Graphic Design

Tom Williams — BA (Hons) Visual Communication

This dissertation seeks to examine the complexity of the relationship between ethics and graphic design. The huge complexity that now faces anyone researching into contemporary issues is something that either requires drastic atomistic reductionism in order to find some sort of simplicity within it all, or an approach that celebrates the convexity of modern information streams. As such, this dissertation is written with a deliberately diverse and organic writing style reflective of the complex nature involved with the subject area.

Born as a response to the Industrial Revolution graphic design’s history lies in art. Carried through to design in its early stages was the strong sense of morality that had been instilled in art throughout it’s past. Modernity however led to a progression in graphic design to the role of professional facilitator. Capitalist Society and cyclical propulsion of consumer culture and design have drawn design away from its origin and traded ethical considerations of designs relationship with society to ethical considerations of professionalism. Post modernity has arguably led to a realization of this among designers today.

Origin of Graphic design
and its Role in Society

In order to establish the territory within which this research will take place, the first chapter will outline Graphic Design and ethics in an historical context with relation to the history of the role of the artist.

Ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned directly with seeking to address questions of morality (Driver, 2006) and spanning the history of humankind visual art has been used as a vehicle for moral thought with great effect. “Graphic design is a relatively new practice — it is the response to changing needs resulting from industrialization, and scientific and technological development.” (Roberts, 2006). Though the term Graphic Design is relatively new as Roberts (2006) states and is arguably a product of industrialization and consumerism (Hollis, 2001), its history lies in that of the artist with clear progression in a shift of roles, which date back as far as early civilization. Since speech and the ability to make sound in order to communicate, visual communication has been an evident alongside. Meggs (1983) describes how marks, symbols, drawings or letters drawn or written on a surface or substrate became a graphic counterpart of the spoken word or unspoken thought. This is particularly interesting in considering graphic design as a modern movement as so many traits are shared with the historic role of the artist (Hollis, 2002). The artist as practitioner has been employed since the growth of classical societies such as Greece and Rome. The role of the art at this time was to an extent, to function as propaganda to impress its people. Similarly Grecian Art dealt with similar subject matter revolving around representation of legends and the lives of the gods. Second century Greece saw the birth of Christianity and a shift in direction with subject portrayed in Visual Culture. At first denied and repressed Christianity was pushed into an underground following of protest, documented and promoted in wall scratchings by disaffected slaves. Soon Rome was Christianized and in hand, Christianity became the new subject matter of art.

Through the middle ages, after the collapse of The Roman Empire, artists found themselves dedicated to promoting religious views of morality detailing depictions of good and evil (Taylor, 2007). With this subject matter based heavily in the promotion of morals and ethics soon came about a second strand of morals and ethics this time introduced with regard to the production of work. Craft organizations soon formed as religious confirmities which acted predominantly to monitor workers rights, which then lead way to The Guild System, a system developed as a means of controlling their trade. It should be noted that ethically speaking, Workers Guilds only implemented a narrow corporate ethical stance through regulation of production method. At this point, art still served a strict predetermined purpose with dictated socially moral subject matter.

Amid the late Middle Ages, The Renaissance bought with it a conflict of content for art, between religion and science, leading to suppression in art once again. Artists, though still employed by the church were required to more heavily edit visually their work through the projection of somewhat manipulated views of religion owing to its now greater societal value.

It was the 18th Century that bought the Industrial Revolution. This societal and economic progression linked with scientific innovation saw with it the progression of mass communication. The Industrial Revolution with its promise of a better life contrasted heavily with a darker side consisting of abject poverty, overcrowding and disease. Artists of the time such as Francisco Goya (1923), took these current social conditions on as their subject matter and portrayed these reflections of the darker side of industrialization through the process of print often employing satire as an effective communicative weapon. Saturn Devouring His Sons is a typical example of such work, based on Greco-roman mythology, the work has been interpreted by some as a possible reference to Spain’s ongoing civil war. This piece was just one of the series “Black Paintings” the rest, all of a similar macabre tone. This postmodern exercising of personal opinion and originality combined with his subversive subject matter used to document the modern human condition makes Goya’s work particularly significant. Regarded as one of the last masters and one of the first moderns Goya paved the way for a new direction in art.

