Design is Social Activism

Barbara Knecht's picture
"I have always thought that design can be a form of social activism," says Don Meeker, environmental graphic designer and co-creator of "Clearview" typeface. This small but radical quotation was buried in an article from the 8.12.07 NY Times Sunday magazine ( on the redesign of highway sign typeface. Meeker, James Montalbano, and a team of collaborators understood that it was the design of highway signage that was contributing to highway fatalities. They applied an understanding of human psychology and function to the solution of a "civic issue."

Radical idea. It's called Universal Design. Or social activism.

For at least 40 years, design has been cowering in the wings, marginalized as an effete activity engaged in, or encountered by, a shrinking number of professionals and elites. Design has also assumed the "role of a proper noun," according to the editors of Good magazine ( in their first anniversary issue devoted to design. It is something to be purchased and collected. They suggest that "the word is much more exciting as a verb, the act of tackling real problems and finding elegant solutions."

This prosaic definition of design as problem solving may be true enough - we have a lot of problems to be solved – but the potential is far more interesting. Designers take a concept – often something that has never before been imagined - and turn it into something tangible, understandable and usable.

An exhibition currently at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum called Design for the other 90% ( displays a wide range of ideas from designers all over the world. They are low-cost solutions for access to life necessities that only 10% of the world's population can take for granted: food and water, energy, health, education, trading, and mobility. Often co-created with the end user, these designs anticipate a socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable future.

If we design a world where environments, communication systems, and objects are usable by old and young alike, by people with visible and invisible disabilities, by people who speak myriad languages, by rich and poor, isn't that the embodiment of an inclusive, open, and democratic society?
Barbara Knecht is director of design at the Institute for Human Centered Design (formerly Adaptive Environments), a non-profit organization committed to enhancing the experiences of people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design.


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