Design Activism: Designers With A Sense of Social Responsibility

The aim of this essay is to explore and discuss design activism as a medium by which contemporary designers undertake projects based on their ethical concerns and a sense of social responsibility. Thorpe (2011, p.6) defines design activism as meeting four basic criteria;

  1. It publicly reveals or frames a problem or challenging issue.
  2. It makes a contentious claim for change (it calls for change) based on that problem or issue.
  3. It works on behalf of a neglected, excluded or disadvantaged group.
  4. It disrupts routine practices, or systems of authority, which gives it the characteristics of being unconventional or unorthodox – outside traditional channels of change.

To analyse and effectively discuss the topic of design activism this essay will explore three recent projects – Advance to Zero (Inkahoots, 2016), Vein Care (Bartleet, n.d.) & Digital Birth (Ovland, 2014) – by designers working in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific nations and discuss how design activism has been used to respond to contemporary social problems. This exploration will be supported by various readings, both academic and peer reviewed, including the design activism definition from Defining design as activism (Thorpe, 2011), as well as Design activism: Beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world (Fuad-Luke, 2006), Citizen designer: Perspectives on design responsibility (Heller & Vienne, 2003) and Good: Ethics of Graphic Design (Roberts, 2006) and will seek to provide further insight on the subject of design activists undertaking projects on their sense of ethical responsibility.

The first project selected for analysis in this essay is Advance to Zero; a groundbreaking national initiative of the Australian Alliance to End Homelesness (Inkahoots, 2016). The project focuses around the idea of community, bringing together homeless individuals and families to assist with challenges faced in trying to house people experiencing homelessness (Inkahoots, 2016).

fig1(Advance to Zero, 2016,

While this summary is only brief it does well to define the Advance to Zero project within Thorpe’s (2011, p.6) criteria. The explicit purpose of the project is to publicly reveal and call for change on the epidemic of homelessness that is currently sweeping Australia (Dow, 2016) and by doing so aid one of the most significantly disadvantaged groups within our society. In doing so the designers are acknowledging their feelings of moral obligation to help the downtrodden in the best way they know how – by designing. McCoy in Heller & Vienne (2003, p. 20) believes that designers can no longer afford to be passive, “Designers must be good citizens and participate tin the shaping of our government and society.” She goes on to issue a rallying cry to all designers to come together with their skills and encourage others to wake up and participate in the bettering of our society. This shows that designers the world over, just like those working on the Advance to Zero project, feel a great ethical responsibility to use their powers to influence change as we progress as a society. The strong, unwavering belief within the design that they can come together anywhere, any time and spur change around the globe (Julier, 2013) cannot be understated. Whether it is to help the homeless as seen with the Advance to Zero project or to push for other societal need like equality or sustainability this shows the power of design activism and the profound impact it can have on society when designers undertake projects based on their ethical concerns and a sense of social responsibility.

 A similar project demonstrating elements of activism by design is Vein Care (Bartleet, n.d.) – an educational initiative of Queensland Health to educate both medical professionals and drug users in regards to safe injecting techniques by way of posters, books and information cards (Bartleet, n.d),

fig2(Vein Care, n.d.,

Similarly to the Advance to Zero project Vein Care can easily be identified by Thorpe’s (2011, p.6) criteria for design activism. The project is designed to minimize risk and injury in those being injected by publicising an issue that has traditionally been seen as taboo. By doing this the project not only calls for change in the literal sense by reducing harm but also by presenting drug use in a new light – depicting drug users as human beings who need help rather than demonising them as a blight on society as other mainstream media often does. This kind of socially active design – whereby designers are fulfilling their own moral obligation (Heller & Vienne, 2003, p. 54) and ethical concerns to create something for the betterment of society is described by Fuad-Luke (2009, p. 78) as being, “…where the focus of the design is society and its transition and/or transformation to a more sustainable way of living, working and producing.” When considered in this way the Vein Care project is very much focused on transitioning society to a more sustainable way of living – not only for those who are suffering from drug addiction, but also those around them and medical practitioners involved in other community programs. By having Bretton Bartleet, a well known design activist who has worked with many not for profit organisations and charities and who believes passionately in the ability of design to empower, excite, challenge and inform (Bartleet, 2016) partner with Queensland Health for the purpose of this project his personal feelings of ethical concern and social responsibility shine through as well as his talents as a designer.