Still with a strong sense of moral obligation instilled artists found themselves at the end of the First World War re-evaluating their role in society. Many began considering whether their practice was better applied to commerce in benefitting society or political propaganda in encouraging social change? (Roberts, 2006)

1880 to 1910 saw the arrival of the Arts & Crafts Movement based on the works of early Artist Williams Morris. The Arts & Crafts Movement promoted strongly truth to materials along with a celebration of craftsmanship over mass production. It also strove to support economic reform. Similar values were instilled in radical design schools after such as German Design School, the Bauhaus. Under the new then Weimar Republic, the Bauhaus was an answer to the radical, liberal directions art was now able to follow.

After the Second World War, politics were ever more apparent in Graphic Design. Perhaps not an outward display but at least an underlying consideration at the forefront of many designers minds at the time considering in far greater depth the subjects of their clients and to what ends they were applying their practice. This consideration in design was still evident in the sixties, by which point graphic design was a subject taught in Art Schools Internationally and had gained the support of various professional bodies. By the nineties however there has been a significant shift and a notable growth of consumerism. “A shift away from values of community, spirituality, and integrity, and toward competition, materialism and disconnection.” (Levine, 2003)

As we can see from the history of the Artist and the role of the artist in society, there are many extreme similarities in practice and profession when considered against the role graphic design plays in society. From the social humanist reportage of Goya to artists and designers such as Williams Morris and Walter Gropius. These similarities that illustrate the progression from artist to designer offer a great importance to the history of the artist when considering the future of graphic design in the shape of society today. This importance is only magnified when considering that designers are engaged in nothing less than the manufacture of contemporary reality. (Poynor, 2007)

Ethical Issues affecting
Graphic Design

As outlined in Chapter 1, considering ethics against graphic design is not a straight forward issue. Ethical questions are raised on many levels. Chapter 2 seeks to explore in greater detail some of the moral dilemmas that graphic design shares with the history of art. As well as the issues outlined in chapter 1, this chapter will be looking at some other factors effecting contemporary graphic design in today’s society.

In Perkins introduction to considering ethics and design she breaks the question down into three separate areas. “In discussing ethics and design, there are at least three different levels for us to consider. The first level has to do with professional behaviour in daily business interactions. The next level deals with specific professional expertise needed in such areas as accessibility, usability, consumer safety, and environmental practices. This leads us to the third level, which is about overall professional values —a broader framework of moral principles and obligations in life.” (Perkins, 2005) For the purposes of this chapter these considerations can be grouped in to two areas, graphic design in a professional context and graphic design in a wider social context, considering ethics of process along side ethics of subject.

Considering graphic design along with its role in society, it is accurate to say that, infinite amounts of time, effort and capital are being ploughed into consumerism (James, 2007), as highlighted in Chapter 1. While real problems are being avoided and brushed under the carpet, new frivolous needs are being developed and manipulated ready for resolution within the same breath. Victor Papanek identifies this issue and states “design satisfying needs, as a myth” (1999, p254). The involvement design has had with promoting consumerism is unquestionable and this is in particular an ethical issue. As Jameson states, with the arrival of post modernism comes the questioning of the certainties of a modernism based on progress not only this but he goes on to say that these ideas are “received with the greatest complacency and have themselves become institutionalised and are at one with the official or public culture of Western society.” (Jameson, 1991). This growing lack of social consciousness propelled by design no doubt played an important role in owing to the creation of The First Things First Manifesto.

