Sex, Drugs & Helvetica: on what makes ‘good’ design

Published:  September 17, 2015
Gemma Pass

There is a lot more to good design than perfectly considered paper stock and kerned strokes. And while the aesthetic impact of design is important (and where a lot of us get our kicks), truly good design comes from its ability to effectively communicate a message that will not only trigger an emotional response, but instigate behavioural change in the world we live in. Design that not only looks good but does good.



While this idea of design for social innovation definitely isn’t a new one, it is still something that is yet to fully permeate into the landscape of our educational institutions. From our secondary schools to our tertiary institutions, students are taught how to express themselves through the application of design-based tools and methods, but not so much about how these processes can be used to create innovative and life-changing work.

This is where Cheryl Heller comes in. A business strategist and communication designer who founded ‘Design for Social Innovation’ at School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York; the first MFA program in the field of social impact design. She gave a talk at this years Sex, Drugs & Helvetica conference in Brisbane and Melbourne and challenged us to change the way we teach, learn and define design.


Credit: Amy Woodward

According to Heller, design needs to be cross-disciplinary and systems based. The curriculum she constructed for the ‘Design for Social Innovation’ course at SVA draws from all forms of design, communication, metrics, data visualisation, international development, game mechanics, entrepreneurship, collective leadership, change models and ethics. Not just design specific units of study like typography, strategic branding and packaging design etc.

This idea of design with a social conscience was something that Ben MilesNick CoxZoe PollittDaniel Banik and James Greenfield all touched base on at Sex, Drugs & Helvetica. Not only this, but how the adoption of a human-centric approach (along with a great team and client relationship) was at the core of any successful design project.

Cox (co-founder of Projects of Imagination) reminded us to get out there and travel. We need to be able to see the world differently and bring something new to the table. He also thinks that we need to be reading more books (G1 New Dimensions in Graphic Design by Neville Brody is one of his top reads).


Credit: Amy Woodward

The common theme (and our major take away) is that we need to become generalists and take a varied approach to our work; we need to have complementary interests and skills outside of design. The more we are able understand our world and the systems within it, the more effectively we will be able to design in a way that not only looks good, but does good too.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *