I started paying attention in earnest to the world around me on December 14, 2012. I woke up a high school freshman largely untouched by tragedy, strife, struggle — by midday, I was rocked by a piece of news that none of us could’ve prepared ourselves for and that none of us will ever recover from. I went to bed that night, but twenty kids in Newtown, Connecticut, far younger and more innocent than me, couldn’t say the same.
Calls for action and promises of justice quickly followed the Sandy Hook shooting. Talk of robust gun control left the lips of the President and found its way to the Senate floor. My not-yet-cynical soul found a lot of solace in the idea that our society could band together, sacrifice, and make change happen for those most in need in the aftermath of such an apocalyptic tragedy.
But we didn’t. Those bills faltered by wide margins. The conversation faded from the headlines. The reality I’d always assumed was far more dysfunctional — far more sinister — than I could’ve conceived before the weeks following Sandy Hook. Like a lot of people, I was angry, heartbroken, and afraid. It was a monumental failing of our communications, our systems, and our species. It still is.
By that point in my life, I had my heart set to some degree on pursuing design. I understood it to be largely a profession of aesthetics, as did many people who only saw designers as persnickety font freaks and little more. The more I learned of all that needed to be solved in this world, the more frustrated I became that my skills and career choices were incompatible with solving them.
Plenty of tragedies followed Sandy Hook. Too many were huge, sudden, shocking outbursts, like Dayton, El Paso, Christchurch, Pittsburg, Parkland, Las Vegas, Orlando. But plenty more were quiet, pervasive, festering failings of our society that still rot us away from the inside out: poverty, discrimination, mental illness, climate change.
But I’ve been thankful to realize that designers are very much on the front lines of driving that change — we can not only drive outreach and involvement, but learn from the people who need help the most and invent solutions that resemble that wholesome, selfless, communal view of the world that I still have somewhere inside my soul. We aren’t at the mercy of corruption, inaction, and obliviousness; we’re the agents that will end it.
Our work as activist-designers will stray more and more from what we’re accustomed to. Solutions will look a lot less like posters and websites and a lot more like nebulous, hard-to-define, problem-specific campaigns of action — but the more we learn to embrace that ambiguity and solve one problem at a time, the greater the chance we have to fulfill the ultimate purpose of our trade.