Is this Ethical?! Perception and Social Responsibility

Black, white and shifting shades of grey

I previously shared Milton Glaser’s list of “hypothetical dilemmas that could arise in the career of a contemporary graphic designer” as published in Eskilson’s “Graphic Design History” text (2012).

  1. Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
  2. Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a light-hearted comedy.
  3. Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
  4. Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
  5. Designing a medal using steel from the World Trade Center to be sold as a profit-making souvenir of September 11.
  6. Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
  7. Designing a package for children whose contents you know are low in nutrition value and high in sugar content.
  8. Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labour.
  9. Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
  10. Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
  11. Designing a brochure for an SUV that turned over frequently in emergency conditions and was known to have killed 150 people.
  12. Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death.

Milton Glaser, 2000. An excerpt from Eskilson 2012, Graphic Design History, 2nd Ed., pg. 319.

Rick Strong, a sole proprietor Graphic Designer for over 20 years, from Ottawa has given us some food for thought:

Listing those 12 examples is a bit of a red herring, because it is Milton Glaser’s list of “hypothetical dilemmas that could arise in the career of a contemporary graphic designer.” It's not for Glaser, or any other person or organization, to decide what is or isn't ethical for a designer to work on. They are topical though, and are good hooks.

For example, some of the players who advocated warning notices on cigarette packages are now suggesting warning labels on beer, wine and spirits bottles. Others have said that smoking MaryJane is more harmful to your lungs, long term, than cigarettes. Do violent video games beget violent children?

But the ethical question still remains and will be confronted by all designers sooner or later in their careers.

The question of course is a personal one: "What will you do when you are confronted with a serious ethical design dilemma?"

I add the qualifier "serious" because there is nothing worse than an employee bitching about and sabotaging a project in private while he or she supports it en groupe or by remaining silent when asked for comment. However one doesn't want to go to the wall and possibly lose one's job except in exceptional circumstances. In other words, choose your battles. Or, start your own design business and turn away the clients you don't want. Bottom line: be an ethical employee.

Personally, the big three clients that I would turn away without hesitation are: cigarettes, beer/wine/liquor, and casinos. Anything else I would probably give passing consideration to, to see if there was an ethical option, a situational consideration or a greater good. And a lot of money.

Life, in my experience, is neither black nor white but shades of grey. And shifting shades, at that. However, what I think is important is
1) for people to at least THINK about what they are doing and
2) Regardless of whether they oppose or support something, that they acknowledge that it is a PERSONAL decision and not a moral fiat based on some quasi-authority or sheer fantasy.

“I don’t want to”, is as valid as a personal choice as, “science says...” but perhaps not as credible in the 21st century. WHY you don't want to is a discussion for you and your shrink/pastor/rabbi/partner/bartender, but at least you are owning it as YOUR own decision. And that allows me to own MY decision.

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