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Mike Dempsey on “the graphic designer and ethics”

“If you are a designer, ask yourself: am I colluding with a food or drinks manufacturer in minimising the bad points of a product through a designed subterfuge to make the product look enticing to children? If the answer is yes, you have some serious thinking to do. A design ‘strategy’ is often little more than a plan of action to hoodwink customers into thinking that a product is good and safe for them and their children when it is not.

Fat Ronal McDonald graffiti
Photo by duncan c

“Or you might be colluding on promotional material to divert attention from the many levels (with still more coming out of the woodwork) of criminal activities of the banking fraternity. There have been a plethora of insultingly patronising promotions in recent months attempting to paint a ‘caring’ banking picture when we all know that they don’t give a shit and all that matters are their profit margins and the ever-increasing ‘compensation’ for the very people who plotted and planned the criminal strategy in the first place but never ended up in prison.”

Words from a man with a lifetime of experience at the top of the design profession.

I’m not an expert on the distinction between ethics and morals so correct me if I’m wrong. The first example above might be a moral decision rather than an ethical one if the food or drinks manufacturer in question is operating lawfully. But then, with organisations such as Monsanto spending millions of dollars each year to influence Congress, is the value of “law” determined by the money politicians accept to change it? The banking example seems to be more clear cut. If clients are committing a crime, it’s unethical to take their money.

Either way, as designers it’s up to us to continually question the goals of our work.

Definitely read Mike Dempsey’s full post on his blog Graphic Journey.

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10 comments about “Mike Dempsey on “the graphic designer and ethics””

  1. Great link, David.

    It is such a grey area, the first example. Is it wrong to do a good job when the end goal is malicious? Most know that Mcdonalds isn’t healthy and that sodas contain too much sugar, but should we still take on such work just because it is legal? Most designers would go crazy to be handed Bacardi as a client, but many would refuse Camel. Both are dangerous yet one is seen as way more devious than the other. Many large companies do things you don’t want to be associated with, like conflict minerals for basically every electronic device out there, but that is less of a fuss than the banking sector because they got caught with the hand in the cookie jar. At the same time, how much work can you refuse based on moral/ethical grounds before you have to give up your house?

    Moral and ethics is a difficult subject and I think we all have to come to terms with our own values in the end, that’s the only way we will be able to live with ourselves.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment!

  2. Are you a decent, moral human being?
    Do you believe in what you are doing and the people you are doing it for?

    Answer yes and you are probably doing the right thing. If you answer yes you are probably enjoying what you are doing.

    If you are enjoying what you are doing, you are probably doing better work.

  3. I for one will not sell my soul for a client. Because working with a client/company that offers you such things as notoriety, money, fame may not be long lasting. This sort of scenario reminds me of when Don Draper said they were no longer doing tobacco ads. Another thing I don’t understand is the agencies that did 1000’s of ads and commercials for fast food chains and then try to go against what they did. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.

  4. Great choice of illustration!

    I do not believe it is my job to morally or ethically judge my clients’ products and services nor, by extension the customers that use them. I believe in educating consumers about the choices available to them and allowing them to make their own choices (within the limits of the law). This isn’t just a graphic design debate, but this is something that seems to be becoming more and more prevalent in our society; ‘helping’ others by legislating our own morality…. I think it is a dangerous trend.

    The legislation around smoking pisses me off. I smoke, because I enjoy smoking. I understand the risks, I don’t need society to look after my health for me – to me it’s a quality verses quantity thing. You may not smoke yourself, but why should you not work with a company that supplies a product I want, to market that product in an appropriate, truthful way?

    But it hasn’t stopped with smoking…. Now it’s the same thing with fast food… Processed sugary foods… alcohol… but also ethically divisive services such as abortion and euthanasia. Shouldn’t our role as communications professionals be to advise our clients on how to communicate truthfully and openly, for any product or service that is legal in the country they find themselves in? It seems to me that refusing our services to select customers impeeds their freedom of expression and as such, is tantamount to censorship.

  5. There’s a lot of grey, Martin. I agree. Lee asks the right question: Do you believe in what you’re doing and the people you’re doing it for?

