Why are more and more creatives devoting their energies to good causes? Lisa Hassell investigates

As designers we spend our working lives satisfying the demands of clients, conveying their message to the world – be it selling a brand, product or lifestyle. Now a growing number of creatives are branching out in the name of wanting to make a difference.

For example, there has been an outpouring of creative projects in aid of Japan following the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, such as James White’s Help Japan poster (featured in our May issue), which has raised over £13,000 to date.

It’s not all about disaster relief either. Some designers are contributing work to support long-term reconstruction and development, as in the case of the Renmen Project (therenmenproject.co.uk), which raises money for Haiti. Sometimes it is personal circumstances that drive fundraising: Matt Daniels, for example, was moved by the death of his girlfriend into setting up an art auction and other projects to support a children’s hospice. Other designers are helping campaigning organisations by offering their services either gratis or at nominal rates.

Illustrator Stephen Chan drawing at a Paint It, Make It For Japan event

So why the apparent wave of interest among designers in generating aid and raising social awareness, particularly given that work is harder to come by in this time of austerity? Is it, as the critics of Band Aid and Live Aid were often wont to argue, often a cynical exercise in self-publicity? Or do creatives benefit in much more laudable ways from sinking their time and effort into what could be labelled “design for change”?

A sense of community

Art by Natsuki Otani created for a zine as part of her Paint It, Make It For Japan series of live art and workshop events

For Japanese illustrator Natsuki Otani (natsukiotani.co.uk), the trend has nothing to do with the prevailing economic doldrums. “To my mind it’s more likely to do with the fact that artists, designers and creatives have a better [sense of] community than ever before – they are much more interconnected,” she says. “So when a tragedy strikes everyone feels it more personally. I guess that means designers are more socially aware.”

Kyle Wilkinson of Pixel One (pixel-one.co.uk), a design studio in Barnsley in the UK, says part of the appeal of doing work for a charity is the “more flexible, relaxed approach”, as he puts it. “Charities, in our experience, are great fun to work with. The briefs tend to be quite open and the people involved get really excited about the whole project, creating a buzz.” He says this atmosphere can “inject creativity”, and singles it out as the biggest difference between working for a charity and commercial clients.

Pixel One’s design for an invitation to the Barnsley Hospice’s annual ball

While Ben the Illustrator (bentheillustrator.com), co-founder of the Renmen Project, agrees, he points out that the commercial and non-profit worlds offer similar challenges. “I do always try to keep a commercial head on,” he says. “If you’re contributing to a charity [merchandising] project, your brief is essentially to create something that will sell and raise money. It is not about self-promotion or even putting your feelings out there.”