I am a visual communicator. Armed with T-square, swatch book and mouse in hand, I navigated the design industry for eight years as a freelancer. I worked for agencies big to small, local to international. An art school graduate of Ohio University, I left college feeling passionate, inspired and hopeful. It wasn’t long, however, before I found myself let down and jaded by the “real world” creative industry.
Airbrushing women and designing ditto sheets for banks started to feel irresponsible or just boring. The experiences I had on my journey I learned were similar to other creative professionals. I set out to change this.
In 2009 I landed as a partner of Fulcrum Creatives, a branding studio and social enterprise in the Short North. The cornerstone of our brand is providing “Creative Leverage for the Greater Good.” The sentiments that sparked this philosophy are not new nor are they mine alone.
The earliest articulated that I know of are in the 1964 First things First Manifesto, where a group of designers wrote “… the greatest effort of those working in the advertising industry are wasted on trivial purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity.” That a designer’s role is better served in providing the public with bike maps or public awareness campaigns versus “hair restorer, striped toothpaste, or slimming diet pills.”
A designer’s power is often underestimated. With power comes responsibility. Creative professionals could use this power to lend a hand in creating a better city or planet to live in. After all, designers have “the ability, through their work, to influence, mold opinion, persuade, change behavior initiate and spread visual trends, shape the aesthetic environment and help to inform the public.” (Rick Poynor, Power by Design)
Columbus can harness this power of design (or, according to Michael Bongiorno, become a City of Design.) Home to many creative professionals, the number of people employed in Central Ohio by creative businesses in the year 2000 was more than 18,000. (Creative Columbus Report) Yet despite these numbers, those with a dedicated career designing for positive social and environmental change seem few and far between. It’s hard to say if this it out of a lack of interest or a lack of opportunity.
In Columbus, the largest employers of creatives are obvious, working for one of our major retailers or large ad agencies. Here, creatives make work for big pharma or food giants, like Coca-Cola. Is helping sell these products the best use of an artistic mind?
I must be careful here. It’s not my place say that people who work at these corporations are bad people. Times are tough and a job is a job. Many of these talented folks are my friends and colleagues.
I have observed, though, that many of these designers don’t seem to care or give thought to what they selling or the messages they are promoting. And if they do, it is news to me. The conversation needs to happen more in Columbus.
Those in the creative profession must realize they are as much responsible for the products they promote as the businesses who make them. More consideration should be given to the negative effects ads or products have on the environment and local economies, as well as the social harm that comes with only promoting one type of body image to girls and young women. How can Columbus harness all this creative power to do good?
Pro–bono (or “free”) work for nonprofits is not the answer either. Often times I’ve noticed free comes with a cost; it’s what we refer to as “faux bono.” Work that inevitably gets put off or not prioritized since it doesn’t pay the bills– and in a competitive industry with layoffs and a poor economy, free work just doesn’t pay. Yet at the same time, having an eye only on your bottom line is not sustainable in that big picture, big ideas kind of a way.
According to the IDEO human-centered design toolkit, “…design practitioners, students and educators – can design better solutions for the greater good: for people instead of clients, for change instead of consumption.” Fulcrum Creatives is helping, in part, pioneer this effort in Columbus. This is an effort that has been started in other parts of the country as well.
Here is a list of some innovative programs, business models, thought leaders and nonprofits who, by finding ways to raise the perceived value of design, are leveraging creative power toward a greater social purpose:
Seesaw Squad, Columbus, OH: A program of Fulcrum Creatives and a 1492 Fund semi-finalist, this innovative internship program connects bright, talented students with nonprofits in need. It is launching out of The Mindshop at Columbus College of Art and Design Summer of 2012.
Serve Marketing, Milwaukee, WI: The country’s only all-volunteer, nonprofit advertising agency, whose mission is to give under-served charitable causes a stronger voice in the community.
Camp Firebelly, Chicago IL: The next crop of socially-minded designers get the chance to use their talent and creativity to make a difference. For nine days, 10 campers live and work with Firebelly to craft a strategic design solution for a nonprofit client, from initial research to final implementation.
EPIC, Chicago, IL: Empowers creative people to make social change happen in Chicago. For their creative rallies —eight intense, fun weeks of collaboration— they pair hand-picked volunteers from the advertising and design industries with Chicago-based nonprofit clients dedicated to education, children and families.
The Living Principles for Design: Aim to guide purposeful action, celebrating and popularizing the efforts of those who use design thinking to create positive cultural change.
So what’s my big idea for Columbus? It’s more of a big vision. A vision of a utopian city where creative professionals and artists are employed to use their talents, skills and out-of-the-box thinking to solve social issues or create a greener city. A Columbus where creativity is valued as necessary way to make a culturally rich and lively place to live. Where we work hand in hand with city planners, nonprofit directors and business owners to make lasting change. Where investors recognize there is more than just the economy of money but there is a greater economy of community and culture. Where creative professionals are employed, to do good.
To learn more about Liz Samuelson, read her bio here.
To learn more about Fulcrum Creatives, visit www.fulcrumcreatives.com.