Posted 09 May 2018
Written by Anne Miltenburg

Work with purpose: Anne Miltenburg on designing for social, economic and environmental causes

When we meet with students, we often pose the question: Would you rather work for money or purpose? More often than not, their answers confirm that purpose is the priority. Despite the looming threat of precarious politics and uncertain futures, a shift towards social and environmentally conscious business practices have taken root, with both local and global causes on the agenda. Here, brand developer Anne Miltenburg, founder of The Brandling, a learning company that provides brand strategy training to social entrepreneurs, tells us how she transitioned into creating work for social spaces, and how new paths to making socially conscious work are becoming increasingly viable.

As a creative, there are ample opportunities to put your professional skills towards social and environmental causes. People usually think of volunteer work for charities, but there are many other options, like designing more sustainable products and smart information systems, or developing better services in healthcare or crime. In my own case, as a brand developer, I put my skills to use advancing ideas and services for social, economic and environmental progress.

My focus on social wasn’t unexpected to anyone who knew me. Like many children, I was naturally idealistic, becoming a vegetarian at ten and later running races for charity. It was part of the fabric of life in the eighties and nineties: my mum boycotted South African products during apartheid, my dad never owned a car.

It was a seamless moral transition to design education. There had always been a very strong social thread in Dutch design, from the time of Piet Zwart in the 1920s. Early on that manifested itself in the firm belief that the designer could “lift up the working masses”, and later, that by steering away from dirty corporations, towards cultural clients and charities, you could bring meaning to your work. There was a clear right and wrong, and as a design student I ate it all up.

In 2005, I graduated with a research project on visual illiteracy in non-Western cultures, spending three months in Mali to create a campaign on HIV-AIDS prevention. The work was challenging intellectually and creatively, but I came back pretty disillusioned with the development aid world. My teachers looked at my work and judged it solely on aesthetics over effectiveness, which was doubly disappointing. When my graduation professor Gert Dumbar, founder of famed Dutch brand agency Studio Dumbar, suggested I join his company, I jumped at the chance.

“I found no meaning in what other designers thought of as meaningful work for NGOs. It was just a drop on a hot plate, one-off efforts without scale.”

I started out designing visual identities for big commercial clients, small cultural clients and NGOs [non-profit organisation], then became a project lead, before moving into strategy, and finished my agency career as a creative director. But I missed how engaged I’d been as a student. We were doing cosmetic surgery, whether it was for Royal Dutch Telecom, the Dutch Design Awards or the Red Cross. I found no meaning in what other designers thought of as meaningful work for NGOs. It was just a drop on a hot plate, one-off efforts without scale.

In 2014, I had an ‘Aha’ moment, where I realised that if we trained people trying to make a difference to think more like brand strategists, we could address some of the issues longterm. After the 2008 financial crisis, more people were open to the idea of alternatives to cutthroat capitalism. A growing wave of social entrepreneurs began to emerge, ditching the baggage of big commercial companies. I felt instantly at home with this scene, and decided to focus on how I could best serve them.

Over the next two years I developed prototypes for tools, knowledge resources, a training format, and went on the road – from Ireland to Saudi Arabia, Nairobi to Boston. I created a workshop to teach the basic models behind branding, giving access to knowledge they could apply to their own ventures, and worked with almost a thousand change-makers. To build a deeper understanding of the problems social entrepreneurs faced, I worked with tech companies like Nivi (a chatbot technology for family-planning advice), and Internet of Elephants (a Kenyan animal-conservation initiative). Together we developed brand strategies, lean brand identities and training to implement communications, events, partnerships, HR and supply chains.

What did I learn in that time? Social entrepreneurs have a dozen areas to master, from finance to challenges around making a true difference, and branding often comes last on the list. The result of my journey was to found The Brandling, a learning company that helps people build stronger brands for themselves. In the past four years we’ve attracted a great tribe of like-minded people with whom we exchange knowledge, experiences and challenges. It’s been amazing to see what you can unleash as a single, committed individual on a mission.

“It’s become rather sexy to be seen ‘doing good’ as a designer.”

When I started my journey in 2014, a lot of people thought I was mad and could never make a living doing what I do. Now people get it. Being a pretty vocal advocate of social entrepreneurship, I get a fair amount of requests for advice from designers who want to move into the social space. I am always afraid of giving others advice, so instead I share with them the questions I ask myself, to check if I am on the right track:

Am I in this for the right reasons?
It’s become rather sexy to be seen ‘doing good’ as a designer. The danger of doing work for good, is if we stop there: at our intentions. If the work doesn’t do any good, we can excuse ourselves by saying our intentions were in the right place. But some of the challenges we work on are urgent, so if we don’t get it right, we could actually hurt others. If ever I get to the point where I have a portfolio of cool-looking social brands that actually don’t make a difference, or the work was ineffective, it’s time to listen, learn, or pack up and get out.

Am I the right person for the job?
When working for clients in foreign countries, I always ask myself if I am the best person for the job. For example, designing a brand for family-planning technology targeting 18 to 24-year-old women in the UK is enough of a challenge, but if you transport that to another continent, you are at risk of utter failure. You are probably the least-qualified person to understand their world, pains and needs. To reduce risk, you need a solid research process that involves local experts. I don’t like to overestimate my own abilities; white saviour complex is one of the issues low-income countries face, and I don’t need to add any weight to that problem.

Do I have the depth it takes?
Coming from an art-based, design background (rather than a scientific one), I have to be aware that the road to creating something that works is long and hard. It has really confronted me with my own blind spots and shortcomings. Every day I have to leave my ego at the door, and be in it for the bigger picture.

Working for social impact is not for everyone, and nor does it have to be. I don’t propagate design for impact as the only worthwhile pursuit. There is value in creating beauty, and there is value in a commercial creative sector that creates jobs. We are all part of an ecosystem where, over time, every single individual will add to something bigger and hopefully better.

Anne working with the Amani Institute (based in Brazil, Kenya and India)
Work with the Amani Institute (based in Brazil, Kenya and India)

Written by Anne Miltenburg