The “First Things First Manifesto” was a proposal laid out by Ken Garland, as a direct reaction to the ever snowballing lack of social consciousness propelled by design. As an active and important member of the design community, Garland wrote up the manifesto not only requesting that people question their roles within design and the effects caused within the wider world, but also that they act on them. First Things First came at a time of booming economy in Britain. The fast progression of new technologies was seen by designers as an opportunity to use there skills of communication in connecting new technology with the market place. “The critical distinction drawn by the manifesto was between design as communication (giving people necessary information) and design as persuasion (trying to get them to buy things).” This distinction encouraging responsible and conscientious design was quite aptly foreseen and has seemingly predicted the shape of things to come. Written over forty years ago The First Things First Manifesto remains today more important than ever. Though appreciated, understood and agreed with the body of the argument remained largely at the time un acted upon. Thirty four years later however, the appeal for designers to pursue more useful and lasting forms of communication (Garland, 1964), was reinstated by Adbusters updating the manifesto and calling for the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning in what they saw as a battle for the mental environment against the uncontested rise of consumerism. (Provokateur, 2009). It seems, supported by post modernity, Garlands manifesto has encouraged more designers to follow suit, even today champions of sustainable design are unveiling manifestos for a greener industry and disciples of Designism are making declarations for a more caring one. (Blackburn, 2002)

When considering Jameson’s views on modernity, Lyotard’s statement that “Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its use-value.” (1979) is supportive. This reflects that a modernist society based on progress is surely beneficial in parts it is seemingly at a cost in other areas, in particular a sense of use value. This undermines any ethical position that someone may take. As modernism saw rise to the Industrial Revolution and the promise of great things to come, Post Modernism questions this promise and consequences. In particular Modernism has within it a strong sense of morality which is destroyed within a postmodern context. In Wendy Steiner's The Scandal of Pleasure and Martin Halliwell's Modernism and Morality the question of the ethics of aesthetics is raised. Steiner presents a moral argument for an aesthetic realm free of moral imperatives, while Halliwell derives an argument developed around issues of aesthetics within Modernism such as purity and simplicity as moral decisions. As we can see the argument is complex but at least the issue of ethics is seen as central to the modernist debate.

This complex argument extends directly to consideration of the Arts and Crafts movement along with the views of Williams Morris up against design ethic of The Bauhaus. The Arts and crafts movement went against the division of labour favouring craftsmen over machinery in a bid to benefit the workers, whereas the Bauhaus sought to embrace machinery amid the Industrial revolution in making designed objects cheaper and accessible to the masses. Both essentially utilitarian in nature however both consider ethics from different angles reaching a new level of complexity.

In “the weaving of design and community” Julie Baugnet identifies a similarity in designers being very much aligned with artists and very interested in aesthetics and beauty (2003). This potential proposal for designer’s pre concerns with style is further explained by the perception of the allure of design today often drawing in potential fine art students with the combined promise of self expression and a steady career. This in itself when offered up against the imminent model of design existing to serve commerce (Sterling, XXX ,p54) creates an issue through conflict of interest. In particular affecting issues around the argument of ethics in professionalism. This is not the only issue either; such pre concerns with aesthetics on a personal level have lead to the self congratulatory, self celebratory design cliques of today. This progression of concern with aesthetics is an ethical issue when some may consider, as Poynor states “Designers and design educators conspire to fence off design and keep non professionals out.” (2007) Stefan Sagmeister is a designer who has focused particular effort on the rejection of style in an attempt to steer away from this perceived model with the aim to prevent its squandering effective design. When asked how his style has evolved throughout his career, Sagmeister notes that he went from trying hard to have no style, to allowing himself to have one glimpsing through here and there. Above all else as Mccoy points out a simple reason highlighting the importance of function over form, “The most rarefied design solution can never surpass the quality of its content.” (XXX) This self congratulatory design that inevitably leads to ineffective solutions, such that is “self righteous smuggery or an amusing diversion,” is all too often the result of pro bono work taken on as means of publicity but large scale ordinarily unethical organisations. This is a particular problem when considering the likes of small scale design firms (UHC, 2010) dedicated to producing selfless and effective design for minimal wages, as are affordable by N.G.O.’s and not for profit organizations, when they are competing with larger corporation who will offer their service for free.

