Design Activism – Good news for the planet

„If things are bad, that’s good.” – Bruce Mau

Because when things are bad, then people seek a solution. And this is especially true for designers, who feel the urge and obligation to take action and find a solution when complex problems arise. 
Above all, things are really bad when we have a look at climate change. Fortunately, there are designers out there, who take their responsibility to make an impact and develop solutions for the good.

In this blog post I want to introduce a few innovative projects for climate action. The platform “WHAT DESIGN CAN DO”, which has already published several books and articles on the subject, presents various brilliant ideas in its book “Good news for the planet. 31 brilliant ideas for climate action.”. The aim of this publication is to raise awareness for climate action, adapting to the consequences of change, and mitigating the causes. The following are examples which are illustrating the power of design to bring about change. 

01: Plastic waste can be made prettier 

Project: Pretty Plastic Planet
By: Reinder Bakker, Hester van Dijk and Peter van Assche, Designstudio’s Overtreders W
and bureau SLA 
Country: Netherlands
Discipline: Product Design, architecture
The Story of Pretty Plastic – from waste to resource: How it started

The first project, which the designers Reinder Bakker, Hester van Dijk and Peter van Assche from the designstudio’s bureau SLA and Overtreders W did together, was a café in an Amsterdam park called, Noorderpark, where all the materials were bought second-hand on the internet. 

Another co-production of the collaborating designers is a self -built Pretty Plastic Plant with idea of upcycle plastic waste. It started when they got hold of a shipping container full of household plastic garbage, where they immediately knew that this is more than just waste. They saw the potential of a beautiful building material and designed a tile from upcycled plastic. The designers visited the best plastic product producers in the Netherlands to present their design of the building tile, but there was only little interest.
To prove that plastic upcycling can be competitive and have identity and character they designed and built their own machine park – the Pretty Plastic Plant. Their solution is simple: sorting plastic household waste carefully by type and color before it is processed, it can become to a stronger and brighter result than the original product. Anyone who brings their plastic garbage to this hands-on recycling site can witness the whole transformation process from scrap to product.

For different interior design projects, the Pretty Plastic Plant produced more than a thousand unique tiles, what led to a n even greater project. In 2017, they designed the cladding of the facade of the main pavilion for the Dutch Design Week, the People’s Pavilion. It consisted of 9.000 unique plastic upcycled tiles, all made from resident’s household plastic waste. After that, the Belgium recycling company Govaplast became Pretty Plastic’s production partner and engineered the production.

Temporary recycling architecture: The People’s Pavillon in Eindhoven

Since 2019, Pretty Plastic tiles can be applied onto any building. In January 2020, the first new building with cladding of Pretty Plastic tiles was delivered. 

Sint Oelbert School in Oosterhout with cladding of Pretty Plastic tiles

02: Crazy Experiment to sway investors 

Corporate Knights – The Voice for Clean Capitalism 

Toby Heaps’ mission is to push companies to adopt more environmentally conscious practices. He is founder and CEO of Corporate Knights, which is a media and research company in Toronto founded in 2002. One of his tools is the Magazine for Clean Capitalism `Corporate Knights`, distributed quarterly as an insert in the Globe and Mail and Washington Post

Heaps sees ‘Corporate Knights’ as kind of a crazy experiment to see if it makes a difference and people will start to take better decisions when the right information is getting into the right people’s hands. Since 2005, the magazine is ranking the world’s 100 most sustainable companies as key strategy in shaping corporate culture. Today, ‘Corporate Knights’ is also known as a lobby group and a platform for such initiatives as the Council for Clean Capitalism, a multi-industry group of leading Canadian companies dedicated to advocating economic and social policy changes that reward responsible corporate behaviour and remove barriers to clean capitalism.

The vision of Corporate Knights is to provide information empowering markets to foster a better world. As one of the world’s largest circulation magazines focused on the intersection of business and sustainability, Corporate Knights is the most prominent brand in the clean capitalism media space. It is also the first print business magazine and research firm in the world to be a Certified B Corp. B Corps must meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. As an example, their website is powered by 100% renewable electricity from Canada.

03: Do for Nature what you did for Clients

“[…] If creative communications have persuaded us to consume in a way that impacts our planet for the worse, then it can be used to inspire us to try out things that have a more positive impact on the environment.”

