60-Seconds #325 : Should graphic designers have social responsibility?

by Fred Showker

Fred Showker's 60-Second Window You may remember my 2002 post about Steven Heller's "Citizen Designer." Milton Glaser often says, "Good design is good citizenship." So, we decided to go out on the limb a decade later and ask the same question amongst a cross section of Designers today. The responses we got are somewhat amazing! Is the graphic designer as accountable as the marketing and publicity departments for the propagation of a message or idea? Be careful, don't answer until you've read this.

So I asked : Should graphic designers have a sense of social responsibility?

In Citizen Designer, Milton Glaser questions designers "willingness to lie" -- Should graphic designers have a sense of social responsibility?
Ask youself : ... what is YOUR willingness to lie? Do you have a designers social responsibility?

  • Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
  • Photoshopping an image to look better than it really is?
  • Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a light-hearted comedy.
  • Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
  • Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
  • Designing a campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
  • Designing a package for children whose contents you know are low in nutrition value
  • Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labor.
  • Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn't work.
  • Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies would be harmful to the public.
  • Designing a brochure for an SUV that turned over frequently (was known to have killed people.)
  • Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user's death.
Comments? Examples? Reflections?

Is it really about the money?

For most of these the sad fact is "If I don't do the design work there's always someone else who will, so why not take their money" - after all that's why I do this, if I just wanted to create art without having to actually sell anything or convey a message I'd be a fine artist. A couple I would have issues with ethically, but quite honestly our job is to design something that works, and not to be the moral conscience of a client who's going to carry on regardless of what I say, do or think.
      Some of the examples above may be irrelevant at the time of the design, did the company who designed the original Ford Explorer brochure know it was going to prove a mite unstable? Probably not (and my Explorer hasn't tipped over once). A new diet product? Who am I to know whether it works or not? I have designed for food brands and quite honestly I never examined the nutritional value before doing so - and if you were offered the McDonalds or KFC account tomorrow would you really say "no" on the grounds that they sell crap? You can design for them, no one says you have to eat the product.
      Other examples above are simply marketing, making a product look larger on the shelf, that's just good design in my opinion. Photoshopping images - I doubt there is a single product shot out there from any medium to large brand company that hasn't been photoshopped, even if it's simply increasing the highlights on a reflection to make it look shinier, or simply removing an unwanted scratch on the sample used in the shoot.
      Others are even a challenge - "designing a logo for a vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time."?? Seriously, you would say "no", or see it as an interesting project to convey a sense of history to a product that effectively has none? It wouldn't be the first time that's been done, but i hardly see it as socially irresponsible.
      There are things that I would find hard to do, a political campaign for a party I didn't have any empathy with, but then part of the job is to overcome that and find a way (without quietly undermining them because you actually vote for the other party). And personally i would never work with anything to do with pornography or religion but again, I'm sure there are plenty of designers who do/will/have done. It's all subjective Fred :)
RV and travel apps Commented by : David James

Would I work for a porn company?

How many designers create something that mimics what has been done in the '50's and '60's? This alone might suggest to certain people that a product has been around a while even if the company came into existance an hour ago.
      Would I work for a porn company? It really all depends on if I had to look at any of the images. If I never had to see their work or use any of it in the work I was doing for them, I might not have issue with it. Just like I wouldn't say no to a tobacco company or a beer company. All personal preference and if you need the job to pay the bills.
RV and travel apps Commented by : James Cole

A certain level of hypocrisy

Actually, this issue of social responsibility and morals have come up number of times already, and I have to say that I have noticed a certain level of hypocrisy in many of the responses. Quite a number of responders allegedly advocated high level of morals while at the same time they do willingly submit free work for organizations that has proven on number of occasions to provide shelter for pedophiles, blindingly support a company that is known for having no problem with inhumane conditions their adored products are made in.
      One thing to keep in mind is that if we look too closely on morals, we would inevitably pretty soon come to the conclusion that we would be doing no work whatsoever beside maybe some projects for our own personal amusement (and as I mentioned, even that could be questionable considering the tools we use). Simple fact is that there is (almost) no industry that is not guilty of either unethical business practices or producing the products that are, one way or another, either bad for our health or the environment or both. So, doing any work for those industries could be easily interpreted as support of those wrongdoings that are far from any moral grounds.
      I am willing to learn which car company is not guilty of killing people with their products, which food company is not poisoning their products with all sorts of additives, which cosmetic company s not thriving on selling often nothing but vanity...? Media? Pharmaceuticals? Politics? Tobacco? Alcohol? Even pornography? What is the difference and where exactly do you draw the line when it comes to perfidy, and malingering the public to gain their own goals?
      I am sorry to say, but where you draw that imaginary line, has absolutely nothing to do with some real universal moral code, but totally with personal believes and stands, most likely based on nothing more than some pretty picture you chose to believe in.
      The only measurable moral line is related to our responsibility to our profession and lies in our approach to work and the quality of the work we produce. In that sense, producing subpar work, even if it is done for some morally sound company is by far worse than producing excellent work done for some other company someone would (for whatever the reason) consider to be morally questionable. Of course, you are still in the driver seat when it comes what work you would accept and which one you do not feel comfortable with.
RV and travel apps Commented by : Aleksandar Topolac

