There is a quote that "bad design never killed anyone," but I know that what we do is less trivial than that.

What designs have you seen cause real change or have a real influence?

Specific context behind the question:

Lord willing, I'll be giving a presentation to my wife's school for Career Day this week. I want to talk about what design is (which could be another question here, I might post later), but since I learn by example, I want to give some examples about how design makes a difference.

To answer the "what have you tried" question:

One of my favorite examples is the butterfly ballot from the USA's 2000 election...a poor ballot design probably shifted the course of my country for at least four years. but that's probably a little too partisan. Partisan concerns also knock out the comparison of health care charts - a great conversation piece about how design can be used to streamline or obfuscate data.

I love propaganda design and respect its unique place in history, but kids might not connect with that.

I could talk about the iPod and iPhone, but some of that drifts into industrial design and I think that's a bit tired of an example anyways.

I'm thinking about comparing two pieces of paper, one that has a bad font, tight leading and kerning, and is right-aligned, and one that is set a little more properly, and asking them to compare. But that's just a boring sheet of paper.

  • 1
    Interpreting as "Is it possible to prove designs changed history, with non-political examples?": I'm no design history expert, but I'll give one myth and one popular example. Myth: Edward Tufte has, bizarrely, for years tried to blame the Challenger shuttle explosion on bad graphics by engineers arguing the launch should be postponed. Debunking summarised here. Classic: Florence Nightingale's coxcomb charts, which (arguably) directly influenced health policy. Oct 20, 2012 at 23:33
  • Thanks for these! Why do you comment and not answer so I can give you a proper upvote :P
    – Brendan
    Oct 21, 2012 at 2:16
  • I'm assuming you're specifically limiting yourself to the topic of graphic design? John Snow's cholera map comes to mind. Oct 21, 2012 at 12:22
  • 1
    You know nothing, John Snow. ;) Oct 21, 2012 at 12:44
  • @mrdwab I did think about John Snow's map, but decided against it reasoning it was an analysis tool for his use that led him to a conclusion: then, testing and proving that conclusion (taking the handle of the well) made the historical impact. The map itself is awesome, but you could argue it could have been a scribble on an envelope or printed in Ye Comeec Sanns and still had the same impact. It's a good one though, the fact it's so clear probably helped change minds within the medical profession. Oct 21, 2012 at 14:01

3 Answers 3


You may want to focus your topic into the concept of information design, which is where graphic deign splits off from just being about making something look pretty to highlighting the information that is important to people.

One starting point might be to look at the Nudge blog where occasionally they highlight how design can "nudge" people into making different (better) decisions.

Some examples include:

  1. Landfill

    enter image description here

  2. Look before you cross the road

    enter image description here

  3. Light switch stickers to save energy

Also look for things like nutrition information on menu cards or receipts, revised stickers for showing fuel efficiency of vehicles, re-designed legislation....

And, if the kids are old enough and can appreciate some humor, painting gods and goddesses on walls in India to prevent public urination, or placing a small image of a fly or some other object in the "sweet spot" for urinals (where the amount of urine that splashes out is minimized). It turns out that men don't pee on their deities, and they love to aim their urine stream at targets!


You may also want to mention something about graphic designers as preservers of culture. I do remember having read some papers a long time ago about studies that show how the role of graphic design is important because of what the graphics themselves might say about a society at a given point in time. The justification is along the lines that graphic designers need to know what people respond to on an emotional level if they expect people to respond positively to their designs.


Target's pharmaceutical packaging comes to mind. Dubbed ClearRx, it originated as a student project at SVA and Target picked it up. Here's a couple of starting points for info.

http://deborahadlerdesign.com/casestudy/?id=target - The designer who pioneered ClearRX talking through her story, with images illustrating the process


enter image description here


The Stop sign comes to mind.

Before design was unified each state, county, and city was free to have their own form of stop sign. Colors could range from yellow, to orange, to red, even green in a few cases. And shapes, while mostly circular, varied as well - some rectangles, triangles, and circles.

stop stop stop

The (federally mandated) unification of design has saved countless lives since it was instituted.

Wikipedia - stop sign
History of the stop sign

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