Don’t just do good design – do good!

By David Berman, a Canadian designer and thought leader. He is a board member of Icograda, the world body for graphic design, a Fellow of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, and the Ethics Chair for graphic design in Canada. David has recently be named a special advisor to the United Nations on how to use design to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals. As an expert speaker, he has travelled to over 25 countries, is a national member of the International Federation for Professional Speakers, and is profiled with the National Speakers Association.

Now that we can do anything, what will we do? – Bruce Mau.


We live in a truly remarkable time. Although it is easy to dwell upon the world’s troubles, as a global community, we live in a time of unparalleled opportunity, and unprecedented creative potential for hope.

As designers, we are the stewards of the communication of knowledge. And it has never been easier, never less expensive… never more immediate, to send messages over great distances to larger and larger populations.

The Internet makes so much sharing possible. And yet Nicholas Negroponte reminds us that, for the majority of people alive today, the Internet is still just a rumour.

However, over the next ten years, that will change forever. Before this decade ends, most human beings will have had their first interaction with the Internet. Will that first access to the Internet be about sharing the best we have to offer: medicine, conflict resolution, democracy, governance, free thought… or will it be just one more way to convince ever-growing populations in the developing world that they need to consume stuff — way more stuff — in order to feel they belong in the global culture? I believe that the Internet provides us with our single most valuable opportunity in which to help build a better world.

The digital divide

The digital divide of our global society separates humanity into two groups: the technological haves and the have-nots. This dangerous divide increases the risk that the rich will get richer, while the poor get poorer.

There are two potential outcomes over this next decade, and we designers have a crucial role in determining which of those outcomes will define the future of the one global civilization all humanity now shares.

Will designers bring the best we have to offer, in support of goodness and truth, or will we prop up the greed disorder of a minority, by using our cleverness to help convince more and more people that they are not tall enough, not thin enough, white enough, curly enough, cool enough… and the only way for them to fulfill these invented needs is by consuming more stuff?

The fourth screen

Dr. Peter Bruck of Salzburg, speaks of an evolution through four screens of visual communication: the movie screen, the television screen, the computer screen, and now the fourth screen: the mobile screen. These four screens represent a century-long transition from communal, one-way communication to interactive, personalised, portable immersion.

It will be on that mobile, pocket-sized fourth screen — and not the computer screen, that the majority of humans will encounter the Internet for the first time. Already, every month this year, in India alone, 15 million people will power up their first mobile phone!

Life and death in 160 characters

Imagine for a minute that you live in Ghana. Your young daughter is ill. Not deathly ill, but mysteriously coughing all night. You’re not sure what’s wrong, and you rush to a pharmacy at 3am to buy medicine. But you’re uncertain what to do: your dilemma is that you know that in Ghana over 20% of prescription drugs are fake. You buy the medicine, yet you don’t know if it will do more harm than good. You can’t be sure what’s in the bottle. She’s crying: what will you do? It may hurt her more than help her. Are you going to have your daughter swallow some mystery substance?

That’s the reality for people in Ghana today, but that reality is changing for the better: a remarkable team at mpedigree.com designed a simple mobile phone app that can solve this indignity. They arranged with drug companies to put a unique numeric code on each bottle of medicine. At the pharmacy, all you need to do is pull out your phone, text that unique number printed on the medicine bottle to mpedigree’s phone number, and within a few seconds you get a reply telling you if the bottle in your hand is fraudulent or not.

It’s a simple design: no Pantone colors, no fancy typography, slogans, intriguing interface, or clever branding… just 160 characters of life-and-death design that saves lives and helps build a sustainable economy.

Don’t just do good design… do good!

Friends, we have the opportunity to decide whether we will simply do good design, or whether we are going to do good with design. We have a choice to make: to help sell more caffeinated sugar water to children, or to use our skills and our opportunities to help create a better world!

Imagine what would be possible if designers did not participate in the export of over-consumption and the unbridled fulfillment of greed. No one understands the powerful mechanism behind these manipulations better than design professionals, and we have the creativity and persuasiveness to make a positive change.

We must act, be heard… and sometimes simply say no… by designing a better yes.

Some of us choose to pursue design purely as an exercise in the aesthetic. I know that simply creating beautiful objects or surrounding yourself with beautifully designed things can help create a fulfilling and comfortable life. However, that is only the surface of sense of accomplishment you can achieve with your creative skills.

Go further: recognize the interdependence, power, and influence of your role as a professional, and let it resonate with the world around you and within you.