Friday, 19 February 2010

“Ethical Design”: the End of Graphic Design? (2000)

This essay was first written in 2000, it strikes me that the issues raised are as relevant now as they were then! For this reason I publish it online today.

When should you shut-up and let people have their own say? In Amistad, the Spielberg blockbuster, slave mutineers stand trial in the New Republic, that we now know as the USA. The defendants, speaking no English, are appointed an African-born and English-speaking former slave to act as their translator.

The mutineers’ defence that they were “free born Africans”, not slaves, was deeply problematic for a government fearing the reaction of the southern states to the notion of a free-born black man that could not be legally enslaved.

In the courtroom sat the defendants’ judges. But an important addition to the usual players was the translator. The court would ask the questions through the translator to the defendants and vice versa. What a wonderful place to be! To be part of a process of communicating between men from different parts of the world, and to enable one of the great discussions of freedom to take place.

As the courtroom drama unfolded and passions inflated, damning and irrational accusations were levelled at the defendants, such that instead of waiting for a response the translator screamed his own defence of those in the dock. I imagine, that if I found myself in that place, I too may have shouted back. It was an emotional act based on his understanding of what is right and wrong.

But the translator was wrong. His attachment to the cause of justice for his people, undermined actual justice, because justice dictates that people should choose their own defence and have their own say. The translator “broke the rules” by momentarily acting not as translator, as facilitator, but as judge and jury.

New Britain, New Design

In New Labour’s New Britain naturally we have New Design. New Design, a term coined by Kevin McCullagh of the radical Design Agenda group, aptly draws attention to the way that broader ideological currents are gaining influence among leading designers, journalists and design institutions.

While there has been some critical discussion of the New Labour phenomenon, it strikes me that there has been precious little critical discussion of these trends among graphic designers. Ideas have entered into the mindset of many practitioners without much reaction, most explicitly in the form of ethical design.

The ethical designer is the New Man of the New Design world. Ethical design demands of its practitioners that they question the content of any project. In this view, the content of a project is the yardstick by which work is measured. The moral and ethical qualities should determine whether that project or idea should be afforded the designer’s time.

The ethical trend in design thinking has far-reaching consequences for the practice, and perception, of the role of the graphic designer and indeed the design industry. The result of bringing ethics into design is potentially damaging for all concerned.

My questioning of ethics might seem odd. After all who wants to be unethical? One’s ethics – according to the dictionary one’s moral philosophy or moral principles – should surely guide one’s life.

“Stand by your principles young man” is a view I’ve always strongly identified with and tried to act upon. However, it is my contention that in the case of design one must be true to others to be true to oneself. The principle of the designer as mediator should remain the watchword of our profession.

Design has existed for a long time without the concept of ethical design. Graphic design has flourished with a more commonsense understanding of the role of the graphic designer and graphic design in society. In order for design to advance in any meaningful, practical, creative and lasting sense, practitioners have to be true to their craft.

The designer as mediator, an uncontroversial idea hitherto, ¬is in the firing line in the form of the promotion of a new model designer, fit for the new millennium, the “ethical designer”. No longer should the designer be allowed to see himself as an effective transmitter of ideas and information, but he must now rise up and challenge the content of the message. It is a current in graphic design that, for those interested in designs future, cannot be ignored.

Ethical design is the pretty daughter of green design. Many questioned green design on its emergence in the mid eighties, as the applicability of environmentalism to many areas of design was not apparent (a green typeface?). In other areas such as product design there had already been an unceasing attempt to make more efficient use of resources, what was new? However the pretty daughter has been better able to seduce: ethical design unlike its less subtle predecessor targets not so much the practicalities of design itself, but more insidiously the outlook behind design.

Perhaps crudely we can say that while green design coincided with misgivings about industrial society and development, ethical design dovetails with the even deeper disenchantments in the nineties. This time disenchantment with organisations, institutions, politicians and even politics in general. Throughout the eighties and nineties traditional institutions, methods of political action and protest have been undermined to the extent that the certainties of the past seem to have all but disappeared. These changes have had a big effect on policy making in government and decision-making in the boardroom, but they have also brought into question thinking in design.

Ethical design in some sense is a response to sense of political powerlessness: designers are urged to get off the fence and act. But what does it mean when design is accorded this role in the world?

The loss of art and design’s direction
The American Institute of Graphic Arts “Dangerous Ideas” conference in the USA, at the end of the eighties, was something of a landmark in changing the parameters in which design and advertising are discussed. The late Tibor Kalman, and co-chair Milton Glaizer raised moral and ethical issues within the design industry that kickstarted a discussion within graphic design about where the designer was situated in the broader context of a changing social and political landscape.

Kalman’s starting point was an attempt to make designers face up to the seeming contradictions within graphic design. From “...making the filthy oil company look ‘clean’” to “...making the junky condo look ‘hip’”.

