Ed. note. This piece recently appeared as 21st Century Ethics for Graphic Designers in Sophie Krier’s anthology I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I Want To Be There published in December 2010 by BIS

David Stairs

What does it mean to be a citizen designer anyway? Years ago Rick Poyner drew attention to it by defining it as “a designer’s relation to buygenericcialisonline-norx< the public.” This seems self-evident, but is it half-enough? Are we talking about simple relations, or complex responsibilities? Is one’s “public” domestic or international? Is a designer more responsible to his neighbor, his society, or the community of all worldly life? And if the latter, can a designer be trusted to value non-human existence?

Are 21st Century ethics an improvement on 19th Century ethics? Is sustainable design more significant than the anti-slavery movement? Much of the world is still enslaved to an insidious form of homeostasis: high birth rate offset by high infant mortality. So are the Millennium Development Goals an attainable advance on colonialism? Are we really kinder and gentler than our forebears, or just more self-obsessed? Can the current frenzy for socially conscious design counterbalance a century of design in global capitalism’s thrall? Does designing way-finding signs for refugee camps make more sense than Paul Rand at IBM, a Jewish designer working for a company complicit in the Holocaust? Can we peer through the haze of so much collective navel-gazing to be able to understand that design is not the Omphalos of the Universe? No discipline is a panacea for our earthly problems. It’ll take a minimum of everyone working together before we can even consider “saving the world.” Wanting to frame these discussions in terms of knowing where we are going, one ought to remember where it is we’ve already been. One should not think narrowly. The universe is too broad.

I used to believe that altruism was what was needed. Altruism is a modest start, but in itself it is not enough. Helping others is certainly part of a humane, moral, equitable practice, but only a part. We need to actively engage the world with our whole focused intelligence, and it should not be avaricious. When I say this I don’t mean it should necessarily be “pro bono” either. Social design isn’t free, as initiatives like designNYC would have us believe. Designers need to shed their commercial skins though, and convince governments and societies that they are just as important as planners and politicians. Of course, actively entering civil society in an effort to protect the commons will be a novelty for most designers. A designer who is a citizen of the 21st century must be a student of the past, an investigator of the present, and an imaginer of the future.

Working to help the haves (those who can afford one’s services) secure their dominance over the have-nots is no longer cool. Does this mean one has to dedicate one’s life and career to striking a balance? This is impracticable, of course, though not a bad idea. At a minimum it means doing your homework and knowing whom you’re working for. 21st Century ethics for Graphic Designers does not mean creating protest posters, or substituting websites for printed publications and calling it greener. By paying more attention to stakeholders than shareholders, tomorrow’s designers might avoid the embarrassment of working to rebrand an acknowledged “serial environmental criminal”, like BP, as Beyond Petroleum.1 But this takes more than merely knowing one’s client or even one’s world; it takes self-knowledge, probably the hardest type to acquire.

Designers, as a well-educated segment of society, have a stake, and can perhaps even take a lead in redefining professional practice as cooperative, civil, and just rather than competitive, corporate, and exploitative. This will seem alien at first. But once we are alien we will be standing with many of the others who are relegated to be on the outside looking in. Charles Eames always argued the value of changing one’s perspective. Meanwhile, beware the prophets of global markets, global capital, and global communications, those purveyors of so-called “massive change.” They will try to convince you of the value of their expertise. But the best things in life are not grand, the best things in life are small: a seed, a songbird, a child’s hand. onesmallproject.com will do!

Not for want did Ghandi limit his worldly possessions to eyeglasses, a pen, a spinning wheel, and a bowl-and-spoon. For the rest of us it will be much more difficult. When you think you own the whole world, it isn’t easy to take only a fair share. What constitutes a fair share? A bicycle perhaps, rationed electricity, clean water, immunizations, a one-bedroom house, a publicly funded education, healthy food, socially beneficial work. With these things in hand, a citizen of the 21st century will be considered wealthy. With these things one should have no trouble finding one’s heart’s desire. With these few simple things a 21st Century Designer could even change the world for the better. So come along. Take a hand. Help out. We’re all in this together. Assume nothing. Take only what you need. Don’t be greedy. And let me know if I was right next century. If I’m wrong, chances are no one will remember. But I’m not wrong. Ethics is here to stay.

1Time magazine’s June 21, 2010 issue quoting Scott West, formerly of the EPA, on page 54.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project

4 Responses to “Ethics 101 for Graphic Designers”

  1. Robert L. Peters Says:

    Well stated, David. Thank you…


  2. Andy Jacobson Says:

    Design ethics? I’ve always kept mine simple; Is it good for me, for my family, my friends.

    Each member of society “cast a vote”. Society wins or loses based on the cumulative outcome of those votes. If the majority agreed to buy SUVs—and the market responds to that desire—that we all have to share in the positive or negative outcome of that overwhelming desire.

    I’m an optimist. Humans want to survive, and want to be loved. It may take time, but at the end of the design process—which may take years, decades, centuries—we will have what is best.

  3. Jimmy Koz Says:

    Well said Stairs. The reality here is what I learned a long time ago and has held true from the dawn of time and will continue until the end of time: fair is never fair when it comes to the matters of men.

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