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Graphic Design


Image via Core77.

Posters are inherently persuasive. Their sole purpose is to communicate a message, inspire a movement, educate the masses, sell an idea. Whether fully textual or wholly graphical, posters have been around through the ages in all their various realms — from politics to pop — to make a point in print. In this digital age, it’s refreshing that 2D still has a place. As well as being simple and persuasive, posters can also be designed for good. Here are five examples how.

COMPETITIVE: Core77, the industrial design magazine and online resource, is hosting a poster competition, “Sustainable Refrainables,” asking participants to “create a poster that communicates the phrases that move people toward sustainable design and business solutions.” The five winning designers will receive $14,000 worth of prizes and their posters will be displayed as transit shelters in San Francisco for one week before and during Design Week in June 2011.

SOCIAL: The annual Good 50 X 70 poster competition, led by Associazione Culturale Good Design in Milan, Italy, asks designers to submit a 50- by 70-centimeter poster that demonstrates “social communication” on a variety of issues. Themes for this year’s contest included Africa, HIV+ discrimination, legality, Mediterranean marine reserves, migrants healthcare, poverty or tiger extinction. The purpose of the contest is two-fold: to create a database of free communication tools available to any charity or NGO, like Amnesty International or Greenpeace, and also to mobilize the creative community for social change.

CURATED: Posters for Good, a simple Tumblr blog, collects “posters and pictures showing the importance of saving the environment.” The broad and disparate collection highlights a range of environmental issues, from sustainable transport to climate change.

NEWSWORTHY: In September 2010, San Francisco-based designer Jonny Selman started a project to design a poster every day for 365 days in reaction to a BBC News headline. He wakes up two hours early before heading to art school to imagine ways to visually describe the day’s top story. The purpose of his online graphic design project, known as BBCX365, is “to bridge the knowledge gap between global current events and the American public.” He says he wants to be a “catalyst for change” by compelling his audience to take interest in current global events.  The headlines that serve as the inspiration for his posters range from the geeky (“iPhone Alarms Hit By New Year Glitch”) to the gory (“Pakistan Drone Attack ‘Kills 18 Militants’”). On December 17, Selman displayed the first 100 days of his poster-making in storefront windows along Valencia in San Francisco. No word, yet, on whether he plans to sell his creations. For updates, follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

POWERFUL: If you can’t make a poster yourself, consider downloading any of these 11- by 17-inch  PDFs from Power to the Poster and plaster them in highly trafficked areas where you want your message to be heard. Call it what you want (“DIY-style guerilla poster propaganda” comes to mind), these posters pack a punch.

PATRIOTIC: Looking like something out of World War II, Green Patriot Posters aim to mobilize the American public to fight against the crisis of climate change, just as generations before us fought against other enemies. The collection of posters, created by renowned artists/activists like Shepard Fairey and Michael Bierut, as well as not-so-famous graphic designers, is part of a larger communications and advocacy campaign that encourages U.S. citizens to “build a sustainable economy.” (As a sustainable transport advocate, I was happy to see Michael Bierut design posters for buses in Cleveland, Ohio, calling people’s attention to combat climate change by taking mass transit and creating green jobs.)  You can buy a book of 50 Green Patriot Poster reproductions here. Or submit your own design for distribution on the Web. ”We felt the sustainability movement needs better images and messages to connect with people,” co-editor Edward Morris from The Canary Project told “It needs more positivity and urgency, and a better connection to values that aren’t simply about nature and conservation, which not everybody cares about, but also jobs and a better future.”

VOCAL: The Say Something Poster Project gives designers a chance to create posters that will “inspire, motivate and educate teenage kids.” The winning posters of this year’s call for entries will be donated to the Home for Little Wanderers, where they’ll help kids to engage in counseling and educational activities. The 25 semifinalists’ full size prints will be on display at “The Poster Show,” a gallery event in Boston.


Last month, Discovery Communications announced a new initiative, Discovery Impact: Creating Change, a 12-hour “marathon” event planned for mid-December, when the company’s employees lend their talents and resources to local nonprofits in need of marketing, communications and other creative services.

Creating Change was created as a continuation of Discover Your Impact Day, the company’s global volunteerism day launched in June 2010, when Discovery celebrated its 25th anniversary. More than 3,000 employees in Discovery’s 40 worldwide offices donated their time to more than 150 community projects, such as cleaning up parks or volunteering at animal shelters.

Nonprofit organizations that are interested in being a part of Discovery’s pro bono design and communications event have until October 22 to submit an application outlining their creative needs, which can range from social media training to logo design.

The idea of helping nonprofits to communicate their stories of environmental or social impact is inherently benevolent. Here are a few of the top resources:

1. Similarly to Discovery Communications, other companies are offering free services on a grant-by-grant basis. For example, NavigationArts, a Web consultancy, is accepting grant applications until November 30. Likewise, Firebelly Design offers an annual Design + Marketing Grant to local Chicago nonprofits in need.

