2- A Question of Ethics


This article is about ethics in graphic design to discuss the importance of ethics in a multicultural society, and the criteria designers can use to determine what is ethical design. Alcohol was used as an example to illustrate the diverse perspectives that could cause a humanitarian conflict in ethical design.


Graphic design is in a state of crisis of ethics as designers are behaving within the limits of the law but with a clear lack of ethics. Being in a field that communicates to people descending from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, it is critical for designers to set the rules of ethics. The question that will rise: who determines the rules of ethical graphic design? And how can these rules be applied without imposing designers’ beliefs on the other in a multicultural society where the common values will be created from the contribution of all religious and multicultural ideological beliefs to be received by the same diverse cultural backgrounds?


This article will discuss the importance of ethics in a multicultural society and the criteria that designers can use in order to determine what is ethical design. Alcohol will be utilized as an example to illustrate the diverse perspectives that could cause a humanitarian conflict in ethical design.

When questioning cultural ethics not only should we refer to our own perspective of ethics but also to view it from a wider angle that takes the whole and the parts of the rich multicultural, and religious society into consideration. According to Williams (2010), ‘from the Christian belief, we are all dependent on one another’s gift, to the extent that if someone else is damaged or frustrated, offended or oppressed, everyone suffers, everyone’s humanity is diminished. And this reminds me of the prophet Muhammad saying that we as community are like the human body; if an organ suffers from pain, all other organs feel sympathy for it which causes fever as a reaction to the struggle of fighting the foreign particle that entered the body. If we live in a world where everything persuades us to struggle for our own individual interest, we are being encouraged to ignore the realty of other points of view- ultimately to ignore the cost of the pain of others.

The result according to Williams (2010) will be a world where people are very articulate about their own feelings and pretty illiterate about those of others. The richness of a multicultural society is a great opportunity for graphic designers to embrace the differences and look for the common ground that unites them form a humanitarian perspective. Designers’ messages are communicated to people from divers cultural backgrounds, which make it harder for ethical designer to determine what is right and what is wrong without offending any part of the society. Designers could look at the issue from a wider angle to clarify what is culturally ambiguous and view it from a humanitarian/ ethical point of view.


After reading the Vatican paper on ethics of advertising and going through the standards of professional practice by David Berman (1984), it was clear that the key and basic principle that sums up the definition of what is ethical is to avoid projects that will cause harm to the individual, the society or the environment. According to Noam Chomsky (2007) ‘we are not only responsible for our actions but also the consequences of our actions’. Being harmful does not necessarily occur intentionally; ignorance can play a major role in harming others physically, psychologically, intellectually and emotionally.

We don’t know what the right path is or where we can draw the line but we can define the characteristics of that path by implementing dimensions that set the criteria of ethics. The most fundamental element of defining ethics is harm. Good design depends on good action that does not harm the individual, society and/ or the environment.


By following these principles, a clear path is not guaranteed but the essential characteristics are clarifying the features of it. Good designers could be part of the society where their behavior within the field should not split from their personal life. What designers believe ethically in personal life should be implemented in their professional life and vise versa. Good design that does not cause harm is a broad idea that could be applied on any visual communication material. Good design is about embracing all type of designs. It is about creating creative designs for the benefit of the consumer, client and the society as a whole. Advertising can become part of good design if harm was not associated within it. All actions count, even on a small level, as you will be surprised by the effect that small actions could make. As Glaser says ‘ you make yogurt by introducing a very small amount of bacteria to milk (2004).


Designers should not cause harm to one’s self, the client or other designers. Designers can be ethical in choosing the project first for one’s own benefit. Some projects may affect the designer negatively before it affects the society; if a designer does not smoke because of its harmful effect on health, then he/she should not design for smoking corporations in the first place. The client’s desire for profits, and the designer’s aspiration for visual sophistication should meet to create a more significant unharmed ethical model for the job to be pursued. As Berman (2008) states, ‘designer should acquaint himself or herself with a client’s best interest within the limits of professional and ethical responsibility’.


The harm of the individual is not only based on a person’s health, it also applies to a person’s psychological, and emotional aspects. Advertising for teenagers and playing on their insecure personality to create more sales is not ethical. Selling a product should be based on the positive benefits of the item, not on the weakness of youth. A good product does not need lying to be sold. It can be sold by promoting its honest features.


Part of being ethical is to communicate to the public honestly, respectfully and clearly. Honesty conveys the real value of goods. According to Bernard (2003 p. 89), ‘if the product is frivolous, don’t pretend that it’s serious: if someone else’s stuff is the same as yours, don’t pretend that it is unique’. Find something else about the organization that no one else can claim. As the designer is part of the society, the role of the designer is not to be harmful for the society by creating communications that are helpful to audiences and meeting their needs with dignity and respect while contributing to the general public.


A designer can be critical and sensitive in choosing what and where the communication will be whether it will offend the audience or not. According to Heller (2006), ‘ I have voluntarily toned down one of my lectures, or edited out potentially offensive language from a controversial essay, depending on the context in which I would speak or that essay would be printed, because ethics are situational’.


