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Ethics Playing A Role In Modern Graphic Design Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3854 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Undoubtedly, graphic design is a vital component of today’s society. It has become increasingly involved in various fields, fuelling the market- and profit-oriented sectors rather than fulfilling the initial aim of pure artistic impression. That was a long time ago though. The modern trends dictate to produce more, promote more, buy more – and that way, a designer becomes a marionette ruled by marketing professionals and advertising companies. This way, a designer becomes a tool of consumerism with power and might to change the perception of public. However, there are more issues to be addressed when talking about the importance of ethics in graphic design – social responsibility, green design, subliminal advertising, the ethics of retouching, and many more.

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In fact, it can be said that graphic design as we know it nowadays is clearly being defined by the contemporary state of society – and undoubtedly, vice versa as well. Where the society would be without graphic design? Where the graphic design would be if the designers would not need to follow the wishes of marketing and advertising sector?

With the power the designers have, they can easily overcome regional boundaries and influence the views and values of society worldwide. Sadly, many of them do not think about the immense impact they are capable of; does that mean that ethics should not play a role in modern graphic design?

With the development of technologies, the designer’s scope keeps constantly changing, as well as its effect on the society. What might not have been an issue 60 years later may now be considered a real problem.

In this paper, I will discuss the significance of following the ethical principles in the field of graphic design. I will pinpoint the importance of it through touching main historical events and the transformation of society, which eventually lead to releasing the First Things First Manifesto; I will discuss the role of designer in today’s society and effects of subliminal advertising and retouching on the audience. Last but not least, I will briefly touch the influence of designers on ecological sustainability and so-called “green design”.

According to Jessica Helfand, graphic design is “visual language uniting harmony and balance, colour and light, scale and tension, form and content. But it is also an idiomatic language, a language of cues and puns and symbols and allusions, of cultural references and perceptual inferences that challenge both the intellect and the eye” (Shaugnessy, 2005, p. 18). However, this rather eloquent statement does not take into consideration the fact that in past decades, design has become more of a socio-economic tool for generating profit – and that is precisely the point where the ethics, moral values and principles come in.

Even though ethics can be quite simply defined as a “discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad, right and wrong” (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2010), the variety of ethical aspects in design greatly exceeds this interpretation. Bearing in mind that graphic design is a non-verbal medium, a designer usually acts only as a mediator between the client and potential audience. However, design requires not only strong communication skills and cultural awareness, but also firm ethical and aesthetical beliefs. As a matter of fact, “design is a social activity with social consequences” (Shaugnessy, 2009).

In fact, ethics in graphic design could be looked at from two different viewpoints – personal and professional (GD User’s Manual). While personal aspects reflect designer’s moral values, principles, and personal philosophy, the professional ones are concentrated mostly around business code, thus the partnership between a designer and a client. Even though the discussion and awareness about the business aspect of ethics in design have risen significantly in past years, there has not been enough exploration and consideration of its moral side.

One of the key factors to influence graphic design is that it is a relatively liberate discipline (Shaugnessy, 2009). Whereas most of the other fields are in some way (what way?) regulated, the moral side of graphic design is left to be dealt with by the designers themselves. That, as it has been mentioned already, requires firm ethical principles. Graphic design in its own nature is very proximate to the ethical questions and issues the society faces at the present time; therefore it is implied in social change. Ranging from animal rights, global warming and nutrition to politics, smoking and workplace violence, graphic design as a communication tool is always present. However, that renders a question whether the designers are the ones to praise or blame for the problems and changes within the society. Kalle Lasn, the founder of the anti-consumerist Adbusters magazine, took this viewpoint at his talk at the Royal College of Art, London (Dudley and Mealing, 2000).

First Things First 2000 manifesto (FTF2000), which followed the legendary 1964 manifesto of the same name, deals with a need of moral values in graphic design and visual communication. All the 33 undersigned designers and art directors take quite a firm stand in this matter by claiming that graphic design has gone too far from its original values and ended up being a blatant marketing and advertising tool for generating profit. That in fact reflects not only in the way how people perceive graphic design, but also in a way the society acts, thinks and feels.

First Things First 2000: A Design Manifesto

“We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators who have been raised in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable use of our talents. Many design teachers and mentors promote this belief; the market rewards it; a tide of books and publications reinforces it.

Encouraged in this direction, designers then apply their skill and imagination to sell dog biscuits, designer coffee, diamonds, detergents, hair gel, cigarettes, credit cards, sneakers, butt toners, light beer and heavy-duty recreational vehicles. Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design. The profession’s time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best.

Many of us have grown increasingly uncomfortable with this view of design. 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. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.

There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. Many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programs, films, charitable causes and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help.

We propose a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.

In 1964, 22 visual communicators signed the original call for our skills to be put to worthwhile use. With the explosive growth of global commercial culture, their message has only grown more urgent. Today, we renew their manifesto in expectation that no more decades will pass before it is taken to heart.”


