Thursday, 13 September 2012

Book Review - Just Design

You may not be aware that I have a degree in graphic design. It's an area that I've felt more and more disconnected with over the last nine years since leaving university. I love to generate ideas, but I'm not very comfortable with commercial design, I feel swallowed up on a daily basis by diluted, style driven, and mediocre design, the sole purpose of which is to rid you of your hard earned pennies over something frivolous. 

When I first picked up Just Design I could have been mistaken in thinking that it is just another collection of pretty design, like all those other glossy hardbacks that grace the shelves of bookstores. As much as I do enjoy indulging in such books, Just Design offers more. It isn't about witty ideas and beautiful kerning, it focuses on design created for good causes. It's design that helps others or raises awareness, and as well as the examples of design work it also offers an interesting and intelligent commentary.
The first chapter of the book Beginning sees a foreword by John Bielenberg and an introduction by Christopher Simmons. The author, Simmons, is Creative Director of San Francisco based design office MINE, producing work for both commercial and non-profit sectors. He is also a writer, educator, and past president of AIGA San Francisco. The initial three projects are created by MINE, and I did raise a cynical eyebrow, and flick forward a few pages to ensure that the book wasn't some kind of portfolio or self- congratulatory pat on the back. It isn't, there are a variety of designers and studios from across the world, although there is a larger emphasis on the U.S. 

Not all examples are particularly up to date, most seem to date between 2006 and 2010, and not all translate well, reproduced at a smaller size. Most projects relate to identity and print design, although a small number of websites also feature. None of this serves to diminish the huge amount of information about 'just' causes that is shared. 

Following the introduction, the book is divided into six key parts, Supporting, Seeking, Organizing, Teaching, Reacting, and Celebrating
Supporting looks at projects where designers have been asked to solve a problem by an already established cause or organisation, where as Seeking illustrates how designers can actively search for a need that could benefit from their skills. 
A project that I found particularly interesting was Rosa Loves, who design t-shirts based on the story of an individual/s in need. Each time a t-shirt sells, 100% of the proceeds go directly to that need. This has really inspired me into thinking how helping others doesn't mean going through a middleman, it could be more immediate. 
The chapter on Organizing focuses on collaborations and how communities can be created and brought together through a project, while Teaching looks at examples of student projects. 
Reacting concentrates on projects that raise money or compassion in response to anything from natural disasters to human rights causes. 
The final collection of work Celebrating focuses on projects that raise the profile of art and design. A highlight for me was the project Urban Play which looked at whether public works of art could endure. It included a piece by Stefan Sagmeister and a team of volunteers, where 250,000 carefully placed euro cent pieces, spelled out in beautiful calligraphic street typography 'Obsessions Make My Life Worse and My Work Better'. In answer to the question of endurance, the police swept up all the coins for safe-keeping, when it was thought they were being stolen shortly after completion. 
Throughout all of these chapters there is also an interesting selection of interviews and essays by numerous creatives, that delve deeper into issues such as the sustainability of working for free and creating for good causes. 

If you are searching for a book that is going to inspire you with witty ideas and guide you closer to that design award then Just Design may disappoint, but if you are feeling a bit underwhelmed by the current state of design, and are pondering over the point of it all, then this book may very well inspire you. It can motivate you into using your skills to create design with a bit more substance, and help with ideas of where to begin. It isn't about generic achievements, it's about becoming involved with work that you are passionate about and can connect with. 
The wonderful thing about this book is that the design is almost secondary, yes it's important, but it's actually the background of the projects or causes, and the insight into why people produce pro-bono work that really shines. 

By the end of the book, not only was I personally interested in a number of causes and organisations that I previously didn't know anything about, but I was also interested in graphic design again. It made me realise that a sense of community and connection is what is often missing. When so much design is commercially driven and throwaway, we crave something more grounded.

Just Design - Socially Conscious Design for Critical Causes by Christopher Simmons is available from the usual book retailers including (currently £22.74)

RRP - £34.99
How Books - FW Media
ISBN-10: 1600619711

Please note that I was given a copy of this book, but was not paid to write a review.

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