Ethics in design – or why you need to draw your own line

SomeOne senior designer Tom Myers looks at the thorny issue of ethics in design. Which clients are morally wrong? How do you decide who to work for? And where do you draw the line?

Ken Garland's 1964 First Things First manifesto
Ken Garland’s 1964 First Things First manifesto

Creatives are a famously liberal lot: Taught in the liberal arts, often unmotivated by money and keen to change the world with design; we’re optimists who often believe that human endeavour can triumph greed and tyranny. We can use our talents for good, we say.

The First Things First manifestos are often cited as the earliest basis of higher moral thinking in our industry. Their message remains influential: Think before you work for Big Bad Corporation Y, use your skills for good instead. First Things First set the bar for ethical thinking in design and continues to be the benchmark — the 2000 update rekindled the viewpoint in the modern generation of designers and continues to be the key influence for many.

It can sometimes feel at odds with the shareholder-focused world of business. While ethics may not be the goal for many companies, modern brand perception actually gives them little choice  —  as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”. Damaged brands are difficult to salvage in this world (think of Starbucks, BP or even Sodastream) and branding alone can’t remove the public’s perception of these companies  —  actions speak louder than words. Where unethical practices remain, the impulse to boycott these organisations remains too.

A new coat of paint never covers up these deep-set prejudices either. The most common way of using the power of branding to escape past practices is running away, forcing people to forget you and starting again. Remember the human-rights violations committed by Blackwater Security? A year after the controversy, they became XE Services. Two years after that, they became Academi. They now ambiguously offer “Best in class operational excellence” and aspire to “be boring”. Any search for the company is still saturated with articles about Blackwater and their pursuit of anonymity. It’s impossible in this age to run away from your ethics.

The Academi website
The Academi website

My old creative director’s working motto was always “no booze, no fags, no gambling”. It was a simple mantra that kept the work out of the studio that he didn’t feel comfortable working on, and it reassured us that he was a good and moral CD to work under. We felt protected by this. It felt very First Things First. I took his learnings to heart, seeing in him a successful creative at the top of his game in a world-class design studio; in him I saw that it was possible to run a business built with morals in mind. It was clean. It was clear. It felt black and white. It felt like a code that I too could live under.

Some years after that period, I found myself at a much larger agency working not on booze or fags or gambling, but on an oil company. It was a big one  —  and, very recently at that time —  a very bad one.

This brief was different though: we were tasked with shaping a new internal rewards scheme. No longer based on large financial rewards for “drilling more oil”, it would be about financially rewarding good deeds happening within. It was their own internal First Things First and it felt Good. We worked hard to create something that could genuinely infect a corporate structure of excess-at-any-cost with the virus of wider thinking and good deeds.

However, sure enough, after six weeks of board-level hand-wringing and shareholder dissent, the rewards program was fast becoming about drilling for more oil again. We had failed. As a studio, however, we were still pressing on with the now-revised brief. The task had changed, the significance was missing, but the money was still there on the table.

This felt like selling out. It was affecting me in a way I wasn’t comfortable with, and I handed my notice in. It felt black and white.

Ever the naïve optimist, I believed that our role had an in-built moral obligation to guide the hand of the clients we worked for; away from pure profits and towards something more creative. I felt let down that we took their oil-stained dollars instead. I had resigned and had done what I thought to be the moral thing, burning bridges along the way. I did it in a most petulant way, but this way I could at least sleep at night.

Image by Flickr user Mark Morgan
Image by Flickr user Mark Morgan

Design is a powerful tool, and we work in branding because we start the process. We go from nothing and create change. No other part of the graphic design process has as much influence over the final result. It’s compelling, and we do have influence.

I once asked a design director why he likes branding over other forms of design. He answered: “The opportunity to walk into a board room of a multinational corporation and use design to influence their thinking.” This wasn’t hubris, it was genuine. It was his way of using creative skills to effect real change.

So what of my current situation? My job is great; the perks are fantastic. I like going to work, and that’s a rare thing in any walk of life. But the moral code that I had made such sacrifices for is not nearly as black and white as before  —  we do booze, for example. We do gambling. We don’t do fags though. Where’s the line then? SomeOne’s ethical line is less clearly ethical, but is definitely there  —  “we don’t work on anything that we wouldn’t use ourselves”.

Gambling? We might have a flutter. Booze? Yes. Would we shoot someone? No. Would we kill someone? No. It rules out jobs based on our own personal set of ethics. If I don’t personally want to work on a betting shop, that’s fine, there’s another person who is quite happy to. And if there’s no-one happy to work on it, the account gets resigned.

So where does the line become tested under this model?

Meantime Brewery branding, by SomeOne
Meantime Brewery branding, by SomeOne

Charity is a good example  —  it’s non-profit, with a mission to selflessly improve the world. These are good things, surely black and white. But use, for example, a successful charity, extremely good at what they do. They’ve created a lot of good in the world and the world is a better place for them; people are falling over themselves to work with them. A charity so well-run that they begin to work with other charities to make a bigger difference. They now make such a big difference that smaller charities in unrelated sectors are finding it hard to have their voice heard, next to the 800lb gorilla. The big charity is squeezing the life from smaller, but no less worthy causes without the financial clout to compete. Can charity be bad? The truth is as it is with many things in life “it can be”.

A pharmaceutical company can, on one hand, create a drug that saves the world from a terrible disease (and we can create world-changing design to promote and market it). They can also, on the other hand, exploit their power and restrict the flow of their products to generate profits. What if BAE Systems called, with some fantastic new world-changing technology they need a name for? It’s not booze or fags or gambling; but are we naive to think their other products don’t also kill people? How about a Government? Or the endless money in a quick Middle Eastern TV channel identity?

