Ethics in Graphic Design

There are a few controversial subjects surrounding ethics in graphic design, however, this is not questioning the usual route of what designers should draw the line at, but instead, when.

You see as students we are encouraged to contemplate what clients or briefs we would design for. Would we take up a tobacco contract for example? Work for a fast food company? What if this fast food project wanted to target kids? There are millions of these hypothetical situations we could consider. This is something that has been discussed numerous times from Milton Glaser’s  “Road to Hell,” to this lovely article by Michael Johnson, of johnson banks.

But at what point should we start to implement these ponderings?

Occupy Design – a movement I support – recently targeted the D&AD brief of rebanding the city of London. They argued that “Students, who are one of the groups who had suffered the most as a result of the banking crisis what with wide scale withdrawal of higher education funding and the tripling of tuition fees, were now being asked to use their talent, suppress their anger and rebrand the very people who were causing their hardship in the first place.” (Deband the City) Now this is a fair point, and a good one. But winning competitions such as D&AD awards are the things we need to make us stand out when applying for work. I’m aware that we will have to face up to moral decisions such as these at some point, but should the same stigma apply to students answering a purely hypothetical brief as it does to agencies receiving money for their work? I’m inclined to think not. 

All Occupy Design will succeed in doing, in my opinion, is making students ashamed or embarrassed to include this work in their portfolios. I’d be interested to know from companies as to whether a student’s moral compass is something they consider when assessing their work, or if they accept that often briefs are beyond our control?

Moving on from this and into the workplace it would be nice to think that we would have a choice as to what we put our name to but I’d imagine that quite often this is not the case. Would a design agency applaud your backbone if you refused a brief on moral grounds, or simply find someone else who is willing to take it on?

We recently had a graduate give a lecture on how she had succeeded. She attributed it primarily to the fact that she was willing to take a tobacco brief when others were not. Thus being able to prove herself within the company she was in. Was this wrong of her? Or something that just needed to be done to get her foot in the door, after which she would have more control over the work she did?

I don’t know.

I don’t know the right answers to any of this. I don’t know what I’d do in these situations but I’d hope that people could accept sometimes it’s not simply a case of choice.


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