Sarah Pajouh


The Role of Social Responsibility in Graphic Design

Sarah Pajouh

As I build my career in graphic design, there is one looming question in my mind: Will my efforts lead to positive change?

I was initially drawn to Social Finance by their mission: mobilizing capital to drive social progress. The opportunity to work with a team that is passionate about social change and actively working to improve lives drew me in. Projects like the Oklahoma Women in Recovery Project caught my attention, as a woman interested in criminal justice reform; the project focuses on expanding services to justice-involved women in an effort to lower female incarceration rates, of which Oklahoma has the highest in the nation.

During my time at Social Finance, I worked on projects that spanned a variety of issue areas, from education to sustainability and resiliency to criminal justice. In each of these projects, I focused on making complex information more accessible and designed materials that would more effectively deliver our message to a range of audiences. Underscoring all of this work is an emerging approach to graphic design called ethical design.

What is Ethical Design?

Ethical design is often talked about in terms of technology and product design. The idea is that designers in these positions have an obligation to simultaneously protect the consumer and create an innovative product. But what about graphic design? Every organization, whether for-profit or nonprofit, utilizes some form of visual design; pamphlets, white papers, logos, and many other materials have likely gone through the hands of a graphic designer before being shared publicly.

AIGA, the professional association for design, advocates for ethics in design as a critical component “to establishing design as a true profession, with an ethos based on respect for clients, other designers, audiences, society and the environment”. In his essay “In Search of Ethics in Graphic Design”, graphic designer Paul Nini adds that a designer’s “single, most significant contribution to society would be to make sure that the communications create[d] are actually useful to those for whom they’re intended.”

There are multiple facets to ethical design, but for me it is about social responsibility with an emphasis on the audience. Design is persuasive and reaches large audiences, so I want to know that the message I am spreading through my work is something that would positively affect society. For me, there are three key components to effectively spreading a socially responsible message: making sure your message is accessible, relatable, and aligned with your values.


In order for complex and nuanced information to reach a large audience, a designer can help make content more accessible through layout. By including visual aids, introducing subtle graphic elements to accompany text, and strategically using white space, a dense document that would otherwise put off a larger audience can be completely transformed.

At Social Finance, I worked to create layouts that would present information in a clear and understandable way to people who may not be familiar with the realm of their work; an example of this is the Civil Legal Aid report I designed, “Expanding Access to Justice with Social Impact Financing,” which identifies eviction defense as an issue area well-suited to PFS. The report is rich with content, presenting compelling case studies that could have easily been skimmed over if the design did not highlight them.


It is crucial for an audience to relate to the content you are presenting; this often elicits the greatest reactions and helps capture the attention of people outside your usual reach. It is also important to create something meaningful without placing your work in an ivory tower. With the SIPPRA RFP “album cover,” I was able to turn the release of a piece of legislation into something a little more exciting, and bring a bit of creativity to our social media channels.


Perhaps the most important aspect of ethical design is deciding which projects to take on as a designer. You are amplifying the message and making it accessible to the world, so is this message something that will have a positive impact on society? If the impact your design will help drive aligns with your personal values, you ensure that you are being an ethical designer. Through my work at Social Finance, I was able to help drive a movement that works to address issue areas like homelessness, criminal justice, and education for the betterment of society.

Working for Progress

Now more than ever, people are choosing their career paths based on more than just a paycheck. A recent report by the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University found that the nonprofit sector accounted for over 12 million paid workers in 2016. And a large group of these people are satisfied too; a recent TIAA survey found that 90% of nonprofit employees and managers feel they are making a positive change through their work.

Working at Social Finance taught me a lot about the social power of design. I was able to be part of projects designed to make positive change, and I know that my designs are part of something bigger than just the paper they’re printed on (recycled paper, by the way; being environmentally friendly is also a big part of ethical design). By following both my ethical design principles and those established by other designers, I was able to maintain my personal standards of good design while still challenging myself every day.