Hyperakt: Meaningful Design for the Common Good

Brooklyn-based design studio Hyperakt operates under the admirable slogan of "Meaningful Design for the Common Good" – a commitment to only work with companies whose products and services create positive change in the world. Having worked with clients as diverse yet uniformly pro-social as the United Nations, Brooklyn Arts Council, The White House Project, and World Music Institute, Hyperakt offers a rare case study in balancing idealism with pragmatism. Today, we sit down with founders Deroy Peraza and Julia Vakser to talk about the notion of the "triple bottom line," the role of designers in shaping social identity, and the challenges and tradeoffs of reconciling ideological aspiration with the business reality of running a design firm for social change.

Working only with clients who move the world forward is an admirable mission, but how do you manage to reconcile a pro-social philosophy and a viable business strategy?

Hyperakt: Although the balance is a challenge, maintaining a pro-social philosophy and a viable business strategy don't have to be mutually exclusive. Whether a client is non-profit or for profit doesn't dictate its potential to make significant contributions that are beneficial to society. While non-profit organizations are extremely careful with their budgets, those with successful communication strategies understand that they need to invest in well executed branding, design, and technology. Thanks to the social nature of the web, organizations of all kinds are quickly realizing that not investing in these areas threatens their relevance.

The "triple bottom line" has been one of the big business buzzwords of late. What's your take on it?

Hyperakt: For many of our clients, the social and economic factors have been hard-baked into their missions all along. Environmental responsibility has become more popular over the last few years as the green movement has crossed over into the mainstream. The ideal of the triple bottom line is here to stay for social cause organizations. Large corporations understand it adds value and respect to their brands. One could argue that it is more difficult for small businesses to embrace the triple bottom line because we have to focus on economic sustainability. Our mission is to do good, and we believe that doing good is good for business.

How do you envision designers' responsibility in crafting the user experience and connecting social-good products and services with those who need and use them?

Hyperakt: Websites should be friendly and fun to use, or visitors will go elsewhere. Our job is to create effortless, meaningful experiences that support our clients' messaging and capture the hearts and minds of users.

For cause-related sites, it is crucial that visitors perceive the ethos and mission of the organization immediately in order to create emotional connections."

We believe that, as designers, it is our responsibility to inform and inspire people. That's important to us.

Can social identity exist without visual identity? Where does design fit in the way people connect with the causes and ideas bettering their community and society at large?

Hyperakt: Not really. Everything has a visual identity of one sort or another. The question is how effective and well crafted it is, if it is crafted at all.

Through design, we help people fall in love with brands that make the world a better place. Great design can determine whether someone is excited or not about belonging to a cause, believing in a brand or buying a product. It is a gut reaction, followed by the assumption that if a brand is together enough to present its core ideas elegantly, it is a trustworthy, high quality brand that is likely to succeed. These are the kinds of brands people are excited to connect with and tell a friends about. Apple and Nike have known this for years. The Obama campaign understood this and many grassroots organizations learned that inspiring writing and great design can be catalysts for action.

Your favorite design-for-social-good product, service or project of the past decade?

Hyperakt: It's hard to pick one. There has been so much socially conscious design in this decade. Here is what comes to mind: The campaign to build the High-Line in Manhattan. The Obama campaign that inspired the Pepsi Refresh project. The 2012 NYC Olympic Bid. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth documentary and the subsequent Repower America campaign. Bono's ONE and (RED) campaigns to fight extreme poverty and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Charity:Water, a nonprofit that helps bring clean, safe drinking water to developing nations. The upcoming film about the state of education, Waiting for "Superman" has a beautiful promo video. Kickstarter is an awesome crowdfunding site we are using to raise funds to print our World Cup poster.

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings, a curated inventory of miscellaneous interestingness. She writes for Wired UK, GOOD Magazine and Huffington Post, and spends a shameful amount of time on Twitter.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.