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The Role of Graphic Design in International Development Sali Sasaki 2010 edition


Abstract In July 1987, a working paper entitled Graphic Design for Development was submitted by board members [1] of ICOGRADA (the International Council of Graphic Design Associations) to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization), following a 4-day seminar in Nairobi, Kenya*. The main objectives of the seminar were to raise awareness on the contributions graphic design can make in improving people’s lives and to increase a better understanding of graphic design in international organizations. 21 years on, this study will show, how graphic designers have become more sensitive to world issues and how the professional world of design tries to encourage and promote new social design practices in partnership with the United Nations. Several case studies will demonstrate how graphic design, as a branding and communication tool, has been used within the UN system and its public information structures. Additional examples from the UN and its partner-organizations will be presented in order to reveal a new perspective on graphic design and its role for social and cultural development. * Frascara, J., Kalsi, A., Kneebone, P. (1987), Graphic Design for Development, Paris: Crea No39, UNESCO Division of Cultural Development and Artistic Creation.

Keywords Social design, international development, graphic design, globalization, cultural identity.


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Introduction In July 1987, a working paper entitled Graphic Design for Development was submitted by board members of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA) to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), following a four-day seminar in Nairobi, Kenya (see Figure 1). The main objectives of the seminar were to raise awareness on the contributions graphic design can make in improving people’s lives and to increase a better understanding of graphic design in international organizations. 21 years on, it is worth asking how has graphic designers’ position evolved vis-à-vis world issues and how does the professional world of design encourage and promote new social design practices? Victor Papanek wrote in Design for the Real World that “All design must fill a human need (it) is basic to all human activities. (…) Any attempt to separate design to make it a thing by itself works counter to the inherent value of design as the primary underlying matrix of life.” (1) During my four-year career at UNESCO, I concentrated on the role

of graphic design for development and researched its application in the fields of general education, public health, environment, public information, and social responsibility through cultural traditions, contemporary practices and the empowerment of future generations of designers. Design is a creative methodology that has the ability to support UNESCO’s notion of successful development, which has been defined as “a tradition specific to each culture combined with the most modern economic, scientific and technological resources.” (2) Many graphic designers are today involved with both social and cultural responsibilities in a world that is more globalised than ever. Following are a few examples on how they propose solutions to global challenges and choose to cooperate in an international context. 1. Papanek, V. (1971-1973), Design for the Real World, New York: Pantheon Books, 257, 288. 2. Perez de Cuellar, J. (1988), Our Creative Diversity, Introduction, The World Decade for Cultural Development 1988-1997, Paris: UNESCO, 7.


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Graphic design, the UN and international development

The relationship between graphic design and the United Nations started in the spring of 1945, when delegates of 50 Allied nations gathered in San Francisco to finalize the charter of the United Nations during the United Nations Conference on International Organization. It was then that what later became one of the world’s most recognizable symbols was presented by Donal McLaughlin and his design team: the official United Nations Emblem, a round depiction of the world’s continents on circular lines of latitude and vertical lines of longitude framed by two olive branches. This universal emblem still embodies the values and aspirations of the Organization and its Member States. To designers this story is a good reminder that the birth of the United Nations would not have

taken place without the creation of a powerful graphic symbol. Over half a century later, the UN of the 21st century is a complex organization made of countless agencies, programs and funds. Branding is a challenging exercise for an administrative system that works with 193 different countries in six official languages. During the past few years, UN programs and agencies have focused more thoroughly on their communication strategies, and are involving an increasing number of graphic designers to create efficient communication tools. Successful examples are the UNICEF’s brand tool kit and UNFPA’s online style guide.

UNICEF communication campaiign


1.1 Water for Life

Poster designs have been a popular way of combining graphic design with UN goals, and designers have collaborated with numerous (UN) organizations and NGOs. In 2005 the Japan Graphic Design Association (JAGDA) launched the Water for Life poster competition, in partnership with the UN Information Centre in Tokyo. Poster competitions remain popular as graphic design activities with a social twist. Recent examples include competitions organized by UNESCO and the design network Design 21 for the 2009 International Mother Language Day.

Above and left: Water for Life posters from JAGDA

1.2 DesignMatters With an increasing public and professional interest in the field of “social design�, a number of design schools and organizations have launched projects that bring young designers into the realm of international development. It is notably the case for Art Center College of Design and its ambitious Designmatters program launched in 2001 as a college-wide initiative that explores social and humanitarian applications of design. Through its fellowship program, Designmatters helps NGO’s and UN agencies with the implementation of tangible design solutions for communication strategies and branding. The program is a model for other design schools that are looking to cooperate with international organizations. It exposes designers to working environments that are challenging and require the in-depth learning of how societies function.