Clarity is also an essential factor to communicate the deliberate message. Any communication created by a designer that intentionally misleads or confuses the society must be viewed as a negative reflection on the profession as a whole. According to Bush (2003), not only do readers approach texts from differing degrees of literacy, but also readers who do share a common reading ability do not always read messages in the same manner. Accordingly, communication is a dynamic process that inserts certain preferred meanings into sites where they influence, direct and shape people’s actions.


Part of not being harmful in ethical design is to create and promote products that are environmental friendly and participate in the production of sustainable goods by concentrating on durable and multi-user designs. We are living in a world of environmental crisis. According to Alastair (2004), twenty five percent of the world’s population account for eighty percent of global energy leaving twenty percent of the energy to the rest of the people of the planet. The need for sustainable design has increased more than ever before due to the negative effect we are causing to the environment. In order for individuals, societies, and the planet to flourish, designers must support environmental responsibility.


The AIGA living principles for design form a practical framework to sustainable design by eliminating waste, maximizing recyclable materials and avoiding the use of any substances that may cause environmental damage to air quality, water or earth. According to the AIGA living principles framework, designers should minimize energy use and maximize use of clean energy sources such as wind, solar manufacturing, transportation and product use.


Alcohol is one of the controversial widely discussed topics in ethical graphic design. During my visit to Barnbrook studio who signed the Manifesto, I noticed a wine label design done for a client. According to my ethical background, it is considered unethical to design for the wine industry whereas it was clear that Mr. Barnbrook had no moral problem with it as he sees it socially acceptable. The difference in cultures was an interesting issue to be tackled from an ethical point of view. But who one person could ever be to tell another how to live. To avoid this conflict, the issue was tackled from a humanitarian point of view by embracing our differences and stating what is unified among us of not being harmful.


The issue of alcohol should be discussed from an individual and social point of view as the person who drinks is not only harming one’s self but the society as a whole. Ethics is built upon higher objectives, which depends primarily on promoting benefit and protection from harm. It seeks something useful or wards off something harmful to preserve the objective of law that consists of six ordered things: preserving religion, life, reason, progeny, honor and property.


What ensures the preservation of these six principles is benefit and what goes against their preservation is preventing benefit and causing harm to humankind in specifically and creation as a whole. Alcohol is not only a factor in about 60 different diseases, but also has a role in car accidents, drowning, falls and poisonings. Moreover, it has been proven that a country’s drinking levels directly parallel the level of harm caused; the more a country drinks, the more alcohol-related harm occurs including murder, rape and aggression. 55% of men who acknowledged committing sexual assault admitted that they were under the influence of alcohol (1996). Accordingly, it could also cause loss of descent; a drunk person could commit an irresponsible sexual act with a relative or complete stranger which may cause ultimately family fragmentation.


It is important for ethical designers to recognize and act against the damaging effect of alcohol and not base their ethical beliefs on the acceptance of society towards a matter. Most of the times the society are committing wrong actions because they are misguided, uneducated or have no real freedom of choosing their own path. They are directed by overpowering force that decides for their choices. Also, the majority of people cannot control their behavior, the ethical rules of drinking should be applied for the norm and not for the minority who can control themselves and drink responsibly. Global interest is as important if not more important than individual interest. According to Llewellyn (2003) ‘Priority is given to preserve the universal interest over particular interests’. The rule for the right action according to the utilitarianism theory is ‘... the action that maximizes welfare and pleasure’ ‘... not only is the pleasure of the person who undertakes the action but the pleasure of other people involved’ (Roberts, 2006, p 69).


Some claim that alcohol is not harmful completely that if one drinks responsibly, it is considered healthy. Numerous studies have suggested that moderate alcohol drinking helps to reduce the likelihood of heart disease and increase in HDL (good cholesterol) levels (BBC, 2001). But if you compare the benefits of alcohol to the harm that it causes, the damage will exceed. And this is considered an important principle in deciding whether something is harmful or not because there is no ultimate evil or absolute good. As a basic natural phenomenon, we gain immunity from disease and fertility of the soil from natural disasters like volcanoes. In fact, by seeing contrast we identify meaning. As we know the day from night and we enjoy looking at a picture by observing the coexistence between shades and lights where we might consider the shadow as dust if it was viewed from a closer view. So in order to know how good and ultimately how ethical something is, we should evaluate the amount of its advantages and disadvantages to determine if it was harmful or not. Richard Holloway said that ‘ethical divisions are often not drawn between the good and the bad, but between opposing versions of good’ (Roberts, 2006, p64). When it is impossible to satisfy all immediate interests, the universal common good requires prioritization by weighing the welfare of the greatest number. ‘Severe damage shall be removed by means of lighter damage,’ and ‘If one of two opposing detriments is unavoidable, the more injurious is averted by commission of the less injurious.’ (Llewellyn 2003 p. 7).


Ethical design cannot be applied if it was not defined. To avoid ambiguity within the diverse cultural and religious backgrounds and without imposing one’s personal opinion of determining ethics, the moral aspect of design could be highlighted by three factors of not being harmful to the individual, society and the environment. The generic concept of not being harmful could be viewed from different angles according to the context it is placed in. It could be reflected as integrity, respect, clarity and/ or sustainability. In the Vatican codes of ethics of Advertising, it is mentioned that advertisers are morally responsible for what they seek to move people to do. Designers have a strong weapon to guide, educate, and transform society. They should utilize this weapon in the right way regardless of their self-interest but to the benefit of the whole.




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