This is what the online platform ‘Do the Green Thing’ by communication experts Andy Hobsbawm and Naresh Ramchandani stands for. They call for designers to get creative against climate change. The platform offers designers a chance to make a change for the world by doing the thing they do best – to get a message across to the public. Whether graphic designer, copywriter, animator, art director or photographer, everybody is invited being part of Doing the Green Thing. The aim is to use the power of creative work to make people pause, smile, think and act. Already more than 500 creatives contributed to this campaign by making films, posters, podcasts and products. 

With Do the Green Thing everybody has the chance to play one’s professional part in saving the planet. It is a public service for the planet that uses creativity to tackle climate change. More than 45 million people have been inspired to live more sustainably. 

Design Activism – Stand up and design! (What Design Can Do, 2018)

As a designer, you must be aware that every decision you make has an impact on society. So, design is something that influences our lives more than we can imagine. It also means, that as designer you have a great responsibility to contribute to a better world with your creative work. It is a responsibility to take your creative work as a tool to draw attention to socially relevant issues that others may close their eyes to. 

For this blog entry, I would like to introduce some famous design activists, which are shown in the book “Designing Activism – 31 Designers Fighting for a Better World” (2018). The book was created from the platform “What Design Can Do”, which promotes the use of design as a tool to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

Designers and their projects, which are shown in the book, highlight various topics such as social, political and economic issues as well as environmental change. 


Designer: Metahaven (Vinca Kruk, Daniel van der Velden)
Country: The Netherlands
Discipline: Design, research, art
Cause: Political activism

The designers Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden founded the research and design studio Metahaven, where they are reflecting on political and social issues. They are doing writing, graphic design and also filmmaking, focusing on criticizing the excesses and faults of neoliberalism and modern communication. They already worked with organizations such as WikiLeaks, Independent Diplomat, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative and Sea Shepherd Global. 

In recent years, the two designers are focusing more and more on filmmaking. In 2016, their film “The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda)” dealt with a warning that the internet had become a disruptive super weapon on the geopolitical stage and thus also a sovereignty that knows no norm. It examines the significance and power of propaganda in the age of social media. The film examines the war in Ukraine and sifts through misinformation and media claims about who is responsible for the shot down of Amsterdam flight MH17 in 2014. It leads through the heated battles between Russia’s English-language channel Russia Today and the US news channel CNN. The film also poses the question of how we can trace and understand truth in a digitally networked world. Anyone with access to a smartphone is able to document events and disseminate information, while automated bots are increasingly used to control public opinion.

“The effect, the spin of the information is much more important than the factual content,” says Daniel van der Velden.

The problem is: Who has the power of interpretation?

Their second film “Possessed” shows ways of being together in the age of social media. It points at the power of social media and the constant urge to impress the gaze of others. A film about togetherness in the age of the smartphone. While 20th century state communism was supposed to lead to a better and improved society, a new and personal communism now arises in the cracks and voids of the system.  Possessed is a film that swings between documentary and dream landscape to denounce a smartphone-heavy world. In the film a representative of Generation Y discovers a forgotten past and searches for new ways of empathy.


Designer: Sujatro Gosh
Country: India 
Discipline: Photography
Cause: Women’s rights/ gender equality

‘Are women valued less than cows?’ shows women from India, wearing a cow mask in daily situations, such as sitting on a bench, sitting in a train, being at the market and so on. 

The photo campaign from the artist, activist and male feminist Sujatro Gosh from New Delhi want to put attention on the question, if women are less important than cows in India. He highlights the contrasting attitudes towards women and cows in his home country. 
He got the idea for this project on a visit to New York, where he came across a cow mask. Straight away he knew what he would do with it. 

In India, 36,735 women were raped only in 2014. Ghosh believes gender-based violence needs to be made visible to begin its eradication.The cow is venerated as a sacred animal with penalties ranging from 3 years in prison to life sentence for murder of the animal. While the most conservative groups protect the cow as a sacred animal, they look away to gang-rape or femicides.

It is a great project, which was created on the basis of a spontaneous idea of the artist. For me, it is an example, that shows the power behind social and political structures. With his Photography, Sujatro Gosh points attention on the existing situations in India, but he also shows that every individual in a society is affected by the cultural and political structures of power, which dominates the respective society. What I find particularly interesting is the fact that the artist found the idea for this artwork during a walk through New York when he saw this cow mask. His immediate association was the conditions in his home country and the inequalities that the women there experience. An example, as already mentioned at the beginning, that we often don’t realize how design influences us in every area of our life. 

