As a visual designer working in social impact, I typically come to the end of a project and hand over a pristine set of final design assets to the partner organization. While these may be fit for purpose at the time of completion, a year down the line, all the variables I was working with may be different. The problem, the people, their feelings, or the social, economic, or financial challenges at hand may have changed shape. With changed variables, the assets designed become outdated, and are no longer resonant nor relevant. Upon realizing this, the partner reaches back out and says, “Hey! Can you update these deliverables?”
The organizations we partner with understandably need ongoing design support to solve complex problems in changing contexts. However, I believe this model where designers and their employers hold the power of the pen when it comes to designing solutions — and will charge organizations a good amount to wield it — feels restrictive and capitalist. I believe in prioritizing openness and access, paving the way for our designs to be used to do the most good in the world that they can.
Unfortunately, the reality is that design assets will never be evergreen — an expiration date will always be in sight as long as we live in a changing world. As a design organization in the social impact sector, I believe that we should actively work towards extending the longevity of our assets, ensuring that we're not gatekeeping our design output just to generate more work and more money. While I love handing over deliverables that are beautiful and perfect — and as much as I don’t want anyone to touch my work — I recognize that this need for control is a result of ego. But there’s no need to sacrifice one for the other.
I believe that there exists a venn diagram where design perfection and adaptable design can comfortably overlap. Where design can be both high quality but open source, where we can relinquish control, invite others to be the owners, and allow our work to evolve with time without us holding onto them so tightly.
My vision for an adaptable design process is to be able to hand polished designs over to a partner in unlocked, accessible formats with the expectation that they will continue to evolve and develop this work on their own. This ensures that the assets can be modified by our partners — or by other organizations in other places who might find them useful — to keep them relevant, impactful, contextualized, and scaled. Practicing design partnership in this way means that if a partner wants to engage IDEO.org again, it wouldn’t just be to unlock and update their assets. Instead, they would be coming to us to tackle new issues altogether or to bring us into the work as thought partners.
This is all about function and longevity. I want to hand over something that continues to give and give for a long time, not something that expires and ends up in a digital dump. I want to create something functional, sustainable, and useful, with a life beyond the close of a project, program, or contract. Then, if a design does reach its expiration, it’s because a need has been resolved, and not because the deliverable is outdated and longer relevant.
In practice, this would look like detailed workbooks or kits that incorporate templatized design assets using accessible platforms such as Google Suites. This way, anyone can come in, sit in the designer’s seat, and create or modify assets with the guidance of some simple instructions in the form of written steps or short instructional videos. It’s accessible to people of different ages, backgrounds, and abilities, and gives them a say.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve had the opportunity to work on 3 projects in partnership with the National Resource Center for Refugees, Immigrants and Migrants (NRC-RIM), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and community based organizations and leaders.The challenge with these projects was how dynamic the disease and the official guidance around it were. To this day, guidelines constantly change, and what might be true and relevant in one instance in a certain location and with a specific community might not be elsewhere.
So, how might we create a set of design deliverables that continue to be used and evolved with this pandemic, and continue to be contextualized towards the needs of different communities across the U.S.? Trying to answer this question opened my eyes to the great potential of open source assets.
For the first sprint, we created a series of assets that aimed to decrease hesitancy in participating in contact tracing with three different communities. This was the moment we realized that handing over locked campaign assets wouldn’t be enough. What was relevant in one state wasn’t in another, communities spoke different languages, and their views on contact tracing and the vaccines varied. Instead of handing over locked assets we worked towards handing over our process in order to enable these communities and local health departments to create their own campaigns without the need to hire us. Our process consisted of a kit that contained a series of worksheets, case studies, and design templates, and it enabled folks to think about campaign messaging and calls to action. They could then create corresponding posters, social media assets, and even radio ads within the same brand that we put together.
With this invitation to get involved, we knew that this — putting useful shit in an easy-to-use kit — should be our approach going forward. With our newfound “kit this shit” energy, we started thinking ahead to our next challenge, this time with the intention of templatizing the campaign assets from the get go.
Using Google Slides, we created a deck of templates, a simple brand identity with a selection of colors and shapes, a curated bank of photography, and some simple instructions. It was a kit of parts similar to a lego box — where people could ask themselves, “What kind of campaign do I want to build? What could it say? What call to action am I inviting my community to participate in?” And every single lego piece in that kit was defined and built by the local leaders in the community who know their contexts and communities best. Each piece was formed by what we heard, and became a tool to build many, many more relevant and resonant campaigns.
I want to be a part of spaces where we open the doors and invite people into the process. That’s why I’m fascinated by platforms like Github that allow anybody to offer, use, modify, and build on their products/assets. Adopting a mentality of “this can only get better and be more useful with time” and address various needs.
What would it be like for visual designers to participate with the capacities and expertise that they have in a similar way? What if we built sandboxes and invited others to come in and participate in creation, adaptation, or even translation? These people could be other designers, community members, government officials, or even children.
At the end of the day, I think everyone should be able to use these kits to make more assets, evolve a campaign, or even hack it to meet other needs. Obviously, I don’t know what an approach like this would do for business, but let’s centralize and democratize both our process and assets so that anybody and everybody can benefit from our work. What’s the best that could happen?
Illustrations by Joan Encarnacion