Design+ Social Issue Campaigns

Hans Thiessen RGD, Partner and Creative Director of Design at Rethink, shares two of his favourite campaigns and talks about his experience working on projects related to social issues. Interviewed by Chelsey Stuart-Duval RGD


What is your favourite social campaign that you have worked on?


My favourite social campaign is Lost Tapes of the 27 Club.



We partnered with Over the Bridge, a non-profit offering mental health support to the music industry, to create music using artificial intelligence that the 27 Club might have created, had they gotten the mental health support they needed.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, the 27 Club is a group of iconic musicians and artists including Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse — who all died at the age of 27, due to mental health struggles like depression, anxiety and addiction. Sadly, it's a group that continues to grow.

What kind of impact did the campaign have?


Lost Tapes of the 27 Club was featured in all major music publications including Rolling Stone, NME, Billboard. It was listened to over 2 million times in just one week, generated over 2.1 billion impressions and $31 million in earned media. But more importantly, Over the Bridge saw an 830% increase in musicians reaching out for mental health support.

Can you tell us about other projects?


Another project I'm proud of is Backfire.



It was an online tool that empowered Americans to fight for common sense gun laws by auto-tweeting the President (Donald Trump at the time) in real-time, every time an American died from gun violence.


While the Backfire was live, it averaged 93,225 Tweets and 17,526,635 impressions per day and influential anti-gun violence advocates got on board, including George Takei's One Pulse for America, Parkland shooting survivor Lex Michael and Democratic National Committee Member Khary Penebaker. It is hard to directly trace back to Backfire alone, but Trump did change his tone towards gun violence laws following the launch of Backfire:

  • 3 days after launch: "Trump demands broad bill on guns" – Reuters
  • 1 week after launch: "Donald Trump stuns allies by signalling backing for tighter gun control" – The Guardian
  • 3 weeks after launch: "[Trump] wants to strengthen background checks" – Time

I worked with Sean O'Connor on both Lost Tapes of the 27 Club and Backfire. He's an incredibly talented creative director and copywriter at Rethink. Neither campaign would have seen the light of day without him.

What is your favourite type of campaign to work on?


I love working on anything that poses an interesting challenge. Being forced to explore ideas that seem outlandish at the time keeps things fresh.

What's the most common misconception about working on social issue campaigns?


I've often heard people moan about how working with a non-profit or doing work for social issues is "sooooo much easier than working on a 'real' client." But the truth is, doing great work that stands out takes hard work, regardless of the subject matter or who you're doing it for.

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of working as a designer in advertising?


To be honest, I've never been a fan of that question. It assumes that being a designer in an advertising agency is far less exciting or enjoyable than being one anywhere else.


The truth is — in my experience, at Rethink anyway — being a designer in an advertising agency unlocks so many things you'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Like getting to work with a larger, more diverse group of creatives that have different skills and perspectives than your own. Or being exposed to a wider range of projects, both in terms of scale and skills required.

What advice would you give new designers who want to work with social issues?

Whether you've been a designer for a day or a decade, keep going. The moment you stop pushing yourself and exploring new things is the moment you stop growing and having fun.


And never forget, fun is good!


Hans Thiessen RGD is a Partner and Creative Director of Design at Rethink, Strategy's Design Agency of the Year for the past three years in a row. Over the past decade, his work has been recognized with a variety of metallic pats on the back – including Cannes Lions and a D&AD Black Pencil. Outside of work, you’ll find Hans with his wife and four sons rollerblading somewhere far, way too fast.