Designer: Jaap Korteweg
Country: Netherlands
Discipline: Food
Cause: Meat without animals

Jaap Korteweg took over the family farm in ninth generation, where he witnessed major outbreaks of mad cow disease and swine fever in the 1990s. His cold stores served as a temporary storehouse for thousands of cadavers, what led him to change his outlook. After a few years in 1997, he changed his arable farming to organic farming and tried to become a vegetarian himself. But he missed the taste of meat and also realized that more and more diets added meat, which causes a bad impact on the environment and the climate. 

For Korteweg a double-motivation to search over ten years for innovative meat substitutes with a spectacular bite and texture. His extensive research with help of master chefs led to the foundation of his company The Vegetarian Butcher. The company has broad range of products, an honest story and a clear design. They fill seven million packages of vegetarian meatballs, chicken and sausages every year, have an annual turnover of twenty million euros and export their products to fifteen countries. 

Especially in times of climate change, people like Jaap Korteweg are so important for all of us. He grew up on a farm and was used to the taste of meat from childhood on, nevertheless he searched for ways to live without meat. He invested a whole decade to find this way and also affects a lot of other people with it. In my eyes he can be seen as pioneer, he made it towards his ultimate aim: becoming the biggest butcher in the world. 


Design Activism – sustainable initiatives

Sustainable Initiatives in Film Production

There is already a very great initiative for the media industry, especially for film production. Green Film Shooting offers the media industry a platform to inform itself worldwide about approaches for sustainable business. These range from green-produced cinema and TV films, series, commercials and broadcast technologies to energy-efficient cinemas, smart IT management and even recyclable DVD packaging without harmful solvents. According to a study by the European Broadcast Union (EBU), two percent of all global CO2 emissions are caused by information and communication technologies.

The Green Film Shooting Initiative sees itself on the one hand as a forum, in which committed media professionals can exchange views on sustainable action, thereby discovering new approaches and sharing experiences. The measures, models and methods are very different. The initiative aims to provide guidelines on how to make film productions and their entire organization sustainable. 

Best practice examples of encouraging green film production: 

  1. EKOSETTI – A guidebook to sustainable audiovisual production in Finland 

The Ekosetti guidebook was originally written for the Finnish audiovisual industry from a domestic perspective. With its translation also English-speaking audiovisual professionals in Finland should be reached, as well as those international partners, who wish to gain more information about the current sustainability efforts in the Finnish audiovisual industry. The purpose of this guidebook is to initiate the discussion on a new type of operating culture, where sustainability is included in decision making and practical work and highlights the perspective of environmental sustainability. The guidebook aims to serve everyone in the audiovisual industry, including stakeholders in advertisements, films, TV shows, studios, equipment rentals, producers, employees, commissioners, sponsors and partners. The goal is to provide information and inspire the whole field to improve their operations towards an environmentally friendlier direction, so it provides information about an environmentally friendly production in the fields of advanced planning, production management over how someone can motivate and be motivated to waste management, energy consumption, travel and logistics and much more. Each step of an audiovisual production was considered how it could be designed in a sustainable way.

Ekosetti Guide in brief

Conclusion of this guide: The audiovisual industry requires pilot models for an environmentally friendlier operating, which have to be tested before they can be considered reliable. How to make this piloting possible, is a challenge — timewise and financially — for the entire industry, all the way from production companies to commissioners, funders and distributors. For this change, also regional film commissions, municipalities and cities are asked to contribute something, so it means, there has to be local support. But above all, the entire production team must be prepared to change its working methods to a sustainable form, because change always starts within the individual. It needs additional resources “behind the camera”, like environmental trainings, research and especially funding and extra time. The Ekosetti guidebook is meant to be updated and expanded, as the Finnish audiovisual industry evolves towards more sustainable operation models.

