“It can come together within 24 hours”: using social media for social design

As part of our IWD 2021 coverage, we speak to B&B senior designer Maisie Benson about using social media to seek out and share social design side projects.

“What I really like about side projects is the ability to collaborate with other people – making it less about me and more about a cause,” says Maisie Benson.

Benson is a senior designer at London-based B&B studio. She is also part of the creative team behind two recent social design projects, which aim to support people who are some of the worst-hit by the pandemic.

With Covid, lockdown and furlough, plenty of designers and studios found themselves with extra downtime in 2020. Benson’s Think Food Bank and Happy to Help – which use graphic design and storytelling to support and raise awareness for food bank users and design graduates respectively – were among the many social design side projects that emerged at this time.

While the projects are vastly different in their methods and cause, one unifying theme between Think Food Bank and Happy to Help is that both were conceived and developed through social media. And as Benson explains, their success is down to social media too.

“We felt we had to go for it while food insecurity was at the front of everyone’s minds”

Think Food Bank, a “guerrilla” initiative that uses stickers designed by Benson to raise awareness around food bank donations inside supermarkets, was born out of an Instagram direct message conversation between Benson and co-founder Holly Kielty, who works as head of storytelling at Design Bridge.

“Holly had written an Instagram post about how she had been contacting supermarkets and asking them to increase the size of their food bank donations,” says Benson. “After the turbulence of the pandemic and Marcus Rashford’s campaigning, it was a topic that had been on my mind too.”

After some discussion, Benson recalls Kielty jokingly saying that maybe the best course of action was to “go guerrilla” with stickers. It was an idea that stuck.

The details of the sticker designs and the copy for the initiative were hashed out first over Instagram, and then WhatsApp, Benson says.

“I sent five or so designs to Holly, and she wrote the copy and we worked from there,” says Benson, explaining there was a fine line to tread between being light-hearted and not trivialising the issue. The pair went live with the initiative during Marcus Rashford’s campaigning for free school meals in late 2020, receiving hundreds of likes, comments, retweets and – most importantly – enquires.

“We felt we had to go for it while food insecurity was at the front of everyone’s minds.”

Benson flags up her own Happy to Help campaign

“A matter of days”

The other scheme, Happy to Help, was a collaboration between Benson and Fiasco junior designer Claudia Aggett.

The initiative, which seeks to pair recent creative graduates with industry professionals who can give advice, support and direction, uses flags on users’ social media profiles to signal they’re “happy to help”. Like Think Food Bank, this project was coined on social media – this time over Twitter.

“Claudia had written a piece on Twitter about how she was up for helping recent graduates get in touch with designers,” says Benson.

It was a cause that resonated with her as she knew how important industry talks, portfolio reviews and graduate shows were during her own design education. All of these things had been made less accessible and less personable in the last year as a result of the pandemic. “I replied saying I’d like to help and the Happy to Help flag was what we came up with.”

Aggett and Benson sent an editable file between themselves as they worked through the design of an asset pack for Happy to Help. From conception to the first roll out, she says it was “a matter of days”.

Benson’s campaign targeted Tesco and other supermarkets

“It’s good to get as many perspectives as possible”

With lockdown forcing designers out of studios and other collaborative spaces, Benson says social media was an ideal medium for her and her collaborators to both develop and distribute Think Food Bank and Happy to Help.

Additionally, it was a medium that allowed her to find collaborators and go beyond her studio walls. This, she says, helped expand the reach of the projects even further, while avoiding the work looking like a PR stunt or an empty gesture.

“I have been a designer at B&B since I graduated and have had two amazing creative directors – but with projects like this, it’s good to get as many perspectives as possible,” she says. “That can’t be done if you’re only thinking of working within your bubble.”

Each partner brought something different to the projects, Benson says: Kielty’s storytelling skills helped to elevate the messaging behind Think Food Bank, while Aggett brought specialist knowledge as she is also the creator of a nation-wide slack channel for 2020 design graduates.

“Another contributing factor to the reach has been where we are in our careers; Think Food Bank benefits from Holly’s [Kielty’s] gravitas and reputation within the industry,” she says. “Whereas with Happy to Help, Claudia [Aggett] is a recent grad so again this worked well for connecting with current students.”

“It needs to be something you can get excited about”

Reflecting on working full time during the pandemic and developing two side projects at the same time Benson has some advice for anyone looking to try something similar.

“I think my biggest tip is to make sure that you’re passionate about what you think you want to do – it needs to be something you enjoy and can be energised by, because downtime is so important right now,” she says.

A willingness to collaborate is also key of course. Both projects came about from approaching another creative who was saying something she wanted to push further, but ensuring both parties are on board is the first hurdle.

“I always have to ask the people I’m looking to work with if they’re in the right headspace to be a part of the work,” she says.

“Basically a kit of parts waiting for willing participants”

It’s a system that seems to have worked and then some. Benson and Kielty initially got 50 sticker sets printed for Think Food Bank, but have now sent well over 1,000 out to willing participants across the country. There is also hope for bigger partnerships further down the line.

And as for Happy to Help, an initiative conceived and built in just days now has more than 100 creatives signed up to give advice. Several internships and mentorships have also been conceived off the back of the project.

“Both of these projects were basically a kit of parts waiting for willing participants to see it, share it and make it their own – I just think it’s amazing that these ideas can grow and keep growing from social media.”

Learn more about Think Food Bank and Happy to Help here.

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