Some choose to live by it, others ignore it.
Regardless of your views on whether design should or should not be value-free, we cannot help but feel that nowadays outside of design institutions and perhaps some schools with courses that tackle these particular issues, the word ethics seems to be frowned upon, akin to a moralizing phrase uttered by your mother or an old teacher. Most people seem to be more interested in talking about salaries than principles, as if ethics were something silly and passé, with no place in our everyday professional lives. To be fair, it is often the case that working designers, as opposed to teaching designers, are inundated by the burden of their everyday workload and often do not have the luxury of time to ruminate on issues—ethics, for example—rendered academic by the sheer pace of their profession.
Sometimes you are told that you can and need to make a difference in the world as a designer, others and you warn against getting too carried away with principles since you cannot change humanity with every logo or trivial flyer you make.
Either way, you should be proud of each new effort and each new creation, but by serving commercial interests you are bound to face some, perhaps, unpleasant decisions. What you do might be pleasing to the eye, but it needs to be grounded in principle.
As Dan Saffer paraphrased his professor Richard Buchanan in his essay Ethics in Design:
"Principles are what organize. They ground us in organizations and in the world. Principles are values, which are facts, which equal status in the world. It is a fact that people value things. People will die for their values. Navigating remarkably conflicting values is one of the central problems of design. It is all about what is the right thing to do, and not just technically."
Saving the World
Most of the time, commissioned work has nothing to do with saving the world or making statements as a graphic designer. Many designers still feel the need to express themselves beyond the brief, and in those cases self-initiated projects serve as a great outlet.
Amelia Roberts confessed she had the great opportunity as a student to do many self-initiated projects:
"I have had a huge amount of freedom in creating and communicating issues that are of interest to me. Graphic design is a brilliant outlet that potentially allows ideas to be shown to a large range of different people. I do think that it is important that a designer's voice can be heard as long as it is used responsibly and is in keeping with the client's requirements."
Her experiences as a young designer are largely without conflict, and clients usually accept her ideas for using recycled paper and more "environment-friendly" techniques. She believes that the larger challenges are to come, as clients become larger and pressures increase.
The tale of Ernst Bettler's design work for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Pfäfferli + Huber (P+H) in 1958 leaves her especially inspired. And though the story is a hoax, Amelia cannot help but think what potential design can hold.
Ernst Bettler was invented in an article Cristopher Wilson published in Dot Dot Dot magazine in 2000. According to the article, Bettler was supposed to design posters for P+H. The company's alleged involvement with Nazi concentration camp experiments provoked Bettler to create posters whose abstract compositions could be read as capital letters spelling out "N-A-Z-I" when displayed in sequence. Supposedly these posters ruined the company in a matter of weeks.
This graphic design fairy tale, outlining the power the medium has as the message was well received and subsequently retold by Adbusters as "one of the greatest design interventions on record." Michael Johnson called Bettler the "founding father of the 'culture-jamming' form of protest."
Andy Crewdson exposed the Bettler hoax in a 2002 entry in the blog Lines and Splines. In an article in the February 2003 issue of Eye magazine, Rick Poynor analyzed the life that the Bettler hoax took since its original publication, having been quoted and hailed in the design community as a testament to design's power to change things. In actuality, it was a subtle reminder of the limitations of design's power to change things.
Or can it?
As a graphic designer, you will build an infinite array of relationships, and even though some are more tangible than others, you should be aware of these intricacies and how what you do affects things on a larger scale.
Being mediators between your clients and the public carries a certain responsibility. Let's say you need to portray a message to an audience through which they connect a company to its consumers; this means you are responsible for the way a company or a product is perceived, but also for the transmitted information not being adverse toward the audience in any way.
Although much of what follows implies common sense, there is no harm in stating what seems obvious.
Protecting your client's interests is a part of your job description, but presenting false or misleading information should not be. You are responsible not only to your client, but also to the public, your colleagues, the people with whom you work, and, ultimately, yourself. We could say "microethics" considers individuals and internal relations of the profession while "macroethics" refers to our collective social responsibility.
Before starting a new project ask yourself: is it harmful to the public or is it discriminating against anyone in any way? Try being sensitive to your entire audience. If you are not familiar with the cultural context, familiarize yourself with it.
Respect your colleagues. They are in the same boat as you are. Being competitive is perfectly fine as long as you're fair. If you have collaborated with another designer or a studio on a project, be sure to assign credit accordingly. Be honest when you present yourself and your capabilities; filling up your CV with falsehoods (projects you didn't accomplish, schools you didn't attend) or embellishments will backfire on you sooner or later. React if you see your client is providing you with material for which he owns no rights, or has unsettled matters with another designer while asking you to work on the same project.
Nurture a professional and respectful relationship with the hand that feeds you; respect deadlines and the contract you sign with your client, inform him properly on timings, production methods, and budgets. Be mindful of potential conflicts of interest when working simultaneously on projects for different clients.
You will inevitably land in various delicate situations and there is no point in trying to address them all here, but you get the idea. Following these guidelines does not make you a hippie dreamer with no sense of business. It makes you a decent person (to work with).