What is net-positive design?
Make the things you want to see in the world.
As I set off on a new phase of my career, I’ve adopted a helpful mantra to guide my work — pursuing net-positive design.
I’ve always been a believer in technology’s power to do good things, but I acknowledge it can often be used for the opposite. Any human artifact can be used to help or harm, depending on the choices of its bearer (fully withstanding, of course, the argument that some tools are designed only for harm [content warning] and have no beneficial raison d’être).
Design and technology are no different. The good ol’ combustion engine, for example, changed life as we know it — empowering movement and enabling exchange at a scale previously unknown to humankind. It’s also accelerated anthropogenic climate change: some estimates show transportation alone is responsible for a fifth of all global carbon dioxide emissions.
In a more modern context, artificial intelligence is being used for all sorts of medical advances, including to discover new antibiotics or detect cancer and other diseases. On the other hand, AI is also being wielded to indiscriminately murder civilians in Israel’s ongoing genocidal campaign in Gaza. And just last week, OpenAI (the company behind ChatGPT) quietly revised its usage policy to remove a ban on “military and warfare” applications of its technology.
Safe to say, we can’t predict every single outcome of every tool we ever design or develop. But every design is simply a series of decisions — how does it look, how does it feel, how does it work, how is it made, how will people use it? When we neglect to consider each aspect of a product (or worse, ignore the potential consequences altogether), we’re responsible for the outcomes those decisions create.
This has led me to reflect quite a bit lately on what design’s true purpose is, and what role even the smallest design decisions play in our larger society. I’ve sort of resolved to the fact that it’s no longer enough for those decisions to just be neutral.
I have been extremely fortunate in my career thus far to work with some amazing brands and organizations. Some centered around sustainability, others focused on equity in healthcare and education. And too-many-to-list small and local businesses making an impact in their community or industry. These are all net-positive endeavors — people and groups making the world a better place through their commercial, cultural, or other societal outputs. And they’re always the projects that make me feel most proud.
Moving forward, I’m looking to dedicate my working time exclusively contributing to these types of efforts. The time has come to stop designing neutrally, and start designing for a more positive future.
I’m also ready to help brands become more net-positive, whether through their products or processes or both.
Whether it’s a world-changing idea or just a small business trying to do things in a better way, I’m here for it. Design is ever more prevalent in today’s world, but there’s still so much opportunity to do great things with it. Stop being neutral. Make positive impact. You won’t regret it. ✌️
Note: if you have a project or product you believe will better your community or society in some way (large or small), let’s chat. I’d love to share how net-positive design can accelerate that impact, even if I’m not the right person to help you make it happen. We’re all in this together.