Change the world? Not.

Let’s face it. Our profession is relatively insignificant when it comes to changing lives.

It is unfair to compare ourselves to doctors, lawmakers, or missionaries. We can’t save lives nor make the laws that protect (or complicate) lives. Neither can we preach the messages that save the souls, or build the hospitals, schools, orphanages, or even water wells that change lives forever.

The money and numbers people – the financial planners, the accountants, the bookkeepers – could help manage the resources, ensuring everything allocated is well utilised.

The scientists and the researchers make important discoveries and the engineers put discoveries into action. Can we imagine a world without them?

The architects build the buildings that change the landscape forever.  In the case of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, it placed the unknown Bilbao onto the map, transforming the small industrial Spanish town into a hot tourist spot.

How about us?

Does our next identity project change anything? Or the next brochure. Or the next poster. Or the next website?

I read about Michael Johnson’s works with Save the Children and Christian Aid. They are all impressive design solutions. Yet, I wonder – is that how far we can go as designers?

On Saturday, I visited the Street Ministry based in Old Klang Bus Station. It is a centre funded by several churches with the intention of helping the homeless regain a place in society. The location of the ministry is in the heart of Kuala Lumpur where one can find homeless people, abandoned by their families for various reasons. The ministry workers cover the streets and alleys of Petaling Street, Pudu and Dayabumi, inviting the needy to the centre which provides temporary shelter, snacks, medical help, shower, and laundry. The centre also provides counselling and a support network, with the aim that the homeless could one day find hope, restore dignity, and rebuild their lives.

The purpose of the trip was for us to find out if there are ways we could contribute to this centre.

That evening I again reconfirmed that our profession is really of not much use, especially when it comes to working for humanitarian causes.

If I’m a doctor, I could have volunteered my services. If I am a money person, I could have volunteered to maintain the books and offer my professional advice on how to maximise the limited funds. If I am trained as a counsellor, perhaps I could put the training to good use. Or if I am a plumber, a contractor, an electrician, I could have instantly offered services which would have an immediate impact on the centre – not just in improving the facilities but also the training of those who wish to learn a skill to get off the streets.

But I am a designer. So naturally, I am thinking along the lines of improving identity, generating better awareness, and by doing so, attracting more funding. I am wondering if better-designed leaflets could grab attention and channel more homeless folks to the centre. Or better-designed posters in the centre could motivate the people more? I know I could have done all these, but they are so relatively meaningless. They are not actions that would make a direct impact.

I looked at the people running the centre. Some are ex-street people. Here they are, changed and motivated, and putting all their hearts into transforming lives. At that moment, I realised that what we spend our days doing – identity, publicity, awareness, PR, etc. etc. – means nothing to them. It doesn’t matter whether the centre receives more funding or the media reports about them or corporations are open to injecting sponsorships (under the good corporate citizen act).

All that matters to them is that they are touching lives every day, one at a time, with whatever they have been given.  Contented and without complaints. Do they really want better branding, better design, or even think about a new logo?

Yet here I am. I don’t even know how to hold a conversation with the homeless.

So tell me, as a designer, what can I do?

A fellow designer once said should all the designers in Malaysia went on strike for a week, no one would have noticed anything. But, if the trash-collectors went on strike for just one day, people would suffer. So that makes our profession less important. An unfair and exaggerated comparison, but it does ring some truth.