Ethical design: could it the end of graphic design?

Tim Rich raises the spectre of ethical design on the back of the Canadian Institute’s ‘ethical charter’ (Private View, DW 1 November). The said charter, with its 49 ‘ethical’ points, could have been condensed into one: Thou shalt not bear false witness.

The Canadian charter, like the rewrite of Ken Garland’s First things First 2001 manifesto by Adbusters magazine, has more than a little tinge of the religious about it. This is the problem with most of ‘the priesthood’ who demand designers follow the new commandments of ethical design. They rarely live up to their own expectations of the rest of us.

In a recent edition of Adbusters, typographer and signatory of FTF2001 Jonathan Barnbrook was annoyed that someone had the gall to ‘expose’ that he worked for ‘big corporations’ and wasn’t this a bit hypocritical. Barnbrook’s response was telling, ‘What I did not expect after I signed the manifesto was the cynical “game” that people would play where they went through all your clients and shouted “Aha” if any of them were “too commercial”.’

Well Barnbrook, if a priest is caught cavorting with the wife of a parishioner, doesn’t his flock have the right to shout ‘Aha’?

But more importantly, the problem with the debate – and we use the term loosely – is that those who promote ethical design never engage in the substantive argument; that it is an attack on the concept of ‘the designer as mediator’; and a concept that clarifies the role of the designer to himself as well as the client by positioning the designer in his or her rightful place in the production process.

Instead, it mystifies – indeed, changes – the graphic designer’s role, positioning him/ her as an arbiter of morality and righteousness. This is not and should not be part the gamut of the graphic designer. We are – for the best part of our career – communicators of other people’s ideas and products.

If designers feel morally at odds with this, that is their business, but the role of graphic design is not the business of moral fulfillment. It does, however, carry with it a contractual obligation to communicate the ideas of others in the best and most effective way possible.

This, it seems, is at odds with those who promote ethical design.

Alex Cameron and Kelly Al-Saleh

Cameron Sedley Associates

London EC1

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