“What could become possible if designers used their power to influence choices and beliefs in a positive and sustainable way?” (Berman, p. 13)

The vital message of FTF2000 is to “design for good”. However, good and bad are still very vague terms and since no guides exist on this topic, it depends upon a designer whether they choose to work for a certain client, use dirty marketing practices or promote possibly harmful, unfavourable and detrimental products. That being the case, it could be said that design and ethics go hand in hand and “design for good” is in fact a matter of choice.

Graphic designers like Tibor Kalman inspired the designers to take responsibility for their works. Throughout his career, he urged designers to question the effects of their works and refuse to accept any client’s product exactly the way it appears to be. Kalman inspired graphic designers to use their work to increase public awareness of a variety of social issues.

(Milton Glaser – Big Think)

Undoubtedly, design has impact on society and changes within it. From the extreme point of view, it might seem that customers are absolutely vulnerable to the messages communicated by designers, and therefore accept the information automatically and behave accordingly.

Regulatory codes within graphic design

The essential part of this problem is regulation. Designers are not obliged to abide any codes, apart from the most essential ones like constitution, and the freedom of their profession makes them extremely vulnerable to moral questions. In other fields, eg. movie industry, it is quite common that a supreme body regulates and assesses the suitability and advisability of particular scenes. If the children are not supposed to see a scene which involves violence, death, or sex, it is alright for them to see a very graphic anti-abortion billboard, picturing an aborted foetus in a puddle of blood? In fact, that has been happening in Slovakia since 2007, when CBR Europe (European branch of The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, USA) firstly released the aforementioned campaign. However, the controversial billboards caused a big wave of disagreement due to its graphic nature. CBR Europe has announced that regardless of the violent nature of campaign, it has been successful and the number of abortions in Slovakia has decreased.

Even though graphic designers, just like everybody else, have right to express their viewpoints, opinions and attitudes, their work should not be biased. However, who is the one to judge goodness or badness of moral principles of an individual? ……………………….



From another point of view, this freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democratic rights and freedoms. Nevertheless, neither freedom of speech nor any other freedom is absolute; otherwise there would be no charges for promoting racial, ethnic, gender, disability discrimination and other prejudicial treatments and ideologies. Therefore it is essential for a designer to abide to both personal and public principles. Undoubtedly, personal values vary from person to person – the key here is to be aware of them. When not thinking further behind the pursuit of aesthetics many designers strive for, one cannot possibly reflect their values and principles in the works. Many associations of design principles give a hand to designers with both personal and public ones. Just like in with any other profession ranging from doctors to lawyers, the need for applying ethical principles in graphic design calls for recognition.

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Most of the international and regional design associations have their code of ethics, often known as rules of professional conduct. AIGA (formerly ‘American Institute of Graphic Arts’), the professional association for design, released their first edition of “Design Business + Ethics” in 2001. The most current version issued in 2009 emphasises the importance of existence of ethical standards and the firm mutual bonds between a designer, client and content the both sides deal with. “Adherence to a common set of principles is critical to estab­lishing design as a true profession, with an ethos based on respect for clients, other designers, audiences, society and the environment” (AIGA, 2009: 9). Apart from infringement of copyright, human rights, ……………, “a professional designer shall avoid projects that will result in harm to the public” (AIGA, 2009: 34).

The Chartered Society of Designers based in London, UK, accept their membership applicants not only based on qualification and presented works, but also on knowledge in the field of preference and professionalism. These are proved during an interview. To meet the latter requirement, the applicants shall demonstrate that they “practice with integrity, maintain ethics and values, operate professionally” (CSD, 2009: 2).

The role of graphic design in consumerism

As Berman states, “designers are at the core of the most efficient, most destructive pattern of deception in human history” (…., p.22). Designers used to be generally seen as tools of capitalism. Creating brands, packaging, and marketing for consumer goods, graphic designers became an integral part of the free market system as they were contributing to wealth within the society.

Passing the information through subliminal advertising

Simply put, subliminal advertising could be defined as integrating hidden messages within printed or digital media. “It [the concept of subliminal perception] suggests that peoples’ thoughts, feelings and actions are influenced by stimuli that are perceived without any awareness of perceiving” (Kadzin, 2000). Through various psychological and neurological studies it was proved that subliminal perception is most likely to occur in patients with neurological damage or those who are undergoing general anaesthesia. In such cases, they usually not realize the stimuli but subconsciously respond to it anyway.

As the means of convincing and manipulating the potential viewers into certain actions and behaviours, subliminal advertising has been assigned quite spectacular power in the past. This method counts on mental vulnerability of customers and their automatic acceptance of the pictured message. From the psychological point of view, the threshold of consciousness varies from person to person and some people might be influenced by subliminal messaging.

Wilson Bryan Kay, an author of several controversial books on subliminal messaging, argued that the power of advertising has been often increased by embedding sexual subtext and/or word “sex” within it. His main argument is that even though the sexual tone of the advertisement is not consciously perceived, subconsciously it causes increase in sexual desires, resulting in making the advertised product more appealing.

Even though the tests with subliminal messages have run since late 1950’s, the scientific research behind this phenomenon has neither confirmed nor refuted the potential success in altering customers’ views and will subconsciously. Nonetheless, if the subliminal messages are powerful enough to change peoples’ views and behaviour, the ethical matters are definitely in question. In fact, we would be dealing with violation of a person’s right for privacy.