David Gentleman is a designer similarly strong personal ethics, not only displaying a degree of admirable dedication but also self integrity. For somebody who not so long ago received the prince Philips award for outstanding achievement in his field of design he doesn’t seem to be somebody who’s done too badly off it either. On completing a series for stamps back in 1980 displaying green lands in the foreground and industry eating it in the background it was expectedly dismissed by Thatcher’s government as anti-industry. Rather than reworking the designs Gentleman resigned the commission. Is it acts of such self integrity that appear truly commendable? “Where do you draw the line or perhaps more aptly who do you draw the line for?” Is the question asked by Tim Rich in Who Needs Ethics? (Grafik, 2008, p24) Gentleman’s refusal to draw the line in the instance described is a particularly poignant example of keeping his personal integrity and turning down work he didn’t agree with on ethical grounds. More so, after having made his feelings truly known. Other models of similar situations whereby designers turn down work on ethical grounds could on the one hand be viewed as a true act of maintaining personal integrity, but on the other, apathetic in not seeking to make change where it is most needed. Similarly some may view Bruce Mau’s decision to work with Coca Cola as the wrong one when approached from an ethical angle, however on the other hand as outlined by Mau the give it back campaign could be considered a tremendous ethical success with the creation of a “green platform for the world’s best known brand.” (2009). this is another complex ethical issue on many levels. One could argue that by working with Coca Cola, though you are making a change for the better within the company, that you are along the way propelling even further an unethical company. Similarly it is arguable as to whether Coca Cola really cares, or whether it is just an opportunity to push sales? On top of this, does the corporate interest of Coca Cola effect this as the change still stands either way. This all comes down to a more complex consideration around the politics of whether or not the ends justify the means.

Though some designers do consider their practice on the deeper level of their role within society, the fact still remains that many don’t as outlined by Loretta Staples (p119) in a letter to émigré points out “Designers tend to shy away from political discussion: that we instead personalize our work. In the whole, corporate design is discussed in relation to project briefs and client satisfaction.” This “designers ideology is, to detrimental ends, all too often that of the client and the client’s network. In this way we become part of the dominant system and are complicit in its dealings.” (Rock, 1992). Mccoy writes that this ideal of the dispassionate professional distances us from ethical and political values. She also identifies accurately the solution needed in stating the challenge of how to achieve the objectivity and consistency of professionalism without stripping oneself of personal convictions? (McCoy, citizen designer, p4) Loretta goes on to suggest that it is only through “an enhanced understanding of the mechanisms that control and utilize graphic design and graphic designers can we hope to change the course.” (p119). This is an interesting point, and one that has been considered through exploration of further definition of the designer.

Changing Role of
Graphic Design

When considering the role of the designer it seems no longer can such a strict definitive description be applied? As Art grew organically and progressed to the point of Design has grown and developed so too have designers and today more commonly than recent times designers consider more critically their practice and its position in a wider social context.

In ‘The Designer as Author’, Michael Rock (1996) outlines the definition as a popular term in graphic design circles of the time. The Designer as Author promotes a somewhat romanticized view of a position posited firmly in an area between Designer and Artist with the offer of ‘origination and agency’. Rock goes on to critically consider the role of the author and what it really means to be an author. The term authorship would imply complete ownership over the message being conveyed. This is of direct conflict with what is surely imposed by the nature of design as outlined by Rock, “The idea of a decentred message does not necessarily sit well in a professional relationship in which the client is paying the designer to convey specific information or emotion.” (1996, p239)

As a response to Designer as Auteur there have been many more sub genres offered from producer, to reporter, to editor and performer. Many with seemingly strong similarities, some less so.

Rick Pointer identifies the term ‘Designer as Reporter’, as a term noted to have been recognized amid a lecture given by Jan Van Toom, an influential design activist of the mid 1970’s has been elaborated and considered in Designer as reporter by Rick Poyner. Poyner notes the vast array of subheadings designers have now been considered under or within and ultimately suggests the new umbrella designer as reporter. “What if the designer were to function more like a journalist? In other words, develop a sphere of knowledge and expertise; select a subject, conduct research, gather material, then create an appropriate final form, using all resources of design, both words and images, to communicate the story or argument.” (Poyner) In Poyner's essay he draws attention to the importance being weighted in the role of the journalist with design becoming a fully integrated tool to be used to document. He illustrates well the problem of designers becoming overly concerned with style over content by likening it to the ridiculous scenario of a financial journalist undertaking a story about ‘junk bond fraud’ purely for the self satisfaction of stringing words together on paper. (Poyner) He goes on to use this factor as a point of criticism with regard to Rock’s designer as Author, drawing upon the issue that “to be an author in the literary sense, the first requirement is to have something to say about a subject.” (Poyner, p187) It seems that Poyner offering of designer against reporter balances Rock suggestion of Author. Designer as reporter remains a certain degree of originality while also maintaining a contrast of more meaningful subject steering away from consumerism.

