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Cause-Driven Design–Is There Such a Thing?

February 4, 2015   |   Matt Schwartz

A version of this post orginally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest.

As a designer who works almost exclusively with mission-focused nonprofits, I frequently get asked, “What is cause-driven design?” My response is usually another question: “What is design?”

The definition I’ve adopted, brought to my attention by branding expert Marty Neumeier, comes from Herbert Simon, a Nobel-Prize winning political scientist, economist, and sociologist:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.

So, when we think of design, we must first recognize that pretty much everyone – and not just “creative people”— designs in one way or another. Nonprofit organizations, committed to creating positive change in the world, are continuously engaged in the act of design.

Second, when we “design,” we’re not necessarily creating actual things (like websites or annual reports). Moreover, whatever it is we are creating, it almost always involves a complex, interdisciplinary system of ideas, actions, and messaging that, with a lot of hard work and a little luck, will alter a situation from what it is to what we’d like it to be.

Organizational planning? Design. Copywriting? Design. Software development? Design. That workaround you used to fix your leaky faucet until the plumber showed up? You get the point.

Design, as every good designer knows, is nothing without context. And context, to be meaningful, requires us to look at things from a whole bunch of perspectives, then thinking them through before we sit down to “design” that report cover, tagline, data visualization, or website. To borrow an analogy from the medical field, we’ve got to diagnose the situation before we can prescribe a course of treatment.

So what is cause-driven design? As its name implies, it is a process whose central organizing principle has to do with more effectively engaging and educating audiences on and about issues, connecting them to causes they care about, and delivering more meaningful brand experiences that help advance a mission and lead to greater impact (however an organization defines “impact”). Whether the nonprofit in question operates on the front lines of an urgent social issue or works more quietly behind the scenes, it is about understanding the context in which the really important questions are formulated, then aligning every messaging effort to explain why the answers to the questions are important.

At its best, cause-driven design cuts through the clutter of our busy lives, calms our over-stimulated brains, and helps to organize the plethora of choices we all face, every day. It unites strategy, content, design, and technology in ways that enables your nonprofit to more effectively engage with its principal audiences and speak more meaningfully to their deeper needs, goals, and motivations. It’s bigger than the brand, it’s bigger than design; it’s the mission or cause we’re driven to take up.

Matt Schwartz
Matt Schwartz is Founder and Director of Strategy at MSDS, a NYC-based branding & design firm specializing in nonprofits and higher education