2. Grüner Drehpass | Green Filmpass – vermeiden, verringern, verwerten

Since 2012, the film funding of Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein has been campaigning for an ecological and sustainable rethink in the film industry with the Green Filmpass. Their Best Practice Guide helps film and television producers to deal with environmentally friendly and sustainable alternatives to the common practice on set and to include them in their planning. Among other things, it provides valuable tips on how to avoid waste, reduce energy consumption and recycle materials. The Best Practice Guide is intended to motivate and support the practical work as a guideline and checklist.
The Filmpass is designed in the manner of a checklist, which takes into account all the individual areas of a film production. In detail, it covers the preparation of a production as well as individual areas of the production office such as lighting, technical equipment, heating and air condition, office supplies, kitchen, waste avoidance, and cleaning, as well as “on location”-areas such as transport, fuel consumption, logistics, costume and make-up, lighting and camera. Equally, however, areas of equipment and set design such as props, materials and colors, as well as catering and post-production were also taken into consideration. The Best Practice Guide gives recommendations for action in all these areas, which should serve as a practical aid for getting started in environmentally conscious action on set.

3. The Green Film Initiative 

The Green Film Initiative was created in 2012 from a research project of the Climate Media Factory, with the two pillars Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and University for Film and Television “Konrad Wolf” (HFF). The Climate Media Factory supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research is behind the founding of the Green Film Initiative and promotes sustainable film productions and supports producers, film promoters and market participants on the way to achieving this. This Initiative played a key role in initiating the topic of sustainable film production in the German film industry and since then has continuously promoted dialogue, knowledge exchange, understanding and support for the topic in a variety of ways. The GFI has also conveyed the topic, solution approaches and many practical tips in training courses, workshops, seminars, panels and keynotes – at the Hamburg Film Festival, in Cannes, Amsterdam, at EU level and overseas. So, it has thus made a major contribution to network international players and to promote the exchange of knowledge and understanding of international guidelines.

The special thing about GFI is, it networks Filmmakers who want to produce films more sustainably or are already doing so, climate scientists, experts from existing initiatives and activists in the various trades as well as film sponsors, film commissions, legislators and market participants. The public starting point of this initiative was the panel “Greening the Film Industry” at the Berlinale Talent Campus 2012 to support filmmakers on their way to more sustainable production. The initiative believes that the film industry can make an important contribution to achieve the goals to limit global warming. 

Finally I would like to refer to the following Tedx talk from Birgit Heidsiek, Founder of the European Center for Sustainability in the Media World, who shared her ideas how films can be produced in a more environmental-friendly way.

Design Activism – Emotionality

On November 9, 2020, I had a conversation with Sigrid Bürstmayr about design activism. She works and teaches at FH JOANNEUM. Her professional interests and skills include product management, exhibition design, sustainable design and design activism. Sigrid believes that design should be able to shape whole environments and processes, ways of thinking and acting. Designers should try to change the society and the world for the better, at least a little bit.

The following are the main points of our conversation.

Emotionality and media design as a cross-sectional discipline

In design activism, media design can be seen as a kind of cross-sectional discipline. Through media one has the opportunity to explain and disseminate other disciplines and the ideas behind their design activist context. A well-implemented media design achieves an emotional effect, for example through graphic implementations that clearly and understandably present the problems of the topic. This emotionality can be implemented even better into videos. Interviews, which are well conducted, with interview partners who bring their topic strongly to the outside world, are a powerful tool to draw attention to design activist contexts and their goals in a broad audience.
Below are a few illustrative examples:

Why Santa must die | Andy hobsbawn, naresh Ramchandani | UK

This picture shows us that the Christmas season has turned from a quiet, harmonious time into a time of overconsumption. It wants to show that one should focus more on the emotional value of the Christmas season and not on the material goods.

Pumpipumpe want to encourage a sharing community by creating stickers you can pick on you letterbox, so your neighbours know, what they can borrow from you.

buero bauer asked the question: What can designers concretely contribute to improving the situation of refugees?
They developed a language-independent, understandable, icon-based communication system for first-time accommodation. It shows the most important information clearly and deals with ethnic characteristics subtly but efficiently.

Socken mit Haltung | buero balanka

buero balanka wants to show with their “socks with attitude” that it is important to show political attitude. In particular, they want to say that politically right ideas must be opposed. The text and concept office draws attention to this topic with a certain wit and charm, which creates an emotional value.

period products from einhorn

einhorn is a community and a team that has a stake in society, culture, politics, and the economy.  We believe that being fairstainable involves a mutual dialogue between all involved. They are a start up and want to combine design with Fairstainability (fair & sustainable). They believe in using the business power to do good and all that in a sexy design.
With visually playful design and texts they encounter taboo topics such as period or sex in a fun way. On their website you have more the feeling of buying toys than products for your period.