    Hi Tara, is it censorship to decline a client who sells something I don’t like? That seems more like common sense to me. If I don’t like a product or service, I doubt I’d put everything I’ve got into the project, so I’d be doing my client a disservice at the same time as taking the enjoyment out of my job.

  6. Hey David,

    Wikipedia defines censorship as “the suppression of speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other such entities. Governments, private organizations and individuals may engage in censorship”.

    So I would say, yes, if you are declining purely on the basis of your personal morals, then you are engaging in a form of censorship (in a context where the product is legal, the message is not misleading and the customer is employing the designer to make their communication more efficient – either esthetically or strategically).
    After all, you wouldn’t take a job purely because you liked the product or service either, would you?

    Either way, I would need more info than just who is going to be paying my bill to decide whether or not I can give a project my all…. what is the project? who am I working with? how much input will I have? how well can I communicate with the contact person I’d be working with?

    Depending on the nature of the product/service, some research may be necessary…why do other people want this? Who are they? Can I understand and empathise with them?

    If you have taken those steps, and you decide you are not the best person for the job, then you are no longer making the decision based solely on your own morals, but on your ability to do the job well. That is a form of editorial selection and I think the distinction is important.

    Also, depending on your relationship with the contact, the amount of input you are given, not having the same viewpoint may lead some innovative solutions.
    Open discussion conducted in a respectful fashion is always positive, even when all parties do not agree…..your blog is a great example of that. It is the variety of opinions that make for thought provoking reading and keeps me coming back.

  7. Declining a project isn’t the suppression of public communication. It’s my choice on what I think is right. Perhaps it’d be different if I was to impose my choice on others who are in the position to accept the project. By declining I’m saying I’d prefer to work on projects that are a better fit, and more generally, as designers we should all consider the goals of our work when choosing our clients.

    I’m glad there’s content here that keeps you coming back, Tara. It’s good of you to visit and join in the chat. On a side note, I’m also glad that my Wikipedia page no longer exists. People seemed to have fun making edits they found amusing but untrue.

  8. Just a comment on Tara’s comment on smoking.

    I don’t get why you get pissed off by society taking a stance either way, we know very well what the tobacco industry is doing where there are no legislations against them, see African countries where they market to children who are not in a position to make the best choice. Would you feel comfortable making those plans knowing it targets children? I wouldn’t because I do not think that society can be painted grey where we as designers only can stand on the sidelines and be completely neutral about what work we do.

    For that matter, since society as a whole pays for healthcare I think it is just about right that companies have to follow restrictive legislation regarding harmful products such as tobacco, alcohol and yes, fast food. About a hundred years ago Radium water was marketed as something good for you and we know how that turned out. Fast food with high sugar and sodium hasn’t been around long enough for studies to show all the downside just like a lot of the chemicals that are added instead of sugar, I am not saying they are bad, but saying we know everything now is naïve.

    “I don’t need society to look after my health for me” Perhaps not, but you are not the only one smoking and many want to stop and believe you me there are plenty out there that are young and don’t know the risks of smoking or overconsumption of alcohol or fast food. You pay tax to your healthcare system but it won’t cover cancer treatment on its own, in say you need society to look after your health at some point and as such you have to give something in return.

    Regarding the censorship comment: No. If I personally had monopoly of the digital media then I would agree that it could be seen as suppression but there are millions of designers out there, if I decline your work because I believe it is wrong you just have to turn over a rock and find another one willing to do it.

  9. Ah, you ignite a serious and most sensitive discussion man. I to some extent agree with you but I also disagree at the same time. Well, as we know, clients want us to show their products far better than they are in reality. So, how can we change that? I mean, we are just a design firm or web studio or something. Do we possess authority to make things right at such level? No, we can’t correct our client, it’s not our responsibility. There are thousands of people getting paid to look after such matters. So, what can we do? Should we take the money from such clients? I usually meet 90 out of 100 people who want us to let people think positively about their products, even beyond positively. I remember one of my clients said, “Let them (people) think that we are the only one who can serve them.” This is ridiculous. But still, what else can I do except smile. So, I don’t give a damn for moralities and ethical stuff. I could be wrong, but that’s the way I am.

  10. Personally I refuse to work for banking institutions, meat & sausage producers.

Anything to add?

Comments may be edited or deleted if I don't like the cut of your jib, but that's quite unlikely.