David Berman – How Can Graphic Design Help Save the Planet

Can Graphic Design Save the Planet?


Can it help?


How Can Graphic Design Help Save the World, hosted by the Australian Graphic Design Association, featured leading design thinkers including Jacqueline Gothe, Andy Polaine, David Berman and Rick Poynor to share ideas about whether we as graphic/designers can be part of a world-saving solution.

Republic of Everyone went along to have a listen and was inspired to hear some incredibly insightful thinking on the topic of whether graphic design actually can save the world. Here’s a bit of what we heard. This feature is the second of four features we will be producing, covering the speakers’ insights.

David Berman

David is a Fellow and Ethics Chair of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, a vice-president of Icograda, the world body for graphic design, a Canadian communication designer and author, President of the first elected board of the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario, and an international keynote speaker. www.davidberman.com

“We live in remarkable times, and we [Canadians and Australians] have much in common: history and abundance: land, space, freedom. Our grandfathers died in wars for this freedom, and I don’t think that those men died so that we could take that freedom and just use it to create more wealth for ourselves”.

David Berman

Watching David Berman speak makes you forget that you’re supposed to be learning something. A bundle of hyperactivity, the Canadian designer approaches the question of ‘can design help save the world’ as a both a professional challenge and exciting opportunity.

A welcome break from the dark and stormy forecasts and predictions made by the scientific, government and media communities, Berman’s outlook on world-saving is refreshingly sunny. He says that rather than “beating ourselves-up” about the past, as “movers of ideas” it’s up to designers to choose between sharing ideas that further social and environmental justice and those that simply exploit a new market.

Unleashing the power of new technology

“More people have been liberated in the last 40 years by information technology that all of the wars and revolutions in the history of humanity” says Berman. As the creative masters of this technology, Berman suggests that designers have never been more powerful. However with this power comes responsibility – Berman predicts that designers will increasingly need to make some important decisions.

“Right now, to over 4 billion people, the Internet is just a rumour. But in the next 10 years the majority of humans will have their first access. But, for most, the experience won’t be on a computer screen, it will be on the small screen – the truly mobile screen. When we get there, will we use [small screen interactions] to convince larger and larger populations that they don’t really belong in our societies? That they have to be whiter, or taller or smell nicer? Will we use it to ‘trick’ them into buying more stuff they don’t need… or will we use the Internet to share ideas that really deserve to be shared?”

Design for good versus the ‘Greed Disorder’.

The marketing mantra ‘consumption is good, more consumption is better’ pervades much of the work that designers do. However Berman proposes that this needn’t be the case.

In Ghana, where over 20% of pharmaceuticals are fake, designers have worked with companies to create a labelling system. A parent of a sick child SMSs a unique number stamped on the side of the medicine container for verification as to whether or not the product is legitimate – “It’s a beautiful, simple communication idea that saves lives.” says Berman.

This is in stark contrast with traditional marketing based on the ‘buy more’ ethos. Says Berman, “in Zanzibar, the Coca-Cola brand is literally on every street corner, while elsewhere in Tanzania Coke signs serve as the official signage for schools, hospitals, and official town and highway markers.”

And while we can all appreciate the brand’s cleverness, Berman says it lacks wisdom – “on the streets of Zanzibar, where Coke is often considered medicinal, the cost of one can of coke is the same as an anti-malaria pill, a preventable disease that kills more than 1 million African children each year.”

“The design profession is very young: 95% of the designers who have every lived are alive today: and we can choose what it’s all about. Let’s use the power of design to share the ideas the world really needs – democracy, telecommunications, science, medicine, hope, justice,… – it’s the stuff the world really needs, not selling more sugar water to children in Africa.”

David Berman

Designers have a choice.

Designers can choose to perpetuate myths or we can decide to tell the truth. “In Canada, we have more fresh water on earth, but we import bottled water from France. We create ads that sexualise girls to sell something that isn’t necessary. 57 years ago coffee ads appeared in Life magazine that encouraged men to beat their wives. While some things have changed, designers have the power to decide what is okay with how we use our skills, and which stories and messages we choose to promote” says David.

While there is an ethical case to be made for designers doing the right thing, David warns that it’s only a matter of time before the finger will be pointed at the design industry saying ‘you’re culpable for the misery and hurt you help create’.

“Like Doctors, lawyers, accountants and other professionals, designers have specific powers to influence society – and with power comes responsibility: how we visually depict people, how we use raw materials such as forest products, what messages we choose to amplify and how we choose to do that – society is willing to say we need your stewardship”.

Is it time for a code of ethics for the design industry?

In May 2000, The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada adopted a code of ethics for graphic designers that included a commitment to society and the environment. Like the Hippocratic Oath for Doctors, or being a registered certified builder or architect, for graphic designers the commitment is of this nature: “That as a designer I’m not just going to enjoy the aesthetic of creating beautiful objects: I recognise that an extra special power from my society is being provided to me and I recognise the opportunities this provides and how I can use my skills to do something better.”

Says Berman of the code, “We can and must talk the specifics of sustainability, but really the ethics of design need to change, and to do this we need to tie those ethics to a professional commitment.” Is it time that Australian graphic designers subscribed to a similarly detailed code?

“We have an opportunity and ability to create something truly great, and the timing is perfect. We live in a time where it’s never been easier, or cheaper, or more immediate to send messages to growing populations worldwide. We are the generation with the most power: an amazing opportunity to be a part of creating something completely better: we can design a better world”.

So where do we start?

David Berman says that designers can choose to save the world, and suggests that designers take a pledge. “Commit at least 10% of your professional time – 4 hours a week – to doing good design to create a just world. There are over 1.5 million designers in the world: imagine if each of us committed 4 hours a week to doing good design, that’s 6 million hours a week of design creating a more just world.” Berman stresses that this time not be unpaid, and instead challenges designers to find clients who are doing good things and choosing to put their energy into supporting such clients.

State of Design Festival in Melbourne

View David’s presentation to the State of Design Festival in Melbourne, where he discusses the power and effectiveness of good design, and therefore the need to incorporate notions of social responsibility into design principles.

Duration: 30m 43s. July 2009. Click here if video does not load.

You can also listen to David Berman speaking with Alan Saunders on design and social responsibility on ByDesign, on ABC Australian national radio, August 12 2009.