Many people get a business degree, a small fraction end up owning businesses, most work for other companies as employees. Which of them do you think has ultimate power to steer their destiny, and possibly that of society?
It is like that for industrial designers as well.
If you want to make positive change, let no one be above you, or else they will make whatever decisions they want. And they may not be so ‘positive.’
I know people who started their own companies straight out of high school and were self taught designers and running things before many of my coleagues even graduated. Mark Ecko did that and now has a billion dollar clothing company.
So that’s the bit about intentions. Now for the design specific.
Good design can be incredibly powerful towards ‘good’ ends. How many of your ‘hippie-friends’ have gone through 3 or 4 junk cars that spilled oil and belched smoke while complaining about the ‘establishment’ and the rich and how unenvironmental they are. I can name a handfull. Now look at the people who save up and buy a Porsche, a Macbook, an Aeron chair. How many of those objects end up in a landfill? Not many. Most of those Porsches from the 50’s are still wearing vintage license plates. Those people usually don’t clutter up their lives with 100’s of smaller useless products, while the former group usually lives with tons of junk they have wasted their money on.
So if we could focus on working on less needless products, or those that are likely to be discarded we can do a lot of good. High quality design goes for all scales too. A better planned, compact city could eliminate 80% of the commuting Amaricans do in a year for example.
But ultimately, unless you desire to lead a car company, be a politician, or take some high position where you can make those decisions, just be happy designing and making a living at it- whatever the job- and forget about whether it’s positive. Because, unless you want to honestly fight at those high levels and in that nastiness, you shouldn’t wory about it. The irony is that selfless people seldom want power enough to make the changes they want, and selfish people who want the power rarely care about anybody else.