The model of designer as Producer constructed by Ellen Lupton is particularly interesting when considering its emphasis on inclusivity. Again we see the topis of education at the forfront of debate.

Rock (1992) supports the problem highlighted at the Superhumanism Conference (2008) that designers undertake a wide and fruitful array of different projects spanning many areas and for this reason it completely unfeasible to suggest “there was a single identifiable social position in the work” (Rock, 1992). Soar’s article “Design is Immaterial” (2006) supports this by highlighting the fact that personal ethics are of such a diverse individual nature. As such it is no wonder that designers have such an array of counter professions to offer up along side the profession of designer.

Design is surely of an organic, progressive nature in the same way as it art is. In the same way art has evolved previously to give way to design, design must cretainly continue down the same route in opening up further avenues to be considered. It could be considered somewhat naïve to criticize renaming of disciplines? This renaming of discipline and sub dividing into new area’s is surely the long awaited natural exploration in to design that has soo long been hampered by the acceptance instilled in society of designers acting as ‘faceless facilitators’. Soar supports the suggestion of consideration and exploration of issues “Looking beyond our own backyard to develop an enriched understanding of graphic design in its least material forms; beyond its existence as a set of artifacts and distinguished individuals.” (Soar, DII, 2006)

Future of
Graphic Design

Matt Soar (2006) challenges some assumptions and aspirations of design’s role in the world. He does this with the aim of suggesting “that the process of making them achievable must involve a more thorough interrogation of the kinds of values and ideals that can sometimes blind us to our own fallibility.” (Soar, DII, 2006) Soar’s suggestions along with much of the debate offering ethics against design leads to education. Perhaps because this is taking it, to a degree, back to the root. Or perhaps because this could be such an integral part of shaping a new model of graphic design for the future? Papanek (1985) criticizes education for tending to churn out competent and competitive consumers rather than creative and autonomous individuals. This was acknowledged, similarly by Mccoy (1997) in Chapter 2 when she highlights the desire to stop inadvertently training our students to ignore their convictions and be passive economic servants. Perhaps at a point this was true however today I would suggest the diversity and consideration of depth taught in education throughout Colleges and Universities far more considered.

Mccoy outlined in her talks at Design Renaissance International Conference many teaching approaches and variable strategies for encouraging informed, concerned participants in society who happen to be Graphic Designers. This is a fantastic comparison to offer up against a definition of good designers as “problem solvers, imagineers and even, occasionally, ethicists.” (Westbury, 2009). Though both depictions of designers consider ethics to be an important consideration, the emphasis of designer against ethicist differ. This raises another very interesting issue deep in the complexity of considering whether graphic design should be ethical or not. From McCoy’s claim that this ideal of the dispassionate professional distances us from ethical and political values. (McCoy, 1997) she again points the finger at education as training students to think of themselves as passive arbitrators of the message between client/sender and audience/receiver, as opposed to advocates of the message content or the audience. As we saw in chapter 3 however, questions of content conveyed and ideas of authorship are complex. Mccoy goes on to identify accurately the challenge being, “how to achieve the objectivity and consistency of professionalism without stripping oneself of personal convictions?” (Mccoy, 1997)

Foucault’s (1980) writings on power are interesting when considering personal convictions in design. Foucault exposes power as just being available to dominant groups; rather power is something which is exercised according to specific situations at a given time. Though this power shift is realistically a very hard point to be reached, maintaining ones own ethics and integrity this surely can only be a step in the right direction? Pierre raises interesting questions around power supporting Foucault’s from the point of capital not in a monetary sense but in capital of culture. It is not unfeasible that this is an extremely valid suggestion and perhaps underpins the entirety of the vast persuasion power design can administer. Emile Durkheim’s (1972) theorising of Identity, that society is not a product of individuals, rather individuals are the product of society, would seemingly strengthen and perhaps explain Pierre’s suggestion of power in cultural capital. Foucault’s theorising takes a similar direction that posits identity as socially constructed as opposed to some kind of ‘essentialist’ quality in a similar explanation for Pierre’s theory on cultural capital.