2. Sometimes it’s all about making the right connections. Designism Connects pairs creatives who want to donate their time and talent with non-creatives who need help articulating their environmental and social causes. Other sites, while not exclusively for the design community, serve similar functions, like Catchafire, which hooks up professionals for volunteer projects at nonprofits and social enterprises; Kickstarter, which matches creative projects to funders; Skillshare, a soon-to-be-launched resource that allows anyone to barter their knowledge and skills; and VolunteerMatch, an online directory of volunteers who want to lend their time and nonprofits who need the free labor.

3. Tap into the Taproot Foundation for assistance with overall marketing, which the foundation recognizes will “strengthen your ability to communicate with key stakeholders and fundraise effectively.” A list of available service grants include those that cover visual identity and brand strategy, brochures, annual reports and websites.

4. Consider yourself lucky to participate in a “Social Impact Lab“ hosted by global innovation and design consultancy IDEO. (Better World Books was one recipient of IDEO’s pro bono assistance, highlighted as a case study in this How-To Guide.) If you can’t score an in-person session, don’t forget to check out IDEO’s open-source guide to designing for social impact, “Human Centered Design Toolkit,” created specifically for NGOs and social enterprises.

5. Design Reaction collects “user-submitted socially, politically, and environmentally conscious poster designs for non-profit use through the Creative Commons copyright license.” Browse posters for free download here.

6. “So much about design is the will to make something happen, and so much about nonprofit organizations is the will to make things better,” said Ed Schlossberg, a founding committee member of desigNYC. “We thought that by putting those two together, we would really create an opportunity for everyone to have a better experience. So that’s what we did.” The program, founded in 2009 and incubated at ESI Design, aims to improve the lives of New Yorkers through the power of pro bono design. Pilot projects include a “green guide” for a public housing development, a new website for a neighborhood street festival, and an identity and style guide for the Bronx River Alliance.

7. Local pro bono design studios and volunteer initiatives can offer hometown help. See these examples: Probonafide (Washington, D.C.), Joey’s Corner (San Francisco), and Design Marathon (Charlottesville, N.C.).

8. Strapped for cash? Apply for grant funding. Clothing company Nau sponsors a Grant for Change, awarding $10,000 to “designing for positive change.” And Sappi’s Ideas that Matter gives money to designers who want to contribute their talents to charitable activities.

Do you know of any other pro bono opportunities and resources? Submit them here or respond in the comments.


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Anthony Calabrese of MediaShift today writes about the power of infographics: “Data visualization is taking the web by storm and, with a little luck, it might be the next big thing in online journalism. Buoyed by the open data movement and accelerating change in newsrooms around the country, it has become something more than just flashy graphics and charts — it is a new form of visual communication for the 21st century.”

He goes as far to say that “this new digital alchemy can turn a simple spreadsheet into something that can…change the world.”

But is it possible to go overboard with numbers, icons and pretty colors? Alissa Walker at thinks so. “Hide your kids!” she writes, half-jokingly. “The data-viz nerds are coming for our children!”

Walker says we’ve reached a “global obsession” with data visualization, evident in everything from commercials to TV shows. But in our quest to use numbers to tell a story, especially to inspire social change, we must remember a few golden rules. (Lest we upset more people like Web designer Phil Gyford, who created an infographic in protest of…well, infographics. “Just because it’s graphical, doesn’t mean it’s useful,” he says.) Here are a few thoughts:

1. Pick up the phone. As Walker writes in, the key to crafting a compelling narrative is to be a good reporter first and a number-cruncher second, no matter how much data are at your disposal. “Yes, most of the New York Times’ award-winning infographics are researched, by a team of about 30 people, who do their reporting the old-fashioned way. It’s true…it’s always better to take a real world approach that doesn’t include an Excel document.”

2. May the source be with you. Don’t trust every number you read. Statistics can be misleading, survey methodology can be flawed, and infographic creators can be biased towards certain results. No matter how vivid the colors, read between the pixels.

3. Keep it simple. GOOD magazine educates “people who give a damn” about making the world a better place by publishing a series of infographics on everything from the impact of volcanoes to the health effects of bad teeth. Most of the visualizations are actually not interactive, proving that static graphics can be just as powerful as tricked-out, Flash-based, perfectly coded, real-time apps.

While MediaShift’s Calabrese thinks data visualization is a “new form of visual communication for the 21st century,” there are plenty of examples from generations before the Internet age that demonstrate the effectiveness of well-presented numbers. Just take a look at what English nurse/mathematician/reformer Florence Nightingale was able to do with simple pen-and-ink diagrams.

4. Think like a politician. With great power comes great responsibility, right? So wielding the power of infographics, you can choose to work for good or for evil. Consider this data-viz-for-health-care debacle: House Republican John Boehner circulated an ugly flow chart to explain the Democratic Health Plan proposal and ended up confusing and scaring the American public about issues of health care reform.

President Obama knows that infographics can sway politics, so he hired the “father of modern data visualization” Edward Tufte as an advisor to illustrate how economic stimulus funding was being used.