The final project to be discussed in this exploration of design activism is Digital Birth (Ovland 2014) that looks at the sensitive social issues of Online security and children. According to the study attached by Ovland (2014), “84% of Australian children under the age of two have some kind of digital dossier online” – a fact that she brought to the publics attention by placing signs and cordoning off playgrounds (Ovland, 2014)

fig3(Digital Birth, 2014,

Perhaps the most interesting of the three projects explored in this discussion the project, while conforming with Thorpe’s (2011, p.6) four criteria, stood out particularly for representing children. An incredibly vulnerable, neglected and excluded group when it comes to the discussion of social issues as they are often not aware of what is going on around them or able to fully comprehend. While this project was well received within the community and created great awareness for greater safety for children online the project itself only framed old data word for word in a new, more visually appealing way while being simultaneously confronting (Ovland, 2014). When considering this Roberts (2006, p.92) believes that graphic design is neutral but becomes important by virtue of various things. One of these is the interpretation of the intended audience. Further to the design itself Ovland took her sense of social responsibility one step further and went out to interview some of the parents who had been moved by the project. Parents who had never even thought of what information they were displaying about their children online were determined then to go home and check and make changes to their behaviour (Ovland, 2014). This demonstrates a true to life example of both Thorpe’s (2011, p.6) criteria and Fuad-Luke’s (2009. p.78) belief in socially active design and not only showcases the designers overwhelming sense of social responsibility and ethical concerns for the chosen design but also the powerful impact that design activism can have on the public.

Through critical analysis and discussion of design activism as a medium by which contemporary designers undertake projects based on their ethical concerns and a sense of social responsibility it can be determined that this influence is indeed very strong. Utilising the definition of Thorpe and the readings of Fuad-Luke, Heller & Vienne, Roberts and others, with specific reference to the three projects identified in this essay a clear correlation can be seen between the works and a feeling of social responsibility to help those in need in a manner fitting of a designer. These projects typify the modern design activist and do well to showcase their strong ethics and social awareness while simultaneously being incredible works of art in their own unique way. Specifically these three projects show clear of how, when the appropriate person or group of people target the appropriate project with strong beliefs to match it’s desired outcomes, design activism can be an incredibly powerful tool in inspiring change within our society.




Fuad-Luke, A. (2009). Design activism: Beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world. London & Sterlin, Virginia, US: Earthscan.

Heller, S. & Vienne, V. (2003). Citizen designer: Perspectives on design responsibility. New York: Alworth Press.

Roberts, L. (2006). Good: Ethics of Graphic Design. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing. (Philosophy – an Interview with Anthony Grayling)

Articles and Online Articles

Dow, A. (2016). ‘Shocking’: Record numbers of homeless people sleeping on Melbourne’s streets. Retrieved from

Julier, G. (2013). From Design Culture to Design Activism. Design and Culture. 55(2), 215-236. Retrieved from

Markussen, T. (2013). The disruptive aesthetics of design activism: Enacting design between art and politics. Design Issues. Winter 2013, 29(1), 38-50. Retrieved from

Millman, D. (2014, December 15). Justin Ahrens: Design matters, design observer. Retrieved from

Rawsthorn, A. (2013, July 15). Expanding the definitions of design. New York Times. Retrieved from

Rawsthorn, A. (2014, December 4). Fixing stuff, repairing the world. New York Times. Retrieved from

Thorpe, A. (2011). Defining design as activism. Design Activism. Retrieved from

Web Pages

Bartleet, B. (2016). Retrieved from

Inkahoots. (2016). Retrieved from

Ovland, T. (2014). Retrieved  from


What was the most interesting weekly topic we covered in this subject this semester and why?

All of the topics covered in this semester were interesting in their own way, and while I enjoyed many, the most interesting would have to be Week 11 when we covered Design for Nature – I particularly enjoyed the ideas presented by Marris in Rambunctious Garden that nature is everywhere, not just out there in the wilderness somewhere as is the common perception.