In the early nineties, Cranbrook Academy of Art’s Catherine McCoy took Kalman’s ethical dilemma further when she put it as a choice between “client or content”. In other words, if you don’t like the content ditch the client. By 1993, according to McCoy, the designers who chose the client were acting not unlike the prostitute who provides a service that demands they remain unattached and neutral. While no doubt most designers have indeed felt like prostitutes at one time by another selling themselves to somebody they dislike, McCoy’s couplet is little more than an intellectual slight of hand that disguises an attack on the professionalism and profession of the designer.

Throughout the nineties the ethical bandwagon rolled on through design schools and design publications, such as Cranbrook Academy of Arts in the USA and the British based Eye, the international review of graphic design, to name a few.

In early 1999 Kalle Lasn, founding editor of the North American environmentalist/anti-consumerist Adbusters magazine, took the ethical proposition to its logical conclusion, at a talk at the Royal College of Art’s Points of View series in London, when he compared the “unethical” graphic designer to the SS guards at the gates of Auschwitz. The argument ran that designers are responsible for all the problems in society, from children smoking, animal testing, nuclear power, and war.

Lasn announced that they were rewriting British designer and author, Ken Garland’s key 1964 First Things First design manifesto. By the end of the summer of 1999, the new manifesto had been published in seven magazines: Adbusters in Canada, Emigre and the AIGA Journal in the USA, Eye and Blueprint in London, Items in the Netherlands and Form in Germany.

The design ethics proposed by the signatories of FTF2000 is at best a call for designers to “design for good” and at worse is a prescriptive set of moral codes. While the prescriptive nature of ethical design is apparent, it is often presented as a matter of the ethics that are the designer’s point of view.

However, whatever ethics you choose, the very idea of the use of ethics presented in the new manifesto makes two assumptions about design and its practice that are fundamentally flawed and dangerous: that graphic design can play a determining role in how people think and act and that the “end-user” or consumer is powerless and therefore unable to resist.

Design as social engineering
The election of New Labour to government had an almost immediate impact on the design industry in Britain. A debate raged soon after, following on from a discussion document by the think tank Demos on the perceptions of Britain at home and abroad. A document that was greeted with derision as much as with excitement.

Design consultancy Wolf Ollins released some sketches of what the new British flag would look like were the decision taken to bury the Union Flag, with all its associations with Empire and Britain¹s racist past.

Further discussions raged about how the perception and the seeming reality of Britain could be put right through design. Proposals that have all but been pushed under the carpet were bounced around, from taking foreign delegates to the Ministry of Sound rather than the Tower of London to the positive promotion of Britain as a centre of creative service-providers as opposed to the perception of Britain as a declining manufacturing nation.

Can the designer change Britain’s image? The problem was and remains that peoples’ perceptions of Britain as a declining power have such currency because it is. A sea change in perception demands a sea change in what is seen. Only with the reorganisation of British society and industry could graphic designers play their part. Without, there is little to spin. Designers would do well to explain that design is at its most effective when it draws on the pre-existing prejudices and beliefs and hopes and fears of the consumer or end-user.

Another example of the attempt to use design for social change is the legislation banning the advertising of cigarettes in public places. The argument here that stopping the wicked drug barons using the images of purple silk will stop people smoking and thus improve the nation’s health. Again the assumption is that design can have a determining influence on how people act. The resounding silence from the design industry on this question should allow us to assume that the industry believes that advertising makes people smoke. But as recent history has shown just as many people start smoking today as they did 30 years ago, and that is with the continual restriction of where and how tobacco can be advertised. In general people start smoking because they see it as a quick step into adult life. For a thirteen year old this is a more “sexy” proposition that a peeling roadside billboard, passed on the way home from school. And do these teens quit because the ads are not there to tell them to keep going or because of government health literature? No, the overweening influence here is a preoccupation with health, one of the trends currently sweeping our insecure society.

The right to choose
An understanding of the impact of “design” in society is necessary in order to develop it further, as well as to allow those who practice to concentrate on their overriding responsibility: to communicate the ideas they are given in as effective a manner as possible. Effective communication, raising the standards of design and its practice enables the consumer to exercise greater choice.

For the ethical designer choice has become a dirty word. Their concern is that if we allow people the choice between a “good” product and a “bad” product people may choose the “bad” one. This is the logic of the censor, the “old lefts’” argument that “no platform” should be given to those beyond the pale such as fascists and anti-abortion groups.

During my time at college student activists would often chant “no platform” throughout a debate or, worse, call in the authorities to ban the debate on the spurious grounds of public disorder. Their argument, like that of today’s ethical designer, was that things they disliked (a lot) should not be expressed. In part this showed a fear that they were unable to argue their case against people such as anti-abortionists, but in main the view was that the audience were like sheep. Under no circumstances could people be trusted to hear such dangerous ideas.

