At a publishing company I used to work for, I was asked to produce an invitation for an award ceremony honoring community activists. I’ve always been bothered to the point of activism by the sheer volume of waste paper and media our society produces daily, so I had the idea to design an invitation that was stamped upon waste cardboard rather than printed on pristine paper. Unfortunately, someone at the company didn’t like that idea and the project was given to another, less maverick designer.
Maybe I was onto something after all.
Do Good Design: How Designers Can Change The World is a unique book. It’s the only graphic design book I can think of that considers the ethical ramifications of design and treats it as a tool for good or evil—and argues that our world is suffering from serious maladies brought about by the subversion of design for evil purposes. Almost no designers think about such things—they’re too busy learning the new features of Photoshop CS4 or updating their LinkedIn profiles to get more clients and more money. Perhaps that’s why I think this book is an essential read for everyone in the industry.
The big problems: overconsumption and the end of the world
Author David B. Berman, who has become known as an advocate of “good design” in his native Ontario, believes graphic design does far more than anyone realizes to shape our perceptions of the world and control our behaviors, and in the past century designers have unwittingly contributed to a world of overconsumption and environmental destruction that will eventually lead to an unsustainable way of life. Exhibit Number One in Berman’s argument of the power of design is the Palm Beach County ballot used in the 2000 U.S. election: this ballot was so poorly designed that many people mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore—swinging that county’s vote to George W. Bush and setting the United States up for eight years of war, death and outrage.
Buy the book if only for the international perspective
Berman traveled to a wide variety of countries around the world while writing Do Good Design, and I encourage American designers to buy this book if only to learn more about what American graphic design, branding and lifestyle are doing to the world. Did you know…?:
- Thousands of Third World schools, orphanages and public signage sport the Coca-Cola logo. It costs Coca-Cola only $200 to brand an entire village.
- Americans know Hugo Boss as the high-end clothing company. Most Americans don’t know that Hugo Boss himself designed the Nazi SS and Hitler Youth uniforms during World War II.
- Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, is so large and heavy—700,000 tons—that it’s believed to have increased the instance of earthquakes across Taipei.
Berman’s thesis is that the drive for overbranding and overconsumption is due to graphic design, in particular American design and product development. Do Good Design looks at the thesis in a fascinating way, with around-the-globe observations and plenty of preaching. If you want to remain in your bubble of preconceptions about design and the world, don’t read this book.
A call for activism
For Berman, it’s not enough for readers to simply read Do Good Design and go back to the usual work for the usual clients. The last section of the book is a toolkit of sustainable design practices, manifestos from various organizations and a general push to become a “good design” activist. This is going to make some readers uncomfortable, but that’s what makes this book unique. There are a variety of small actions mentioned that will move things in the right direction. Others actions—such as pressing for sustainable design in the workplace—are more complicated. Berman thinks bosses and company owners will work with designers, but I think they’re just as likely to fire you if you start advocating changes they don’t want.
Do Good Design is a hard book to rate because it’s not necessarily perfect: it can be preachy and readers who don’t like being pressed to change may not like the last 30 pages. However, Berman’s message is too important to ignore and I encourage every designer to read this book and maybe change the world. My rating reflects the importance of Berman’s message.
Do Good Design: How Designers Can Change The World
David B. Berman
Published by New Riders and AIGA