Would you say that this was the topic about which you learned the most, or was that another week? Please explain your view.

I wouldn’t say that there was a great deal of learning on this topic as I found myself building more of an appreciation for Marris’ expressed opinion. The topic in which I learnt the most, having not done a unit of design before, would have been Week 3 on Communication Design Activism.

Which set text or weekly reading did you find most interesting in this unit? Can you see yourself seeking out more of the author/s work or by other authors on the topic?

Ann Thorpe’s Defining Design as Activism was the reading that I found most interesting. Since reading this passage I have already done further research and looked for further works by and related to this and could see myself doing so again going forward with this course.

Which activity/task did you enjoy the most? Which activity/task was the most useful in building your academic skills?

The most enjoyable task for me was Week 10 – Cradle to Cradle thinking – looking at the Detroit Wallace Guitars. Being a musician the combination of a subject that I am passionate about and a weekly topic I found it quit easy to get motivated and write a piece. The week on referencing, assuming that I did it correctly, was easily the most useful in building my academic skills.

Design For Nature – Caption

“Nature is carefully managed national parks and vast boreal forest and uninhabited arctic. Nature is also the birds in your backyard.” (Marris 2011, p. 2)

When it comes to backyards it doesn’t get much better than seeing this on your doorstep. In Rambunctious Garden Marris explains that nature comes with a preconceived notion that a wholesome environment is somewhere far away – like that which would be seen on a post card or documentary. How easy this point is to understand then when you can walk outside your front door and see this majestical landscape.


“We can marvel at the diversity of life and fight its disappearance, even if that diversity occurs in unfamiliar places. We can find beauty in nature, even if signs of humanity are present. We can see the sublime in our own backyards, if we try.” (Marris 2011, p. 3)

This stunning sunset image was captured from the window of the Hotel Steyne in Manly as my wife and I sat watching the world go by. On the surface this image shows an ecosystem where remains of the natural world narrowly avoid complete eradication by poking their heads out through the gaps in the brick pavement. Underneath this environment is just as unnatural to the Australian coastline as the Europeans who introduced it.



Marris, E. (2011). Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-wild World, Bloomsbury, New York

Cradle to Cradle Thinking

Screen Shot 2016-09-21 at 9.43.17 PM.png

(Source: Wallace Detroit Guitars, 2016,

Wallace Detroit Guitars is one of the most incredibly beautiful, and yet somehow still topically relevant, examples of design I have come across since starting my studies. As a guitarist who has always been partial to a telecaster there is something about this all natural finish and handcrafted piece of work that just makes you stop and think about how much better life would be if you had one of these in it.

But life is not all about looks, and the Wallace Detroit Guitars are no different, underneath the lacquer and rosewood fretboard lies the real beauty. Each handcrafted model is made from 100 year old wood recycled from old buildings around Detroit. This eco-friendly design complies with two of the five steps to eco-effectiveness that are discussed by McDonough and Braungart (2002).

Step 1.  Get “free of” known culprits

“They make sure that lead paint and asbestos isn’t getting into the environment when the houses come down. And they keep literally tons of wood from being sent to landfills.”(Wallace Detroit Guitars 2016)

By ensuring that products used are both environmentally friendly and non-harmful to consumers, and advertising the product with this point in mind, the overall appeal of the product is shown in a positive light and reflects the effective way in which the product has been designed.

Step 5. Reinvent

Now we are doing more than redesigning for biological and technical cycles. We are recasting the design assignment: not “design a car” but “design a nutrivehicle”. (McDonough and Braungart 2002, p. 178-9)

In the case of Wallace Detroit Guitars the redesigning is not “design a telecaster” but “design a nutri-axe”. The use of recycled resources and design methods to put a new spin on a classic design is done incredibly well and, when using this step to analyse the design, it is easy to see how the designer has positioned this to effectively market their product.

The only question that remains now is where can I find $2,000 to bring one of these beauties home for myself?



McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to Cradle. NorthPoint Press, New York

Wallace Detroit Guitars. (2016). Retrieved from




Design for a Sustainable Future

“The thoughtful designer of the twenty·first century will design with integrity, sensitivity and compassion. He/she will design products/materials/service products that are sustainable, I.e, they serve human needs without depleting natural and manmade resources, without damage to the carrying capacity of ecosystems and without restricting the options available for present and future generations.” (Fuad-Luke, 2002, p.15)


(Source: Walks In Nature, 2016,

Walks In Nature by Viola Design conforms with many of Fuad-Luke’s principles in The eco-design handbook : a complete sourcebook for the home and office (Fuad-Luke, 2002). Many of Fuad-Luke’s 14 principles could have been applied to this project with the two most suitable for discussion being;

10. Design to maximize a product/material/service product’s benefit to communities.

14. Design to create more sustainable products/materials/service products for a more sustainable future. (Fuad-Luke, 2002,p. 15)

The project takes 32 bushwalking trails from Melbourne and surrounding areas and places them on a deck of cards to encourage the public to explore these areas. By doing this the project conforms with the 10th principle as it is attempting to raise community awareness and encouraging participation with the local environment in a way that the public may not have previously considered.

To further enhance the environmental focus of this project the cards themselves are “printed on stock produced with 20% virgin ECF fibre and 80% post-consumer recycled FSC Mix Certified fibre.” (Walks In Nature, 2016) at a mill which has ISO 14001 environmental certification. By using recycled natural materials the green focus of the project, to encourage the public to reconnect with nature, the project successfully achieves the 14th of Fuad-Luke’s principles and creates a sustainable product which, not only contributes to a more sustainable future, but to the future of the very thing that it is designed to promote.



Fuad-Luke, A. (2002). The eco-design handbook : a complete sourcebook for the home and office. Thames and Hudson, London.

Viola Design. (2016). Retrieved from




1.5 Letter Arguing for Funds

To whom it may concern,

My name is William Colvin and I am writing to you on behalf of IDE India – a not for profit organisation which creates and develops sustainable market for low cost irrigation technology.

IDEI follows the approach of using donor funds to build grass root entrepreneurs to stimulate a sustainable & free market which is why we would like you to consider sponsoring further production of the KB Bamboo Treadle Pump.

The pump itself is a foot operated reciprocating type positive displacement pump which is used to draw water from shallow tube wells. It can be used on any manner of crops, from foodstuffs to flowers, and can be easily constructed and operated by local farmers for up to 10 years.

Funding for this project not only provides the local farmers with a means to facilitate their work but also stimulates the local and international economies and further capitalises on the rapid growth coming from an emerging market.

With your hep IDEI can not only improve the lives of farmers in dry areas but the global population as a whole by encouraging economic growth and better use of natural resources.

We thank you for your consideration.


William Colvin



IDEI. (2016). Retrieved from


2. ‘Design activists’ are contemporary designers who undertake projects based on their ethical concerns and a sense of social responsibility.


Fuad-Luke, A. (2009). Design activism: Beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world. London & Sterlin, Virginia, US: Earthscan.

Heller, S. & Vienne, V. (2003). Citizen designer: Perspectives on design responsibility. New York: Alworth Press.

Roberts, L. (2006). Good: Ethics of Graphic Design. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing. (Philosophy – an Interview with Anthony Grayling)

Articles and Online Articles

Julier, G. (2013). From Design Culture to Design Activism. Design and Culture55(2), 215-236. Retrieved from

Lees-Maffei, G. (2012). Reflections on design activism and social change.Design Issues. Spring 201, 28(2), 90-92. Retrieved from

Markussen, T. (2013). The disruptive aesthetics of design activism: Enacting design between art and politics. Design Issues. Winter 2013, 29(1), 38-50. Retrieved from

Millman, D. (2014, December 15). Justin Ahrens: Design matters, design observer. Retrieved from

Rawsthorn, A. (2013, July 15). Expanding the definitions of design. New York Times. Retrieved from

Rawsthorn, A. (2014, December 4). Fixing stuff, repairing the world. New York Times. Retrieved from

Thorpe, A. (2011). Defining design as activism. Design Activism. Retrieved from

Web Pages

Inkahoots. (2016). Retrieved from

Memefest. (2016). Retrieved from