The Robin Hood approach: creatives who use their money, intel and network to help others

“Corporate work has taught me that design can be transformative” – we speak to four designers changing the system from the inside.

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Hands up if any of this feels familiar: I started out wanting to help people, but I had bills to pay and now I’m part of the corporate machine! Or how about: I didn’t realise how much was wrong with the commercial design world until I started working in it, and now I want to change it!

A lot of creatives, at some point in their careers, want to use their powers for good. Huge studios and agencies constantly take on pro bono work, and while cynics might see it as a way to offset other projects with more problematic ties, more often than not it is the Robin Hood approach at play. A chance for individuals who have achieved success and influence to use the profits made from big-money clients and the skills at their disposal to aid a good cause and make opportunities for those without a platform.

Chantra Malee Montoya-Pimolwatana is co-founder of Sharp Type, an influential and award-winning type foundry based in New York. Last year she founded the Malee Scholarship, a non-profit offering financial support and mentorship to women of colour entering the type industry. The $6,000 grant is awarded annually and funded by Sharp Type, a way for the successful studio to “pay it forward”. “I often think about that expression, a promise to pass on an act of kindness that you have received to someone else,” Chantra says. “I wouldn’t call myself a Robin Hood, because I could always be doing more, but I do feel a strong responsibility to give back.”

Chantra says she took a career test when she was younger and it told her she was best suited for non-profit work, which surprised her as an ambitious self-poised creative entrepreneur. In retrospect, though, it laid the groundwork for how she would conduct her business in future. Having carved her position of financial security and industry influence, she now sees the corporate work as a means to fund charitable work, with the scholarship taking up a lot of her time, and a significant initial and ongoing investment. “They say any good deed is a selfish one, which may be true because it is so incredibly rewarding to learn about, meet and support these young and incredibly talented women.”

Whereas Chantra set out with philanthropic intentions, Holly Kielty and Maisie Benson candidly admit that they didn’t. Holly, head of storytelling at a major international design agency, says she entered the design sphere “simply to make a living… pretty unaware of the impact my own creativity could positively make on the world”. A desire to use her work to make a positive difference “emerged more as I’ve experienced more of life,” she explains, adding that “the world demands it now… none of us can afford to be individualistic.”

Holly and Maisie, a senior designer at B&B Studio, are behind the recent Think Food Bank guerrilla sticker campaign, which saw Maisie illustrate a set of stickers to encourage supermarket shoppers to buy extra items to donate to food banks. Featuring brilliant quips such as “Be Nice, Buy Rice Twice” and “Tea for Two”, the stickers are designed in the brand colours of major supermarkets so they sneakily blend into a shop’s point of sale, making them less likely to be removed by staff. Launched on social media as a side project by the two creatives, the initiative has since taken off, with stickers appearing in shops around the country and Holly and Maisie in talks with Co-op and Waitrose to collaborate more officially, plus a new campaign called Twelve Days of Kindness to get people donating Christmas items like selection boxes and toys.

Meanwhile, on goes the day job. Both Holly and Maisie work at big studios with predominantly corporate clientele, and while Holly believes the creative industry will continue to be dominated by corporate work, she’s noticed the nature of that work has changed. “The fact is, I think more corporations are starting to see success redefined as ‘people over profit’ so I’m hopeful that there’ll be more altruism and kindness built into every corporate brief going forward.”

She also believes there are lessons the non-profit sector can learn from its profit-making counterpart in promoting behavioural change in consumers. “Corporate work has taught me that design can be transformative. It’s what gives brands stopping power in the Instagram scroll, it’s what makes them stand out on the shelf, it’s what makes people emotionally hook into a purpose, all things we’re effectively trying to do with Think Food Bank.”

Maisie says that while problem-solving lies at the root of all good design, many problems – particularly this year – can feel “too massive or complex… That’s where it can be really hard to see how you, as an individual, can make a difference.” Think Food Bank was a simple problem in her eyes, with “a clear solution to address through design” and achievable from a ground level. And though she doesn’t think designers necessarily have a responsibility to do good, this year felt like a “catalyst” for her in making time for projects she cared about, inspired by many projects from the likes of Marcus Rashford to Jessica Hische showing the “power of individuals coming together”. “For me, it’s more about acknowledging a position of privilege and attempting to use that to tackle problems I believe our society currently has, in any way that I can.”

“It’s an enormous privilege to work in a sector that can reach lots of people,” Holly adds. “Packaging and branding design is essentially a public platform. Design has always proved itself to be a positive influence, whether it be in road safety or protest posters or recyclable packaging, so I believe as a creative you should use your skills and position to forge positive societal or environmental change or provoke a new way of thinking wherever you can. The combination of creativity and empathy is the magic that can make great things happen.”

This ethos also comes to mind when talking to Natalie Narh, a social content creative at Ogilvy and vice-chair of Ogilvy Roots, a platform aimed at bringing greater ethnic and cultural diversity into the creative industry. Natalie joined Ogilvy through its apprentice scheme The Pipe, and having climbed the ranks, feels passionate about spreading the wealth. “As a Ghanaian Black-British woman, I cannot get my foot in the door and ignore the need to make it easier for people who look like me to also have the opportunity to create and tell their own stories,” she says. That might mean writing a recommendation for someone, facilitating platforms for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people to be heard, or educating a colleague on a particular aspect of Black culture. “Every day in the creative world is a chance to shift narratives for marginalised communities in a positive direction.”

In terms of her day-to-day work, Natalie says her creative ethos is to “uplift other people” and that infiltrates anything she has the capacity to effect. “I’d like to believe that my corporate work still fulfils the aspect of helping people, as the aim is always to create positively impactful work regardless of the context in which it’s being done. Design has a very specific responsibility to influence our behaviours and perceptions of the world, and always has to be translated with that in mind.”

It’s clear Natalie feels proud of her agency’s efforts to help those who need it, and though she still feels a personal pressure to further those efforts, she says it is – and has to be – a collective effort. “The organisations and bodies who have the money, skills and resources have a responsibility to uplift those trying to improve the lives of others as well. So I shouldn’t have to actively take from a particular pool to help others, they should already be willing to give.”

In hindsight the Robin Hood metaphor didn’t sit that comfortably with any of our interviewees, but maybe because it painted them as some kind of hero. Chantra effectively does take from the rich clients and give to those with less, but sees herself as part of a “pay it forward” chain making way for the next success story. Holly and Maisie have learned the power of design to impact change, and feel a sense of responsibility to share their understanding of how it can be deployed. And while Natalie is doing her best to change the system from the inside, she believes it’s not up to a few heroes – the organisations themselves need to be sharing the wealth before our “Robin Hoods” have a chance to take hold. If Holly and Natalie are right, many already are, but there’s still some way to go.

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny joined the editorial team as It’s Nice That’s first news editor in April 2016. Having studied 3D Design, she has spent the last ten years working in design journalism. Contact her with news stories relating to the creative industries on jb@itsnicethat.com.

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