Beauty as a Tool for Social Transformation

Reflecting on the role beauty can play when democratized and wielded for good.

I saw a lot of the ugly side of society, and the norms that bound it, pretty early on. As a child, I was often called Miskin, a Punjabi slang word borrowed from Arabic that is used to describe a poor lamb—humble and helpless. Growing up, I had a strong desire to speak to the oppressive norms around me, but I felt that I didn’t have the gravitas nor the physical authority to stand up for myself and the people around me—with one exception. In the safety of my room and with my sketchbook, I didn’t feel like a Miskin. I’d draw sketches of the powerful women that I secretly idolized on television; I’d conjure up badass superheroes that could protect and heal others; I’d design my dream house, one where I could feel safe and free. Manifesting a new world was not only comforting—it made possibilities tangible and beautiful. It was an act of hope.

Thirty years down the road, I’m still wrapping my head around the ways in which beauty can be wielded for good. I’ve seen beauty bring people closer to what they need, inspire them, and kindle curiosity. I’ve also witnessed it disarm those who hold power, inviting them in to have a conversation in an approachable way—sometimes with persuasion and sometimes with seduction. Beauty can supercharge a desirable social change, but it can also make dangerous things irresistible. Historically, fascist movements and dictators have used this tool to their advantage. Nazi Germany used beauty in the form of movies, media campaigns and architecture to coerce. The Soviet Union and its vast propaganda machine is evident in the beautifully designed but troubling posters and public campaigns.

Beauty is complex. For beauty to be an act of hope—and not tyranny—it is essential to bring people closer to the process of defining and creating beauty. As a designer, I hold immense power when it comes to defining and shaping beauty, but it is meaningless if the people it is meant for do not see themselves in that expression. Democratizing beauty and using it for social change can be a great tool for transformation, agency, and alignment. I would love to share some ways I’ve witnessed this happen in my work.

Beauty as disarmament

Beauty can pique people’s curiosity, opening them up to small shifts in mindset. This is particularly powerful when it comes to sensitive topics that breed skepticism and antagonism. This was the case in Nampula, Mozambique, where stigma around HIV runs so deep that people were at risk of being social pariahs for just talking about it in the open. While working on a public health campaign to help people access HIV treatment, instead of relying on traditional public health messaging that leads with facts, we focused on the emotional nuances of living and thriving while getting HIV treatment. The campaign leveraged bold messaging with soft, happy colors to show examples of real, young people living a full life with HIV treatment. The idea was to inspire people to see beyond the stigma and break the narrative of HIV as a death sentence.

During our campaign prototyping phase, we noticed a middle-aged woman who moved past all the health posters on the wall and paused in front of our campaign poster. When asked why, she said “I don’t understand the words too much, but the colors were so attractive I want to know more about this.” Her fear subsided for a moment and she ended up having a conversation with one of our team members. While it might seem like a small, potentially trivial, step, I saw how beauty softened her armor. This new narrative around HIV made her feel less scared and more comfortable about asking questions.

Beauty as a force for convergence

Beauty can create the conditions for people to engage in a good tension. It’s a way to share, build, persuade, and create consensus. Recently, we collaborated with academics, activists, and data experts to increase women’s voice, influence, and control of money at key life stages. Everyone had different visions about how to get to economic empowerment—from incrementalism to shaking up the status quo, focusing on women versus their environment, and reducing harm done by gatekeepers or building a woman's capacity to stand up for herself.

Our team created speculative artifacts that painted a vision of an ideal future for these women and girls—from newspaper headlines that raved about teenage girls leading charge in STEM, or the section of a daily tabloid highlighting the rise of marriage as a partnership between equals. We aligned on a future where generations of young girls were educated, confident, and set up to pursue careers and assert their perspectives with others. While we had a lot of data evidence and qualitative research to make a case, the tangible manifestation of the future scenarios helped align the team in a shared direction and rile them into action.

Beauty as a form of playful dissent.

Beauty has the power to galvanize people to stand up for themselves and what they believe. In rural Bangladesh, women have financial aspirations, but these are often stifled by rigid rules and social norms. In trying to connect them with digital financial services, we weren't just designing for the ease of use, but to build their confidence.

We piloted a program that is part educational platform and part support network for women. As some women said, “Men have their adda time, now we have ours.” During enrollment, we had filled all the spots for the pilot program. But one woman was so eager to be part of it, we had to make extra space for her. When asked why she was so motivated to join she said “I felt so special seeing those brochures and stickers, I wanted to give it a try”. She took the welcome brochure back home and convinced her whole family to let her take part in the program. With the small act of participating in the program, she is building her agency and starting to flex her ability to stand up for herself and her hopes for the future. Beauty made her feel worthy to take those first steps towards empowerment.

Beauty is often misunderstood especially in the context of designing for social impact. It can be considered a superficial, often unnecessary luxury or afterthought. But I’ve come to recognize it’s soft power. For me it's just a friendly tool to make people want to be part of the change, part of something beautiful. This tool has helped me find hope and heal and now I feel a little less like a Miskin.

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