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The Cultural Value of Graphic Design There is a cultural dimension to graphic design that is derived from traditions, ethnicity, diversity, languages, gender, beliefs, value systems and also a certain ability to “transform the visual heritage of places and peoples into contemporary commercial currency and cultural expression*�. The strength of graphic design lies in its ability to disseminate cultures and in its capacity to make knowledge accessible.

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* Campbell, E. (2006), Design and Architecture Newsletter, London: British Council, 3.

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1. Mother Language Poster by Ona for UNESCO 2. UNESCO flyer by Jackson Wang from Art Center Designmatters 3. UN Radio campaign by Sebastian Bettencourt


2.1 Hach Kaab: Exporting local culture through design

2.2 Javin Mo: Designed in China

In order to be socially credible, design must mean something within the cultural context from where it originates. Solutions are more sustainable when they are rooted in cultural meaning. Maria Rogal is a professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville and has been developing a graphic design based program that supports traditional craftsmanship and local businesses in Central America . The Hach Kaab initiative is a design-driven project that pushes traditional Mayan beekeeping to the next level. The identity and label designs based on indigenous aesthetics are the results of research and collaboration between designers and members of the Cooperativa Lol-Balché based in SouthernYucatán. The branding of honey through design methodologies brings hope for the local workers that are looking to expand the honey business further. Soaps, wax products, sweets and royal jelly are being considered as potential luxury exports for the European consumer market.

In contemporary China, young designers are taking their country to a new creative era, while government officials and businesses see increasing opportunities rising from the “designed in China” concept. Hong Kong based designer Javin Mo is the editor of “New Graphic Design in China”, a publication that features 30 designers from mainland China and which reveals the creative outburst triggered by the rapid economic development and recent social transformations in the country. Through the work of its designers, China has become involved in a global conversation that invests heavily in contemporary culture and creativity. The blend of traditions, ideologies and pop culture that characterize Chinese visual expression of the 21st century could soon turn design into the nation’s biggest export.


2.3 Saki Mafundikwa: Cultural traditions Following a Master’s degree in graphic design from Yale University, Saki Mafundikwa returned to his native country Zimbabwe and researched the origins of African writing systems and typography. His research of ten years led to the publication of Afrikan Alphabets. Through a designer’s perspective the book reveals a dimension of African culture that was long suppressed by colonial powers. According to Saki Mafundikwa, design has always been inherent to African culture and traditions.

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1. Packaging design from the Hack Kaab initiative 2. Cover of New Graphic Design in China edited by Javin Mo 3. Shunom writing from Afrikan Alphabets


2.3 INDIGO: Indigenous design

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Similarly but on a larger scale, the Indigenous Design Network (INDIGO) was formed in 2007 by the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA) and the National Design Centre in Melbourne. This network promotes indigenous design as living culture, looks at its relationship to national identity and its role as visual culture within contemporary society. The term indigenous in this context is broad and inclusive of every sort of visual expression that questions the notion of local design in a globalized world.

1. Big Words poster by Georgina Lim for INDIGO 2. Artisans from the Yucatan working with the Kuxtal cooperative 3. Mother Tongue poster for INDIGO 4. Rickshaw art from Dhaka, Bangladesh

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Room for improvement: What next for graphic designers? In order to promote the expansion of graphic design beyond conventional frames of reference and to help maintain the international discourse of design and its role in socio-cultural development, graphic designers and other related organizations have to learn, promote, network and collaborate. Here are ten recommendations on how to achieve socially responsible design: • Build experience around the needs of people living in different contexts; • Network with international organizations and corporations in order to demonstrate the value of design; • Participate in multidisciplinary initiatives in which designers play a critical role in the development of social entrepreneurship and innovation; • Work on publications, events, exhibitions and competitions on design that promote creative initiatives for development; • Advocate the power of graphic

design in a cultural context by organizing workshops and seminars and by encouraging cross-cultural exchange; Evaluate the quality of design education across the world and multiply social design curricula; Learn from professional organizations that can provide expertise, knowledge, guidance, contacts and ensure an international perspective and representation of design; Create open information sources on design methodologies in partnership with public and private partners worldwide; Provide new platforms where individuals and organizations can share best practices on a global scale; Knock on doors that have never been opened.


Š Sali Sasaki 2010


Graphic Design for Development (2010 edition)