A further example comes from an advertising campaign to promote enrolment in the army. Though there has obviously been a considered editing in presenting a manipulated and shaped perception of the army, made achievable by design, could it have been the designer’s conscious decision to promote the army in such a light with the aim of creating a new standard for society? If a public assumes a certain service in this way can it at any point begin to dictate the ends to which that service operates? These are all questions that can be applied to differing models. In raising customer expectations can a standard be created for society to the point of which the market place will dictate? Can design be used as a vehicle to successfully introduce new ideologies to a society in a bid to shift power back toward society?

At Designism 2.0 Wolff Olins questioned whether a veritable arms race had been reached in design, whether anything truly new could be said or were designers simply “barraging a saturated audience with information they already had?” (Designism 2.0, 2009) “In an environment that is screwed up visually, physically, and chemically, the best and simplest thing that architects, industrial designers, planners, etc., could do for humanity, would be to stop working entirely.” (Papanek, 1985) This statement outlines need for ingenuity and the new. Whether we can make new design? The point is that, the same way we saw the birth of graphic design as a direct progression from the role of the artist, design itself by its very nature will go on evolving as is already being explored, as outlined in Chapter 3. Milton Glaser, (2002) In regard to professional ethics, “acknowledging what it is we doing is a beginning. So much of what we do can be seen as a distortion of the truth. Finally, all questions of ethics become personal. To establish your own level of discomfort with bending the truth.” (Glaser, 2002) Perhaps this evaluative framework is different for each individual, dependant on the values of each, reflecting a strong tradition of individualism. Comparison with recommendation of people bringing with them there personal politics to their field of work. Perhaps not relevant as perhaps the issue is that they do no hold these particular views to start with? (McCoy, 1997)

“I don’t think design can really save the world but, as propagators of ideas, can change the way we think. The problem is that designers themselves have to change their ones. As designers we don’t just produce pretty pictures – we are key actors in shaping the mental environment within which we live,” (Provokateur, 2009) Margo Chase of Plazm design group suggests outlines however that designers are not obligated to do charity or pro bono work and that designers have no more responsibility to society and culture at large than other professionals. (Plazm, 2005, p.116). In the short of it and directly, designer seemingly are not, the fact still remains however, as outlined in chapter 1 and 2, design has played a key role in propelling a heterogeneous society to its position today and will continue to do so in the future. As Poyner (1985) says, “Designers are engaged in nothing less than the manufacture of contemporary reality”. To this end surely a certain degree of responsibility is implied? For this reason designers must be encouraged to at least question the strong persuasive effect through which they lend their hands and to what ends?

David Sterling and Mark Rendell, run a not for profit studio ‘Worldstudioinc.’ Along side this they also produce the quarterly publiation ‘Sphere ¼ sphere atlas’ dedicated to communicate many humanitarian design projects that you can get involved with. “The nature of graphic design often leads a designer to fulfil the role of social commentator rather than a true activist.” (Rendell & Sterling, 2008) The operative word is act. You can design a poster about literacy or you can teach a kid to read. While the poster may be a valid and important part of the equation, we wanted to act more and comment less. Though attempting to run the two business side by side Sterling and Rendell encountered again the issue that underpins many of the issues considering the role of the designer. That on the face of everything “Design exists to serve commerce.” This problem with attempting to run not for profit hand in hand with foundation was not able to be overcome but rather compromised with and worked around. This again is a reflection in iimportance of balance while outlining a key problem when trying to consider design as any other profession. Having said this, it is constant visiting and revisiting of new models and new ways of thinking that will inevitablyy lead to progression and evolution of design, branching out as new separate avenues. Papanek supports this view with his ten proposals to change. Illustrating a time in great need of a re evaluation of where effort is directly applied.