Tim Rich: Time to mind your ethics

Tim Rich believes that professional designers need to take a serious interest in what effect their designs will have on the future and to not be so complacent

Are UK design associations looking at the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada’s recently created ethical charter (see www.gdc.net/ client_ethics.php)? They should be.

There have been several attempts to inspire designers to think about ethics. Indeed, two years ago, I discussed the new version of the First Things First manifesto (DW 5 November 1999), a declaration by 33 ‘leading’ design professionals calling for designers to question the way advertising, marketing and brand development dominated graphic design. It suggested a reversal of priorities in favour of work addressing the environmental, social and cultural crises affecting us all.

I shared the view that design needed to re-engage with the real world, but felt that the manifesto’s simplistic campus rhetoric was counter productive – those who already thought about ethics and issues might be provoked, but those who didn’t would surely be alienated. I was wrong about FTF. I had not realised quite how far into a state of moral and intellectual lethargy the design community had fallen. If anything was going to shake people up it had to be simplistic, it had to be ambitious, it had to be (broadly) political and it had to use strong language. FTF was all of that.

I still feel a more compelling and precise case could have been made, but FTF has done a fine job of inspiring debate among those who have seen it. In an authoritative and entertaining article in Issue 36 of Adbusters magazine, manifesto architect Rick Poynor revealed, ‘In 15 years as a design writer, I have never observed anything in the design press to compare with the scale, intensity and duration of international reaction to First Things First.’

I witnessed some strong reactions too, but I soon realised that for every one designer I met who cared about FTF, 20 more hadn’t even heard of it. Then came Naomi Klein’s book No Logo – a business section bestseller that has helped spawn industry events (SuperHumanism being a high profile and highly criticised example), and – with thanks to the anti-globalisation movement – has brought design issues before the national media. But did all this inspire people working in the mainstream of British design to give more consideration to the effects (negative and positive) of what they do?

Well, from my perspective, no. A significant number of designers have heard of No Logo, but relatively few seem to have read it. Worse, many who have opened its pages have rejected it wholesale, think that it doesn’t really apply to them, or believe it is simply an attack on uncreative work. Many contributors to an on-line brand discussion forum I visit shared the view that its success as a book made it a brand, and thus defeated its own argument. Bizarre. This refusal to engage fully with anything more complicated than awards shows or client budgets mystifies me. We are meant to be a thinking business, but many (most?) British designers stubbornly resist any consideration of the wider effects of commercial design activities.

Two years ago I might have thought, well, maybe ethics should be left undiscussed – something for the design professional to consider on their own. But the world has turned. Seemingly distant problems now loom large. War, terror, economic and social uncertainty, mass redundancies – it’s not a time for ignoring problems. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair has suggested that the anti-globalisation movement might have a point.

Surely now, in this exciting atmosphere of self-examination, the mainstream British design industry should – finally – start to question what effects it has. Shouldn’t we all be asking questions of ourselves, like what is the real and lasting value of what we do? Are any of us improving the world? Are we doing harm? Is it possible to marry private and professional ethics, and still earn a decent living? If we really believe in the power of design, shouldn’t we care more about who we do it for? How might we help each other to have greater influence? Should every design group have its own set of ethical values? Could the Design Business Association, Chartered Society of Designers and others lead change? Is change needed? Is the Canadian ethical charter something to emulate or avoid? I wonder, are we – as an entire community – capable of asking and answering such questions, or will the mainstream of British design continue to be one mass of complacency, self-interest and ignorance?

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