Designs on morality

The idea of the “designer as mediator” used to be uncontroversial. Designers agreed that their role was to communicate the client’s message in the most effective and accessible way to a given or mass audience. But this idea is under attack – increasingly, designers are not just communicating a message, but are asking whether that message is “ethical” and whether it fits in with their personal beliefs.

At first sight graphic designers “choosing” to be more “ethical” and “taking responsibility” for the ideas that they are asked to communicate sounds fairly innocuous. It is often posed as a personal view. If that were so this column would not see the light of day and the many debates that are taking place would be unnecessary. We all have our private views, but they are of little consequence to others. But when a private view is propagated in a public forum it is no longer a private view and must be scrutinised.

We all draw lines that we refuse to go beyond – many of us will not consider doing the “free pitch” and would certainly (I hope) not get involved in bitching about our contemporaries. Similarly, we would all like to work for clients with whom we feel a close association,whether it be charities or institutions that we support, and many of us dream of having a client base made up of people we have come to regard as friends.

But the call for designers to be more “ethical” has more far reaching consequences than we might imagine. There is a real danger that the progress made in getting a broader hearing for the benefits of design will be lost as the industry turns on itself, offering false promises and ethical dilemmas. We pass up the idea of mediation in favour of an “ethical approach” at our peril.

I remember being excited and inspired when I first came across the idea of designer as mediator. The essential and elementary role of the graphic designer – to pour all their energy and experience into interpreting an idea and rendering it understandable for a particular or mass audience – is what determines the unique position of graphic design in modern society. I compared the designer as mediator to the translator who allowed people from different continents to communicate. But today it seems that this is just not good enough.

On the contrary, the role of the “ethical designer” is to question the content and the purpose of the message. At the Points of View series of lectures at the Royal College of Art in London, Kalle Lasn, founder of the Canadian radical Adbusters magazine, complained that too many graphic designers are acting like car mechanics – they fix the broken-down car, but don’t voice any concern about the “fact” that the car is a killer and is destroying the environment. Lasn’s proposition was taken to its logical conclusion at another debate when one speaker said that the argument of the designer as mediator was a bit like the argument used by the guards at Auschwitz concentration camp – “don’t blame us, we’re just following orders”.

The graphic designer is at best reduced to simply being a technician (apologies to the car mechanic), and at worst is charged with toeing the line in the same unthinking way as Nazis followed orders. Thanks very much.

But this is not a question of designers as automatons who follow orders from big bad companies and do whatever they tell us. As graphic designers, we have a responsibility to get on with the job at hand – communicating the ideas and products of others to the people who are being asked to buy into them. It must be their decision whether they do or not.

The problem with this discussion is, paradoxically, it undermines the role of graphic design while at the same time according it too much importance (bear with me). The notion that designers should be responsible for an idea or product puts too much emphasis on the generation of ideas rather than their transmission. The recent discussion about designers “rebranding Britain” played a big part in inflating designers’ egos by suggesting that they could “create” a new national identity and with it determine what and why people should celebrate.

Furthermore, the idea that consumers will simply swallow up every “message” a designer creates implies not only that consumers are suckers, but also that designers are all-powerful.

Designers are not and should not think they are responsible for someone else’s ideas. So let us be as unethical as we want. Let us – as graphic designers – leave the “messages” to those who write our briefs, and get on with communicating and being creative.

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