Critical Studies – Current Debates

Ethics and sustainability

Does your work have any ethical issues?

Most undoubtedly yes! Lies and truth are intrinsically linked to social ethics and according to many psychologists including Dr. Charles V. Ford (1996. p21) in his book Lies! Lies! Lies! The Psychology of Deceit.

“Lying and self-deception permeate all aspects of human life and social interactions. Societal messages about deceit are often contradictory.”

It is from this paradoxical standpoint that my project intends to address such ethical issues such as what justifies a lie. If more good than harm comes from it does this then justify it’s use? By creating a dialogue my project intends to force acknowledgement of deceit and its necessity for societies to function. It also aims to create dialogue on where that ethical line is drawn when does a lie become harmful, what is a socially acceptable lie and where do these lines become blurred.

The discourse in the study materials has also directed my enquiry on cultural perception. Does culture impact upon your perception of deceit and if so in what manner? These are debates which I would really like to investigate further within this module.

Aside from my current research, the support material discourse also directed my attention towards our ethical obligations as designers. I was immediately reminded of a series of ethical design questions posed by the esteemed designer Milton Glaser, aptly titled ‘the road to hell’ The questions are as follows (Glaser, n.d.)

“Let me read you The Road to Hell, a series of questions that become more difficulty the deeper you go. The first couple are easy, would you—

1. Design a package to look larger on the shelf?

2. Do an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?

3. Design a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it’s been in business for a long time?

4. Design a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?

5. Design an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?

6. Design a package for a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?

7. Design a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer who employs child labor?

8. Design a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work?

9. Design an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?

10. Design a brochure piece for an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?

11. Design an ad for a product whose continued use might cause the user’s death?”

Some of these questions are challenges faced by many designers on a daily basis, myself included which also begs the question as to whether I would turn away work based on my ethical standpoint. Should designers only work with clients that reflect their personal ethos and where is that line drawn. Kenn Monk (Monk, K in Snoad, L, n.d) suggests that,

“Visual communication is always about getting people to do something, to steer their behaviour in a certain way – we manipulate. Is it better to manipulate [on behalf of] something that you think is good, or is manipulation in itself bad?”

This is a point worth investigating and begs the question of whether designers should self impose their own ethical policy before they begin to practice. This also reminded me of a chapter in book I had read for my Bachelors dissertation ‘Just my Type’ by Simon Garfield. Garfield (2011 p48-51) discussed the famed typographer Eric Gill who is the creator of what was one of my favourite typefaces, Gill Sans, that is until Gill’s questionable morality was revealed in the pages of this chapter; he was, in-fact, a rapist and regularly practiced in incest and bestiality. I am now unable to look at Gill Sans in the same light, for me, it’s beauty has been tainted but then should a person’s work be judged by his personal life or should the work transcend it’s creator? For me, in this instance the answer is quite clear but this led me to question if as designers we are able to remain neutral.

Is self-indulgent design heresy?! Are we to be void of emotion in our professional lives, merely communicating another’s message rather than imbuing that message with our own set of values, experiences and even, perhaps, prejudices. Is this what distinguishes design from art? If we are to attempt this unfathomable task of un-emotive visual communication (at least not imbued with our own emotions) surely then we designers must provide a sterile product; an outcome created without passion or drive. Or should that passion be purely derived from an overall aesthetic as oppose to successful communication of irrelevant content? I choose the word irrelevant because if as designers we are expected to remain impartial on a project’s worth, value or morality then it simply need to appeal to those that the content is relevant to.

As the emotional, opinionated creatures us designers tend to be I find this a distinctly implausible scenario from which to base the profession’s benchmark distinction from art. At odds with this perspective is Victor Papanek as cited in the Times Higher Education, (1996) article on Designer Ethics, The Green Imperative,

“Papanek sees no future for self-indulgent designers who ignore what he claims are the issues to be faced now.”

This perspective seems to provide a utopian ideal but ultimately if a designer is dispassionate about the environment but inspired by, say sports they may not necessarily be the best person to tackle a new environmental campaign. I was reminded of the now infamous scenario where Ray Gun magazine designer, David Carson set a particularly boring (in his opinion) interview in the font Zaph Dingbats! He imbued the piece with his personal viewpoint and the content became edited by design. How much can design affect people’s perception of a product service or brand and do we have a moral obligation to the public to whom this is aimed? Or should our moral obligation be internal or even with our client or other designers?

Should our desire for visual beauty and or acknowledgment by peers be at the expense of the consumers’ needs? Conclusively it would seem I have far more questions than answers and I have barely scratched the surface of ethical debate. For this reason I have chosen an ethical topic for debate on the forum.

My Own Debate

My current research is very ethically driven and my interest in ethics, within the design and creative industries, has been heightened by the discourse in the support materials and subsequent secondary research. Therefore I propose to debate the topic:

Edited by design: Our role as persuasive visual communicators

In doing so I believe I can continue to build upon the information I have already discovered and aid in a greater understanding of the visual communication project I am undertaking in the major study.



Ford, C. (1996). Lies!, lies!!, lies!!!. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, p.21. Glaser, M. (n.d.). Ambiguity & Truth. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: [Accessed 19 Feb. 2016].

Garfield, S. (2011). Just my type. New York, New York: Gotham Books.

Snoad, L. (n.d.). Design and ethics – Can you stick to your beliefs? – Features. [online] Digital Arts. Available at: [Accessed 19 Feb. 2016].


Critical Studies – Current Debates

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