The “corrupting” booze brands that we work on at SomeOne arec raft beers and high-end luxury spirits, not White Lightning or cheap vodka. Is there harm there?

Particularly relevant is the recently-debated Kalashnikov. Would you work on it? Is it a gun that gives the every-man the ability to overthrow tyranny? Or is it just a gun that kills people? It’s a debate that has divided for as long as the AK-47 has changed the landscape of the world.

The new Kalashnikov identity
The new Kalashnikov identity

So what’s the conclusion then? Where’s the line? What should you work on? What should you decide is dirty and not to be touched? It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not clear. Life often isn’t. Very rarely in this world do things finally fall into clear categories of “black” and “white”.

Even in the extremes of broader ethical debate, there’s no clear answer —  even curing diseases is far from a clear case of right and wrong; removing leading natural causes of death also removes natural causes of population control. Global population growth over human history shows a direct correlation with scientific endeavour; we cure the diseases we fear, and in the process we end up killing the planet we live on. Even curing cancer comes with an ethical dilemma. Nothing is free from debate. There are no definitive statements.

So if nothing is clear, where do you draw your line? That’s actually closer to the point. There is no line beyond what you are comfortable with. We are instilled with our own moral compasses —  we should use these instincts to draw our own lines. But always make sure these instincts are fed with facts  —  educate yourself.

Scrutinise. Criticise. Follow your head as much as your heart.

Most of all, don’t be dictated by dogma  —  yours or anyone else’s.

First Things First set out to free creatives from a life of their talents being used to forward unquestioned corporate goals. Don’t let your talents be bound to hollow ethical promises either.

Find your own line.

Tom Myers is senior designer at SomeOne.

Hide Comments (10)Show Comments (10)
  • John Frieda March 9, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Is this the same SomeOne that worked on the 2012 Olympics sponsored by Dow chemicals? (previously Union Carbide of Bhopal disaster fame) and ArcelorMittal. No design agency has a moral compass to brag about, it’s akin to saying I only buy free range egss, whilst the mayonnaise in the fridge is packed with battery farmed yolks.

  • John Frieda March 9, 2015 at 10:37 am


  • Michael Smith March 9, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Nicely written Tom.

    So few designers seem to think about the consequences of the work they do, especially in terms of ethics.

    But I do think it’s more than personal. We, as an industry, need to take a more active stand and stop using our influence to glamorise alcohol, tobacco, petrochemicals, gambling, porn, arms…

    When was the last time you saw a design award shortlist or a design-led website (or a student folio) that didn’t include a ‘luxury alcohol brand’?

  • S.J - March 9, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    John, dear enemy of curly hair, I think you may have missed the point.

    This isn’t about anyone holding up standards of being holy and perfect. Nor is its aim to finger point. Isn’t it about finding your own level of comfort with what you want to work on? I don’t think you can criticise the agency and paint them as some sort of hypocrite, that isn’t what they were trying to say.

    Anyway, didn’t you donate a bunch of money to the Tories a few years ago?

  • John Frieda March 10, 2015 at 10:45 am

    It was UKIP actually. My point is, there is no level of comfort in an industry that works for a profit, no one can take the moral high ground with any agency, cherry picking between big oil firms and the Olympics in the naive belief that one is more noble than the other. Either accept that you will get a brief that you won’t agree with, or pick up some paint brushes and paint rural landscapes instead.

  • Matt Baxter March 10, 2015 at 11:06 am

    A really well-written and thoughtful piece, Tom.

    This view – that the ethical line is largely self-drawn and very subjective – reflects our own approach at Baxter and Bailey. It’s a wobbly line that is constantly under review and one we try to tread carefully. We even delivered a talk at last year’s Designival in Liverpool on the subject. We called it Skeletons.

    Your booze analogy is a good example of how personal the ethical line is: do we take the standpoint, based on personal opinion, that only cheap booze is ‘bad’ because only those on low incomes can be alcoholic? Ultimately, this is why we chose to run our own design business: so that we do have the luxury of making these ethical choices, based on our own self-imposed line.

  • John Frieda March 10, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    The line is certainly wobbly, blurred at best. The beauty of running a small practice is knowing your client, often on a personal level or in the case of a start-up, without the the baggage of history and skeletons in the closet. Large agencies with tight margins and overheads don’t have this luxury of time, research and personal meetings to fully know their clients ethical stand point or history.

    In a utopian world, no designer should have to face the dilemma of choosing between branding a new hybrid car from Toyota or refreshing their gas guzzling Land Cruiser division, but many agencies would happily accept both briefs, even if it smacks of hypocrisy. Sadly it’s the way this industry works and it keeps that designer employed.

  • S.J - March 11, 2015 at 11:52 am

    Yes John it’s called capitalism. It’s how our economy runs.

  • John Frieda March 11, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    Precisely S.J. At least governments can intervene and solve a few of the dilemmas. Aside from the designers who work on BAT, JTI and Imperial tobacco packaging, I doubt many will shed a tear now that cigarette branding will be outlawed next year. I just hope they don’t do the same with my hair care products.

  • Amy Jackson March 11, 2015 at 11:58 pm

    Very well written and certainly food for thought. My agency, Unwritten, is just a baby, in it’s first year. I feel strongly about doing the right thing but the right thing to me will undoubtably be very different to other members of my team. Ok with booze, gambling, yep fine, however the BAE systems point struck a cord. Their end game does make me feel uncomfortable but a 12 month Marketing retainer would ensure I’m better placed to put my ethics first further down the line. Short term pain, long term gain doesn’t really apply to morals does it? We all have a choice, no creative brief is enforceable.

  • Post a comment

Latest articles