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Design and ethics


When working in design related fields – which become as time goes by more and more expansive and diverse – ethic related issues come into discussion.

Some unethical issues that pop-up immediately in our mind: manipulating the customers by over-accentuating the positive information and hiding the negative aspects; designing a brand to look other than it actually is, working for bad reputation companies or harmful products, and the list can go on…

Quartz made an interesting retrospective about how designers treated the problem of the ethical code of design over time.

In 1964, British designer Ken Garland introduces “First things first“, a manifesto which cautions about the powerful commercial characteristic of design in that period, when advertising emerged. This is the era of consumerism when design is over-used to promote products that were considered to have no true value, such as cat-food, stomach powders and flattening diets. Garland proposes an inversion in design priorities, by focusing on forms of communication that are useful and durable and that serve a notable purpose.


The prior call for our skills will be for worthwhile purposes.


(extras from “First things first“, 1964)


This movement is relaunched in 2000 by a group of famous designers, among which we mention Rick Poynor, Erik Spiekermann, Irma Boom and Tibor Kalman.

Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact.


(extras from “First things first“, 2000)


Milton Glaser is another famous designer that tackled the problem of ethics in design. In 1999 he published a questionnaire titled “Road to Hell”, a set of 11 questions that every designers should have in mind as an instrument of personal evaluation regarding the level of responsibility and ethics.


1. Designing a package to look larger on the shelf.
2. Doing an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a light hearted comedy.
3. Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it’s been in business for a long time.
4. Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
5. Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
6. Designing a package for a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content.
7. Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer who employs child labour.
8. Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
9. Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
10. Designing a brochure piece for an SUV that turned over frequently in emergency conditions and is known to have killed 150 people.
11. Designing an ad for a product whose continued use might cause the user’s death.


We conclude with a very recent-times quote that puts it plain and simple. It comes from David Heasty, founder of Triboro design studio:

We simply say no to projects that don’t feel right.


Article written by Concept Machine for Design Driven


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