Relevancy of design. Part III: Ethics

A Four Part Series. Part III.How many designers have returned to the office from a meeting with the deflated statement, “Everyone in the room was a designer”? And how many times have designers heard from clients, “Design is fun”? Yes, design is fun. Design also entails hard work and late nights, and more often than not, it is practiced by well-educated, passionate professionals.These professionals love and live design in everything they do. It’s fun, it’s difficult, it’s satisfying and its relevancy is threatened by the unskilled professional and human-centered design being misused by corporations. For the field of design to remain relevant and valuable in the next decade, it must develop a standard of expected skills and roles, consistent design language, code of ethics and produce well-rounded intellects and talent from undergraduate design programs.

June 7, 2022


Design education

Relevancy of design. Part III: Ethics

An attribute that will help design stay relevant into the future is a defined ethics through the designer’s acceptance of clients, responsible approach to strategy, bravery and leadership. A defined and incorporated code of ethics in the field will differentiate design from the unskilled professional and from corporations practicing a misunderstood version of human-centered design. Ethical design does not necessarily require certification or license, although it should. Designer Milton Glaser stated when referencing design certification, “If we were licensed, telling the truth might become more central to what we do” (Glaser). Ethical design would require ethics be incorporated into design education, language and practice, just as the computer or sketchbook is a crucial part of design. In 2006, five designers invited to Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum National Design Awards sent a letter to Laura Bush to decline the invitation because of their belief that President George W. Bush’s administration was using the mass communication of words and images in ways that were seriously harming the political discourse in America. The letter reprinted in Bierut’s Seventy-nine Short Essay’s on Design in part stated, “…our fundamental belief, and a central tenet of ‘good’ design, that words and images must be used responsibly…” (Bierut 88). Designers should evaluate their clients to determine if what they are promoting, how they promote and to whom is socially responsible. The designer should also determine if the client delivers its brand promise to its audience. The “First Things First” manifesto was introduced in 1963 and again in 2000. The purpose of the manifesto was to persuade designers to pursue worthy clients whose projects promoted humanity (Bierut 54). The designer’s role is to support clients, look out for the best interests of the user, be cognitive of how the work affects society and protect the integrity of the design industry.

Making ethical decisions as to how design will affect society will require bravery on the part of the designer. Design has a history of ethical stalwarts and bravery. In 1933, Jan Tschichold and his wife were held for six weeks under house arrest by the Nazis for “un-German” typography (Roberts 44). Will Burtin was pressured by Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler to join the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda. He refused and fled to New York (Roberts 64). The creative brain drain of Europe brought modernism to America through designers such as Burtin, Herbert Bayer and László Moholy-Nagy. America’s prosperity after WWII turned a European social movement into the US consumerism of today. U.S. designers should evaluate how they participate in the consumerism of American culture. Are designers working with clients whose products are truly needed and add value to society? Alternatively, is the designer using strategies of conceived value, status purchase, stereotypes or negative role schemas to promote the client’s agenda? The Dove social media film clip from October 2017 promotes racism through negative stereotypes. The clip shows a multitude of diverse ethnic women. The portion showing a black woman turning into a white woman is troubling. Demonstrated in the video is a designer’s lack of sensitivity and understanding of racism in America. If the phrase “good design is good business” can become part of business vernacular, then “good ethics is good business” should also be delivered through design and from the designer’s bravery to make socially responsible decisions.

Design can play a formative or illustrative role in defining society’s identity and values. Design can follow society or lead it.Tony Golsby-Smith predicted in his 1996 Fourth Order Design: A Practical Perspective a broadening of the fourth order designer first introduced in 1994 by Richard Buchanan in Branzi’s Dilemma. Golsby-Smith stated, “…the fourth order designer moves the boundary of the task out to encompass the issues of ‘Why are we doing this task?’.… ‘What does it tell us about our identity and value?’” (Golsby-Smith 16). There are many instances where design will appropriately play the illustrative role, but when it comes to ethics, design should take the formative lead. When design takes the formative ethical lead, it can distinguish itself from its threats of relevancy. However, it must also produce well-trained and well-rounded industry professionals from design schools to solidify its relevancy into the future.

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