A question of ethics that comes down to choice

The question of design and ethics seems to have raised its head again, prompted by the events of 11 September and the war in Afghanistan.

Last week Alex Cameron and Kelly Al-Saleh argued on Design Week’s Letters page that graphics work should be for clients and not represent the designers’ own views. This week Alain Porry is making the case for change that would make designers more than the mere servers of clients, indicating that he would like to see more ‘self-expression’ coming through.

Surely there is room for both views. Graphics, like all design disciplines, is a commercial business, however small the project, and designers expect to make a living from it. That means working with clients, ideally in collaboration, rather than under their instruction, but to get the best for them and their target audience.

If you divorce these two aspects, particularly in graphics, you enter the realms of fine art or craft. Both of these are admirable cultural pursuits to which design owes considerable heritage, but they are not to be confused with design and its focus on the mass market.

The difference between design and a lot of other businesses, though, is that most of the people involved in it are there for love, having a passion for design and creative thinking. We are very fortunate in that.

But it means that we bring ourselves into it wholeheartedly, complete with all our sensibilities. That is where the dilemma surely lies. Designers may be faced with personal choices about working to promote, say, a cigarette company when they are against smoking.

Such issues are invariably resolved on an individual basis – such is the diversity of opinion possible in the UK. A consultancy can usually decide a policy that doesn’t seriously compromise the individual’s freedom of choice. Anyway, the client would probably get a lousy job if the opposite was the case.

By the same token, there is nothing to stop designers from campaigning for organisations they believe in – or against those they don’t – as long as they stay within the boundaries of the law and the professional code. Like lawyers and doctors, they can and should use their skills in any way that suits them for the good of all – and they should fight for what, in their judgement, is the best course.

So where does that leave the ethical debate? Surely there doesn’t need to be the polarisation our letterwriters suggest. If design businesses are doing their job well they’ll be confronting clients at every turn to get the best deal for the consumer. And if they disagree fundamentally with the line a client is pushing then they shouldn’t take on the work.

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