While subconscious messages could be used for not only dirty purposes but also for decent ones (eg. persuading people not to lie), the final effect would still be manipulating peoples’ actions which is not any less unethical. The person communicating his or her ideas through subconscious messages has no right to manipulate and brainwash other peoples’ minds. Due to this fact, subliminal messages are generally being perceived as unethical and are banned, among others, in USA, Canada and Australia.

Ethical issues in photography and retouching

Bearing in mind that graphic designers are in fact visual artists, they have a rather immense power in changing the perception of people who see their works. Retouching is a perfect example of how the relatively small actions have changed the image of beauty within our society.

Majority of the people would agree that retouching of the models for marketing campaigns poured oil into fire when speaking about the perception of beauty. Being exposed to the modern, even though retouched notion of visual appearance, many women feel insecure about their looks and body. Arguably, “the media most certainly contributes to dieting and size discrimination” (http://www.something-fishy.org/cultural/themedia.php), which are often a founding ground for development of an eating disorder.

Not only in cases like the one above, the designers and commercial artists in general need to take a firm stance on their moral values and principles. The world of design and visual communication calls for a greater responsibility in decision-making (….?) because the visual elements often speak as clearly as words spoken out loud.

In order to support a call for higher standards in photojournalism and advertising, there has been a movement to ban or clearly label retouched images. Even though this idea has support of several countries including United Kingdom, Switzerland and France, it is very unlikely to be adopted soon as it would require complicated regulations to be set up.

Historical significance of graphic design

Undoubtedly, the graphic design has been a very important element in shaping the history. Since the early 20th century, it has been continuously growing in its significance. Throughout the past, design was an inseparable component of considerable number of events which defined the world as we know it today.

Graphic design, regardless of ethical consequences of the communicated message, potentially played a key role at the period of Second World War. The commercial aspect of graphic design “was taken to its greatest and darkest heights in Nazi Germany in a terrible exemplar of the true power of design” (http://www.provokateur.com/news/index.php/2009/07/08/provokateurs-take-on-ethical-communications/). However, as Eileen MacAvery Kane (2010) states, the similar strategies were implied in eras of Fascist Italy, Stalin’s and Lenin’s USSR, and Mao’s China. In all four cases, the leaders turned graphic design into a powerful manipulative tool to influence lives of millions of people. Throughout the history, several infamously known symbols have been created, be it “the swastika and gothic typography of Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s streamlined Futurist posters and Black Shirt uniforms, the stolid Social Realism of Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s Little Red Book” (amazon), which were used in “in a wide variety of propaganda, from posters, magazines and advertisements to uniforms, flags and figurines” (amazon). Moreover, the physical and mental characteristics of the leaders were often depicted on various means of visual communication, converting a person into public icon and thus building up the trustworthiness of the whole regime. Such steps could be compared to contemporary advertising practices.

Another strong example from the field of politics is Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. The logo, designed by a Chicago company Sender LLC, is often described as a rising sun symbolising hope and the main strength of Obama’s campaign is visual coherence of all the main elements.

Shepard Fairey, the American designer and illustrator who stands behind the famous “HOPE” poster for Obama’s campaign, has proven that the power of visual communication on popular opinion is still immense. Even though he was not hired to create a poster for Obama and his team denied any involvement in creation of the aforementioned piece, it has proven to be very successful. Once the campaign was over, Fairey received a letter from Obama which reads: “I would like to thank you for using your talent in support of my campaign. The political messages involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe they can help change the status quo. Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign.” (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory?id=6811991)




When compared to both posters above (Image 1, Image 2), Barack Obama’s visuals share certain elements with them. Apparently, use of blue, white and red is conditioned by country the posters (Image 2, 3) were created for; however, a portrait of a person is central element in all of them. Both Hitler and Obama are looking to future, which is supported by strong slogans (Long Live Germany! and HOPE) and bold typography. Moreover, both use a symbolism of sun or sun rays in their campaigns. These are all facts a viewer processes subconsciously.

Would have people believed in future of Germany promised by Adolf Hitler if he was depicted striking a different pose, doing a different gesture, if the background did not show his supporters? Would Obama have been elected if Fairey had never released his iconic poster? Of course, politics is not only about visual side of campaigns but bearing in mind the mind-blowing success the abovementioned heads of states had received, it can be said that graphic design plays an extremely important role in our lives. As Graham Milton (n.d.) stated in his blog, “propaganda exists today in the form of advertising and design because it is the most effective tool for influencing popular opinion. Indeed, all mass media is capable of this manipulation” ( http://www.grahammilton.com/blog/art/illustrated/power-of-design-power-of-propaganda/). Manipulation, a practice involving influence or control over the others to one’s own advantage, cannot possibly be looked at as an ethical action. This matter of fact touches not only politics but all the possible fields graphic design is present in and cannot be ignored anymore.

Business and commercial aspect of ethics in graphic design

Sustainability and social responsibility


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