Desperately disillusioned with their fellow man the ethical designer wants no choice of competing products or ideas to be presented. When choice is a dirty word then what does that say about the chooser?

As ethical designers would have it, if we are unable to resist the messages of the tobacco companies then how can we choose between them. Taking the influence of advertising to the absurd, as is evident in the writings of ethical designers, an image is conjured up where consumers are unable to view advertising without getting on the telephone to order the “vacumeasy” or the “staysharp cutlery”. Having managed to turn-off the tv we only manage to walk ten feet before we are persuaded to buy an alternative brand of cigarettes while at the same time being coerced into buying some perfume that we glimpsed out of the corner of our eye on the back page of an upturned magazine.

Choice is only possible if we retain a certain level of critical faculties. Choice is relevant only to those who are able to exercise that choice. It presumes a fundamental belief in human agency. It is this rejection of human agency that sets the ethical designer apart from all who came before them.

What is happening is that the ethical designer takes design both too seriously and not seriously enough. By assuming that the world spins around design, the ethicist treats design too seriously. By concentrating on the content of the message, rather than on how to best get the message across, the ethicist does not treat the craft of design seriously enough.

Both taking design too seriously and not seriously enough shows a low view of people. Here on the one hand people are sheep that will believe what they are shown and, on the other, not intelligent enough to warrant someone who concentrates his skill and effort in the process of effectively getting ideas across.

What is the role of the graphic designer?
At the heart of the ethical problem is its prescriptive nature. At the outset we should recognise that this is not a question of a “preferred way of working” nor indeed is it an enlightened next step in the progressive and developmental nature of graphic design.

I would argue that the demand for designers to be ethical is a demand for an end to designer as mediator as we know it.

The demand for an ethical graphic design industry is rooted in the near total collapse of many of the old institutes that were the product of the expansion of the industry during the 1950s and 60s. Like many other post war institutions they have suffered in the face of a changing social and political landscape.

From the rejection of the old, a new set of standards and goals are being reformulated. While we should not necessarily simply reintroduce the ideas of the past, we should certainly be wary of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

Few would doubt the need for a more critical and robust review of the role of the graphic designer. The industry is constantly evolving, and we would do well to keep up with developments in the fields of theory, practice and technology.

Fundamentally, we need to examine what the role of the graphic designer is, both for the purposes of review and for our standard of practice. We would do no harm in having this debate in public as it would show the depth of understanding within the industry and introduce the practices and workings of our industry to a broader audience.

Fundamentally the graphic designer is a problem solver. The problem to solve is how best to communicate the message that is given, to those identified as likely to use the service. The message can be anything from telling people the price of a fast car and where to get it, to a more challenging problem of how to get people from A to B in a hospital or an airport. In both instances an unwritten contract is agreed: that the designer will draw on all their experience, skill and expertise to mediate that message to those who need or want that information. Again, in both cases, we should assume that the easier the message (or the more effective in design terms) is to understand (the what, the where and the how), the better.

The challenge is set and the designer is employed to mediate that message at his or her discretion. Importantly, this relationship or contract recognises the expertise of the graphic designer. It recognises the designer as central to the communication process.

But, perhaps, more importantly as designers we must understand that the people for whom the product is targeted are discerning individuals who are able to make choices, presuming they are given one!

The ethical designer turns this relationship on its head. The content of the message is questioned, on personal (do I believe in / agree with the content) and on moral grounds (does the message promote “unethical” signs). The role of the graphic designer becomes one of a moral guardian or gatekeeper to the on-message messages.

While there is, of course, nothing wrong with choosing not to work for a client based on ones own personal opinion, or beliefs, we must make a distinction between what is a personal decision and what is by its nature a prescriptive set of demands on designers and the design industry. A cursory review of the ethical question in graphic design, reveals that the concerns of designers are of course a reflection of the general concerns of society

A vox pox in Graphics International magazine asked creatives to comment on their companies’ ethical concerns about vivisection. In other discussions you are likely to find these themes repeated with additions like the defence industry, cars and recently GM foods.

There is often a broad consensus on these ethical concerns. But, thankfully, ideas are still contested. That there is a general attack on the production of GM foods does not mean the attackers are right. Let Monsanto have its say! Similarly “animal testing” has its critics as well as its proponents. The point being that the graphic designer is not responsible for society’s beliefs and prejudices, and as a mediator is limited to repeating or ignoring them, based on the interests of the originator.

In his introduction to Graphic Design: A Concise History, Richard Hollis says of the role of the graphic designer, “The meaning that images and alphabetic signs convey has little to do with who made or chose them: they do not express their designers’ ideas. The designer’s message serves the expressed needs of the client who is paying for it. Although its form may be determined or modified by the designer’s aesthetic preferences or prejudice, the message has to be put in a language recognised and understood by its intended audience.”

Ten years on from first writing this essay, the “designer as mediator” is a principle that we would do well to reappropriate.