Marketing becomes fraudulent, even propaganda

At some point marketing becomes fraudulent, even propaganda. Is make up or a hair cut different than adding a sharpness level or staging a room or a shot? Are there people, now, still being duped by propaganda? There are extremes on both ends. IBM helped catalog and manage brutality in the 30s and 40s. Mitsubishi made the bombers that bombed Pearl Harbor. My Mini Cooper was built by BMW, our enemy in WWII. Bayer helped put Hitler in power. Uzbek children are marched from school, forced to harvest cotton so Bangali people can risk their lives making cheap tee shirts.
      What we do does matter, but perfection is an aspiration not an attainable outcome. No, I can't work for tobacco. No, we don't buy new clothes. Yes, I sign petitions but we only give to political parties when one of them really irritates me. Yes, Fred everyone has a social responsibility. I hope Clark's will start making shoes in England again. I can't wear used shoes.
RV and travel apps Commented by : Gary Pearman

A sense of social responsibility

To answer the question, I believe everyone should have a sense of social responsibility, regardless of your training and talent.
      If you design product packaging, commercials, and other marketing to misrepresent the buyer, are you ultimately helping the buyer or your company, or are you sacrificing honesty and ethics for a quick buck, disregarding the outcome?
RV and travel apps Commented by : Brett Nilsson

Whats the point of designers/ artists ?

Should graphic designers have a sense of social responsibility? Absolutely not . We can argue about the semantics of whether or not graphic design is art , personally I think not ... however, it IS creativity, and if you shackle creativity (or art) to what are inn the end political ideas , it strangles the life out of it.
      Photoshopping and image manipulation has been around since .. well , the image itself , itcan be traced to the beginning of photography and before that was painting !
If we are to represent reality 'as is' ., then whats the point of designers/ artists ?
RV and travel apps Commented by : Peter Goggins

A Graphic Desinger's statement of Moral Ethics?

Interesting discussion and the main point I see arising from the above is the need for a moral ethics statement that designers sign on to to prove they are in the right camp. Doctors have such statements, so do attorneys, etc. So, what about changing this discussion to what we would like to include in the provisions. I'll start with what I would think might be a working format and you add or change or contribute comments, please.
      I, as a professional designer, agree to the following premises and will follow them in my design practice and if unable to do so due to client demands, will divorce myself from the client, the premises being:

  1. Never promote a concept, design or product in such a manner as to distort its actual intentions, dimensions, or contents.
  2. Never design for what I do not believe in personally, such that my name as associated with my work will always be reflective of my own moral and ethical values as a designer.
  3. Always give credit where credit is due, be it for use of another's photo or graphic, the quotation of text and/or resources, and so forth.

Please continue adding or submitting your own version and let's get this question resolved once and for all with a document we can agree to sign to help promote design as a reliable and worthy cause in today's world. Please.
RV and travel apps Commented by : Elizabeth Selandia

If it bothers you, say no

This is so interesting, I keep revisiting the post. There is no quick answer, and it begs definition of terms like "advertising" and design, which are so very hard to pin down.
      It's personal too ... for example, you're candidate's politics may seem abhorrent to me, but who's to say what's wrong or right for society as a whole? I think it boils down to what Duncan said -- if it bothers you, say no. If the price goes up enough where it doesn't bother you so much, maybe you end up taking the job -- and learning something about about your beliefs at the same time. Great topic.
RV and travel apps Commented by : Jennifer Hasselbeck

Will it find an answer? I think not.

One thing about asking Designers on LinkedIN, you never know what prompted the response. We really don't know much about the cultures from which some of the respondants originate from. Some of the ones that surprised me, came from very different cultures. That's one of the pitfalls of the online world, and particularly the social networking world. People in some countries will do anything for a dime. People in others would rather die than betray their beliefs.

But we're only asking questions. . . and answers to those questions bring wisdom, no matter from where or whom.

So, thanks for reading, There were dozens of other responses, across three different graphic design groups, and you can follow the main conversation in the group:

GO DesignersTalk: Graphic, web design and creative professionals group
GO Citizen Designer: Should graphic designers have a social responsibility?

fred_c_125 Fred Showker

By the way, if you do decide to solicit me, we support only American design firms.

Don't forget ... we encourage you to share your discoveries with other readers. Just send and email, contribute your own article, or follow DTG on Facebook! and Pinterest

The original copy of this post is located at http://www.graphic-design.com/60-seconds/325_citizen_designers.html


30th Anniversary for DTG Magazine