Emotionality through interactivity

However, the greatest emotional impact is achieved through interactive experiences that appeal to the senses of the recipient. I would like to cite the example of “The Fun Theory 1 – Piano Staircase Initiative” from Volkswagen.

The Fun Theory 1 – Piano Staircase Initiative | Volkswagen

Volkswagen has been thinking about how to change people’s behavior in a positive way and what factor is needed to do this. With a simple element, they succeeded in getting 66% of people in a subway station to take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. For this experiential marketing example, the Volkswagen team cleverly created “piano” stairs in a subway stop in Germany, right next to the escalator. This led commuters to choose the stairs, playing their own tunes as they went up and down each step. Volkswagen added the element of fun. 
People could see the Piano Stairs, they could hear them, they could feel them through their own movement – jumping up and down to create a melody. An interactive action that connects the car brand with a simple human emotion: fun.

When a company is able to associate their brand with an emotion as pure as fun, they’ve already won over the customer. In this way, even as a designer, you can inspire people for topics that affect us all. This example shows that gamification plays an important role here, as it provides an incentive for people to actively participate in something.

Furthermore, as a consumer you have a lot of power yourself, which means you can do a lot as an individual. Through social media, you are no longer just a receiver of content, you are also the sender. It is up to each individual to consciously shape his or her own lifestyle and pay attention to sustainability. Too often, the general opinion still prevails that you don’t achieve enough as an individual. However, the more people consciously pay attention to something and participate in a movement, the more effective it is.

Design Activism

A movement for a better world

The current social and political debates are reflected in design and art. Design activism is a movement that takes it upon itself to use its responsibility as a designer to create a better world. It is not about inciting isolated events, but rather using design in all its forms to create a sustainable platform for change – the fundamental problem must be understood and interpreted in order to explore the path to a common solution and publicly call for change. One does not rely on the mechanisms of politics, but uses one’s professional, creative skills for the commitment to a better world. As a designer, you have the responsibility to intervene in current social and socio-political processes in order to actively and globally shape the future society and to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. It is about taking a visionary and provocative position in order to help shape or even initiate social developments. Design activism has a healthy potential for dealing with contemporary societal issues. 

“Design Activism” or “Design” and “Activism”

Both, “design” and “activism”, are connected to our mind. They express our diverse ways of thinking. For design there isn’t only one definition, because it’s not that easy to limit the meaning of something that expresses our inner thoughts, which become to action and art. Design always have to be seen in a cultural context because it is tied to cultural perceptions that are contemporary and yet very personal. Design is about communication, where cultural, political and societal are put into a form of perception, and it seems to be everywhere. 

Design crosses a diverse range of subject fields and disciplinary borders giving design a unique reach among the creative disciplines, while simultaneously adding more complexity and blurring the discursive space. Design is something that is important in all facets of contemporary life. 

As in the discipline of design as well as in the discipline of activism there is a dualism. There are professional and trained designers, who offer expertise, yet design is executed by unknown, anonymous and non-intentional designers, who gain their expertise from outside the design professionals’ world. This also can be applied to the field of activism. The different origins of the designers and activists, whether professional or anonymous, leads to design and activism that makes an important contribution to contemporary issues, social developments and environmental stability.


“We have the opportunity to decide whether we will simply do good design or we will do good with design.” -David Berman

There are many actors, agents and stakeholders in this activist landscape that intentionally or unintentionally usedesign, design thinking and other design processes to deliver their activism.
So not only famous and well-known designers have the possibility and the responsibility to use their creative knowledge to draw attention to important societal and political topics that may not be given enough importance. 

I will ask what media design can do to create an effect for a better world and analyze illustrative media concepts for this purpose. 

The question that arises for me is how such design-activist concepts are received and what influence they have on the recipients. What success does design activism have in this? And how can this success be measured? What are the economic and commercial aspects of design activism?   


Scalin, Noah/ Taute, Michelle (2012): The Design Activist’s Handbook: How to Change the World (Or at Least Your Part of It) with Socially Conscious Design. Simon and Schuster.
Fuad-Luke, Alastair (2009): Design Activism: Beautiful Strangeness for a Sustainable World. Earthscan.
Bieling, Tom (2019): Design (&) Activism. Perspectives on Design as Activism and Activism as Design. Mimesis International.
Banz, Claudia (Hg.) (2016): Social Design. Gestalten für die Transformation der Gesellschaft. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.