The ethical guideines of design organizations, pt 3/3: outside our sphere

«Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike is toasted»
– Mad Men

(part 1, part 2)

The cliche is that you can’t trust advertising because it’s all lies. There are laws against that sort of thing these days, though — and the most efficient of the shady PR and propaganda have always been dishonest in more subtle ways. The organizations differ quite dramatically on this point, while Grafill doesn’t even mention the idea of misleading advertising, AIGA has a very clear point saying that professional designers «communicate the truth in all situations and at all times» and «represent messages in a clear manner in all forms of communication design and avoid false, misleading and deceptive promotion.»

But we still see ads implying that Coca Cola is healthy because it’s «all natural ingredients», and other ads that even get close  to lying. In spite  of this, David Butler is quite happy in his role as their vp of design. Butler seems to be closely associated with AIGA — and has plenty of beautiful words to tell them about corporate responsibility, words that they’ve recorded and published on their website — you’d almost think they consider him a professional designer.

The problem may be that the guidelines are there, but in AIGAs case, there are no sanctions for members who break the rules.

The Coca Cola Company also never apologized for mining the groundwater from under draught-stricken Indian peasants and selling them toxic sludge as fertilizer — which brings me to the question, should designers be associating themselves with this sort? Even the purely brand-building ads of young, hip, attractive people drinking Coca Cola, helps maintain the facade of a really shady business.* Take the example of Boot-boys (a Norwegian neo-nazi group) if you’re not comfortable writing off Coca Cola as evil — designers obviously shouldn’t be uncritically accepting work from just anyone.

There may be plenty of excuses saying that it’s someone else’s responsibility, these excuses exist at every link along the commercial chain: the CEO of Coca Cola can say his main responsibility is to his shareholders, individual customers can say they don’t have time to find all the relevant information about every product they buy, and so on. The fact that everyone has an excuse doesn’t mean that no one’s left responsible, it means that we all are.

Speaking of toxic sludge; both AIGA and Grafill are unambitious when it comes to the environment, merely suggesting that designers should be responsible with their use of resources — DDA is surprisingly far ahead here, in fact demanding that it’s members work towards a sustainable future, recommending support of UN Global Compact, which also adresses corruption, labour standards and human rights, hopefully the others will come along soon.

What about the users?
The products of designer are allways made to be used by users or seen by an audience — but none of the guidelines mention this with a single word. The debate is there though, Paul Nini writes on «I would argue that our single, most significant contribution to society would be to make sure that the communications we create are actually useful to those for whom they’re intended», before sketching out some guidelines about including users in the creative process, treating them with respect, accommodating physically challenged users and not being manipulative.

Here are some relevant points from TASAs guidelines:

«21. Members should treat with respect the participants of the research and protect their welfare and privacy. This should encompass a respect for the inherent dignity and the rights of persons, and a commitment not to use a person only as a means to an end. Treating participants with respect may involve the protection of groups, communities or organisations to which participants belong.»


«30. Where participants are very young, incapacitated or a member of a particularly vulnerable population, the research methods and instruments should be appropriately designed and if necessary, modified, to protect the ethical rights of, and ensure the physical, emotional and psychological safety of participants»

For designers I think these could be helpful, not only to the research phase of our creative process, but also in out attitude towards our users and audience.

* For the record, Coca Cola and David Butler are just examples, I’d include more, but I’m trying to keep this short