Most designers believe in their ability to create or support meaningful, positive change in society using their skills. That’s why many people take on side projects or devote company time to helping nonprofits and charities in their work to solve societal problems. But is it possible to create a design agency solely devoted to making the world a better place? Jay Wall thinks so — in fact, he’s already done it.
Jay’s Toronto-based design studio, RallyRally, is 100 percent devoted to working with clients that enact positive social change. He says it hasn’t been easy making it happen, but he’s been able to build a successful business by designing projects with nonprofits, charitable foundations, and governments, including those devoted to the promotion of diversity and accessibility in the services we access. That’s why Jay is one of the panelists at the Toronto World Interaction Design Day event on September 25, in partnership with the IxDA, where he and others will discuss the power of diversity in design to create better solutions for social problems.
You can learn more about Jay’s upcoming IxDD event here, and below he shares the story that led him to found RallyRally and devote his life to design for social change.
What led you to found RallyRally & focus on ‘social change’?
I grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario. I was obsessed with sports logos but didn’t know that design was a thing. I’d spend my time drawing hockey goalie masks and maps of imaginary countries. I moved to Toronto 12 years ago for design school, and that experience really pushed me. As I learned more and more about the design industry while becoming increasingly aware of social issues, I realized I didn’t want to just be fueling advertising and consumerism.
In my last year of school, I was unlawfully arrested during the Toronto G20 summit. I was out on the streets out of curiosity and concern for civil rights, and I ended up getting stopped by the police, unlawfully arrested, and locked up for 28 hours. Following that, I knew I had to turn this traumatic experience into something positive.
So I began working on social justice projects, which led me to to starting my own studio seven years ago. I wanted to devote my design expertise toward causes I was passionate about, and support organizations that are doing important things for the world, whether they are grassroots organizations, startup social enterprises, or major NGOs. We’re now a team of five, based in downtown Toronto, and we’ve carved out a niche as one of Canada’s leading studios doing design for social change.
How do you define ‘design for social change’?
We use design and communications to amplify the efforts of organizations who are advancing solutions to challenging issues. As an example, we rebranded and designed the visual identity system for an international sustainable development organization that needed to better communicate its mission and impact. We’ve produced campaigns to encourage Torontonians to participate in city planning decisions, to have a more diverse group of people beyond the “usual suspects” shaping the policies that impact our future. And we’ve designed discussion guides and publications about the crisis of health equity facing the United States.
We’ve also worked with UNICEF, taking a human-centered design approach to the UX and layout of resource materials to help address violence against women and children in humanitarian emergencies.
We often work on branding, websites, publications, campaigns, and even street art murals. Whatever the design discipline, it’s always for initiatives that we’re proud to support.
How do you make an agency work that’s solely devoted to social projects?
When I was much younger, I was under the impression that if I wanted to make a living, then I would have to compromise and it might be impossible to do meaningful work that aligned with my values. I admit, it has been a challenge, especially starting out. For the first couple years I was barely scraping by. Apart from the occasional paid project, I was mostly donating my time to small social justice groups while I built community and figured out how to do this type of work.
As I gained more expertise in the nonprofit sector and became recognized for that, I was better positioned to attract organizations that have communications budgets and that recognize the value of good design. So over the years I have grown a team, and together we have found a way to make this business model work. From time to time we will still work with smaller organizations that don’t have substantial budgets, but we’ve found there are enough clients that are ready to invest in design that it can sustain us.
We know a prospective client is a good fit when our values are aligned and when they are also looking for a high standard of design work. We often hear from clients that they really appreciate our depth of experience in this space.
What’s the best thing about being able to focus on this work exclusively?
I love that I can hire designers who are passionate about these issues to join our team. This means everyone is engaged and fulfilled at work. Even when we get busy and the workload is intense, through it all we’re dedicated to the projects we’re working on. We’re passionate about the work we do, and also who we do it with.
That’s actually where the name RallyRally comes from. We value our community of clients and collaborators, so we’re all about rallying with these people and rallying for particular causes. Our name speaks to the beautiful combination of those things.
How can design help these organizations that are trying to create positive social change?
Whether they are defending human rights, promoting action on climate change, or advocating for equitable urban planning, our clients are doing important work. But they want to do better at telling their stories, bringing more people into the fold, and looking sharp through it all. Our job is to take their often-complex information and processes and make it engaging and accessible to diverse audiences so they can have a greater reach and deeper impact. That’s the heart of it.
Why is it so important for you and your team to continue using your skills this way as you grow your practice?
Ever since I was wrongfully arrested back in 2010, I knew that I had to dedicate my life to working for justice. That taste of injustice brought me to the realization that I have many privileges along with my design skills, and these assets need to be put toward important causes. I’m not alone in sensing that urgency.
We’re living in an era where there are indicators that tell us the world is getting better in many ways, for example that there’s less extreme poverty than 100 years ago. But we don’t need to look far to feel like things are actually falling apart. We’re faced with catastrophic climate change, marginalized people being left out of public policy processes, epidemic levels of mental health struggles, widespread racial injustice… I could go on and on.
Design can’t save the world — it will take much more than that. But I do believe that design and communications can play an important role in unlocking solutions to some of these challenges. People from many different disciplines, working cooperatively from diverse perspectives, is how we’re going to make progress. And we have made progress on many of these causes alongside our clients.
For us, it’s really about contributing to meaningful systems change. We don’t do many projects for Band-Aid solutions, our work is more focused on changing the way society functions by addressing these problems at their roots.
Some days, the news can make us feel hopeless, but we look to the inspiring people around us for glimpses of the brighter future that we’re collectively working toward.