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Approaching design for social impact work is very different from advertising

The role of design in the social impact space is very different as compared to other spaces. I started my career in advertising. I was lucky to be a part of a badass, high intensity design unit within an ad agency that worked on hardcore rebranding and brand positioning projects for companies like Nokia, Puma and Vonage. It was a short stint, but I got a good feel of what’s in store for the long run. In advertising and corporate branding we are working in a highly saturated market where we need to explore innovative ways to “sell” the service / product to the consumer. The idea of the “buy in” is different. You are looking at innovative trends. You are thinking of new ways to showcase the next best phone. I absolutely loved it. The rush was amazing. It taught me a lot about the role design can play in driving a deep emotional connect with the consumer.

When I shifted to the social impact space, I subconsciously tried bringing in the same attitude and mindset to the organisation I was working at - Teach For India. One of my key projects was to work on a campaign to draw more applicants for the TFI fellowship across India. Everything I designed looked incredibly cool but bombed big time.

In advertising, you are selling. (Which isn’t wrong or uncool, its just different). There’s a hook message. You can leave the rest as “mystery” for the consumer to “learn more”. In the social sector, you aren’t selling or marketing, you are informing the reader in the most articulate and relatable way as possible. You can’t leave critical information out from a creative and expect the viewer to get “enticed” into wanting to know more. There is no “product” that you can hang like a carrot in front. You are literally asking them to invest 2 years of their lives in an intense, rigourous, relatively under-paying, but high rewarding (experientially) program. Being witty with word play is not enough to get a 21 year old to commit to a fellowship. But a witty advertisement can excite the same TG into picking up the next cool shoe or phone.

Keeping it real, honest and transparent becomes critical when designing in the social impact space. The market is different. Sometimes, the sexiest design may not be the most accessible design. The choices we make with colour, type, photography and content is heavily dependent on the whether you are speaking to govt. officials or a group of donors in their 60s, or college kids from Tier 1 and 2 cities in their early 20s. In product advertising, you are exciting your audience with a product. In social impact communication you are inspiring someone to do and be better. For that you need to show hope, empathy, relatability, and connect at a deeper level.

It isn’t as sexy as corporate advertising. But the rush is the same. Sometimes even better, when you’ve had the good fortune of seeing the change your work has made in the world.

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