Interview with Jay Wall: Designer, illustrator, and thinker

This week’s Designing for Good Interview is with Jay Wall, a Designer, Illustrator, and Thinker from Toronto. After graduating from Design at York University & Sheridan College, he is currently running Studio Jaywall from the heart of Toronto. Beyond design, Jay makes street art, dodges traffic on his bicycle, and works on community development projects in Guatemala.

DF: As a designer, or someone who has worked in the non-profit industry, how has design impacted the cause or organization you are involved with?

JW: The thoughtful development of visual communication materials is central to the sustainability of all organizations, particularly in the non-profit sector. Design promotes your cause, articulates your mission, clarifies your methods, and builds credibility. It is essential for recruiting newcomers, building their trust through consistency of your brand, and raising support (financial or otherwise).

DF: What are your thoughts on how your organization or project (or one you know of) would function with poor, default, unthoughtful design and branding?

JW: Non-profit organizations are often tight for money, especially in the early days before becoming financially sustainable. The result is usually a branding system (or lack thereof) that is produced hurriedly with little to no budget. This type of design usually misses the mark, not doing justice to the organization. For example: a cliche logo that doesn’t embody the uniqueness of the entrepreneurial idea it attempts to represent; a wordmark with no complimentary identity system to carry across promotional materials; a confusing website that fails to engage visitors; a visually unpolished grant proposal that prevents the organization from receiving thousands of dollars of potential funding.

Design is worth the investment. Putting some money, energy, and serious thought will pay off down the road. An organization with whom I’m involved is increasingly realizing the value of design. The Toronto-based non-profit had been investing minimal amounts of money into web and print design in their first few years. The result is countless “design” pieces (from posters to stickers to newsletters to websites to videos) which on their own do appropriately reflect some aspect of the brand. But they lack the professional touch and – more importantly – cohesion. So I am now working with the organization’s Communications director to bring all these diverse approaches together and establish one clear, strong voice. We will re-visit the logo and then develop an identity system that is consistent while still allowing enough flexibility for the grassroots nature of the organization.

DF: Do you feel that non-profits, social enterprises and grassroots initiatives can survive and compete for attention with the visual branding of large companies?

JW: It is something to aspire to. Most start-ups have less resources than large companies, but they can still take care to invest in high-quality, professional grade design. The critical mass of brand recognition will take a long time to build, but that doesn’t mean that a start-up or non-profit has to look amateur.

DF: In your opinion, should all designers have some sustainability or social conscious in their practice and philosophy?

JW: Ideally, yes. A designer should aspire to bring a social conscience to their work – and every other facet of their life. In a utopian design school, such an ethic would be engrained into the philosophy of teaching design. It wouldn’t be a course to talk about “green design.” Rather, the value of ethical design would be incorporated into every other aspect of a creative education.

Realistically, no. This question has to be understood in context. In a capitalist society, the way things are today, people buy stuff. People buy stuff they don’t need, often with negative consequences to other people and to the environment. It is the designer’s job to convince the consumer that their “need” outweighs any potential consequences – or that negative consequences simply don’t exist (“don’t listen to those damn hippies”).

So what is needed here is not simply the insertion of “socially conscious” lessons into design education, but rather a dramatic cultural and economic shift. I suppose the former is a step in the right direction to bring about such a change.

DF: Do you think that a physical storefront (or space or studio) dedicated to offering design services for “good” would be a useful idea?

JW: Sure, this sounds like a great idea. But with such an emphasis on the physical space, it would be important not to lose sight of the potential of working for remote clients via the web.

A valuable addition to such a studio would be other non-designers on staff or at least easily accessible: other experts in the sector of “good.” For example, strategic consultants, an accountant, a fundraiser, a project manager. These non-design team members would be able to add value to the client’s experience and thus provide a “one stop shop” for a start-up.

In some sense, spaces like the Centre for Social Innovation are already tapping into this market, but with a very different model.

DF: Are there any non-profits or social causes that you would identify as examples of good design having a positive impact overall? Do you know of any causes, movements, groups or non-profits specifically that lack great design, and could benefit from some assistance should the services be provided?

JW: Although this is not an example, a general trend:

Grassroots activist organizations tend to act quickly with no central governance, for example, printing “come to our protest” posters, throwing together websites, and distributing literature. In many cases, the message is inconsistent or unclear, and the public (or other target) only gets a vague sense of what protesters are attempting to communicate. Understandably, such a “lack of great design” is because of the very nature of grassroots groups that may not have a clear mission in the beginning. All the same, I think there is opportunity in rough-around-the-edges activist circles (not just in soft and fuzzy non-profits) to improve “design.” How? I’m not sure. There’s a creative challenge worth thinking about.

Video: Jay Wall’s Advice for Young Designers

About The Author

Daniel Francavilla

Daniel is a graduate of OCAD University's Graphic Design program. He is the founder of Now Creative Group, and is inspired to make positive change through design and youth organizations like ACCESS and Speak Up for Change. Follow him on Twitter @Francavilla and @NowCreates.

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01 2012

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