Let’s face it. Our profession is relatively insignificant when it comes to changing lives.
Doctors save lives. Lawmakers make the laws that protect (or complicate) lives. Missionaries preach the message that saves souls, while actively build hospitals, schools, orphanages, and water wells that change lives forever.
The scientists and the researchers who make important discoveries and the engineers put the discoveries into action. Can we imagine a world without them?
The architects build 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 admire 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? Maybe it’s unfair to compare ourselves to doctor, lawyers, missionaries, scientists or architects, but I always doubt the relevance of our profession.
On Saturday, I visited the Street Ministry based in Old Klang Bus Station. It is a centre funded by several churches to help the homeless reintegrate into society. Located at the heart of KL, the ministry workers cover the streets and alleys of Petaling Street, Pudu and Dayabumi, inviting the homeless people — usually the elderly, abandoned by their families — to the centre which provides food, medical help, shower, and laundry. The centre also provides counselling and the support network, in 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 we could contribute in any manner 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 an accountant, I could have volunteered to offer my professional knowledge to balance the books and maximise the limited funds. If I am trained as a counsellor, I am certain I will be of great help dealing with disappointment and depression. Or if I am a plumber, a contractor, an electrician, I could just 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 about improving the identity and the communications to generate greater awareness, and by doing so, attracting more funding. Or a better-designed leaflet to grab attention and direct 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 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 other people’s lives. At that moment, I realised what we spend our working hours 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 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?
A fellow designer once remarked that if 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. An unfair and exaggerated comparison, but it does ring some truth.