats, they planned to change how restaurants treated black people. It was a milestone in civil disobedience, but also, as the critic Ralph Caplan has said, one of the greatest examples of design in the 20th century. “Obviously it wasn’t about the visual characteristics of it; it went well beyond that,” says Sol Sender, who designed the logo for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Thoughtful design, whether it’s a logo, an object, or a well-organized protest, has always had the ability to effect political change. And yet, in days following the election, the power of design felt—at least momentarily— diminished. Graphic design didn’t affect the outcome. Neither did data visualization. Algorithms and experience design didn’t combat the internet echo chamber, they strengthened it.
Honest designers have never sold their work as a panacea, but like so many people, they are pondering the role they play going forward. “The outcome of this election has forced me to reconsider who I am working for, how I am working with them, and how it will impact the world,” says Joe Marianek, co-founder of the studio Small Stuff. It might not sound like it, but Marianek’s view is ultimately hopeful. Designers tend to be optimistic. “They see design at the heart of creation and change,” says Rosanne Somerson, president of the Rhode Island School of Design. And the election has acted as a catalyst for many designers to reevaluate how their work can bolster social progress.
In a call to action on Design Observer, Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand wrote: “Designers understand this implicitly: we may not be in a position to control change, but we are its most ardent and expressive ambassadors.” It’s a cheerfully realistic assessment of design’s limitations, but while designers may not wield the power of politicians, they can still lead the way.
At its broadest definition, design has always been about problem solving. Effective design helps people navigate complex situations, it brings clarity to confusion, it resolves misunderstanding through empathy. “We have the power to create images, stories, and experiences that can give the public and policymakers better ways of understanding the facts and moving collective action towards a preferable future,” says Matt Cottam, co-founder of interaction design studio Tellart.
It’s idealistic—sometimes overly so, as designer Jennifer Daniel recently wrote—but design always has been about shaping the future with pragmatic hopefulness. On a practical level, this means designers are translators, making complex data, policy, and even emotions easily understood. “We can use the tools of visual design and its capacity to abstract, open possibilities, inspire, dissect, associate, to reconnect numbers to what they actually stand for: a messy and intricate reality that is really really hard to pin down and to grasp,” says Giorgia Lupi, an information designer and co-founder of Accurat.
Visual design also can provide agency. “I think design can express ideas in an exciting way to motivate people,” says Jesse Reed, a Pentagram designer who worked on Hillary Clinton’s logo. “If you’re talking about the future of this country and what graphic design can do to somehow help the situation, I think it’s continuing to express impactful ideas and enable other people to take action in whatever way they feel is best.”
Still, it remains far too soon to know how design’s influence will manifest. For now, it’s enough to know that designers are thinking deeply about their role going forward. At the very least, a generation of designers is honing its craft under more divisive, but also more honest, circumstances. That’s a good thing.
The election has highlighted an Achilles’ heel of design—that despite the rhetoric around human-centered design, designers too often account for only a portion of the population. Their biggest challenge now is to find an effective way of communicating with those who hold views contrary to their own. In that way, designers are no different than the rest of us. “We all have different ways of contributing to this effort, and ours is through intention, a.k.a. design,” Reed says. Design, at its best, promotes understanding. That’s something the country needs a lot more of right now.