Ethos of graphic design has been misunderstood as a link between consumers and suppliers for too many years. Over the last century graphic designers have worked to promote products and services they didn’t believe in or use themselves. In some cases, designers have helped to contribute to excessive consumption and prodigious waste through their use of catchy phrases and sayings. Designers have begun to rethink the content in which they are designing with in order to decide if this follows their personal and professional ethical standards. With the talent to combine ideas, problem solving skills, and a strong need to communicate; designers have the ability to use these talents to encourage a better understanding of the cultural and social needs around the world. Rather than using their problem solving skills to sell a product, graphic designers use these skills now more than ever to make a positive impact on society whether locally or globally.
The idea of doing meaningful and so-called “good” design is not a new concept by any means. Discussed and written about for many generations, good design has been a subject of many essays, books and even manifestos. When Ken Garland published the First Things First Manifesto in London in 1964, he set out to refocus the design industry by working to raise design to a more meaningful level within society. Rallying against the consumerist culture and the current lack of critical thought, the designers and artists who signed the manifesto protested that design is not neutral, but rather a valuable process that can contribute to society rather than take away from it. At the time, many viewed graphic design as a tool to sell products rather than what it was actually capable of doing: making a difference within society.
The manifesto was reprinted in its entirety in the Guardian newspaper on January 24, 1964 in London. An excerpt from the newspaper quoting Anthony Wedgwood Benn, a Member of Parliament in London, highlights his personal perspective of the manifesto. Benn stated:
“The responsibility for the waste of talent which they have denounced so vehemently is one we must all share. The evidence for it is all around us in the ugliness with which we have to live. It could so easily be replaced if only we consciously decided as a community to engage some of the skill which now goes into the frills of an affluent society.”
In 2000, this manifesto was republished to continue the fighting battle started nearly four decades earlier between design, industry, and society. The reprinted and reworded version was aimed to further generate discussion about the industry of graphic design, its professional image among society, and it’s meaning from one designer to another. The manifesto was rewritten to focus on the way that society perceives designers while simultaneously questioning those designers who continue to create a demand for inessential products. With special focus on contrasting the earlier views and opinions, the signees of the 2000 manifesto set the tone for what design is and is not in a brutally critical way. The messages in the new manifesto granted urgency and forceful influence causing designers and consumers to rethink the way they look at communication and the designed world around them. Several of these urgent messages fall within the following excerpt:
“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.”
The 1964 FTF manifesto focused on the fact that the designers involved did not feel that they were contributing to their national prosperity. Although that manifesto highlighted words such as useful and lasting forms of communication, the 2000 FTF manifesto added to that list. With more of a global and international focus, the 2000 FTF manifesto proposed “a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication.” What is important about this shift from the two manifestos is that their was a consciousness among designers that they were not being used for their full talents and by 2000 many of their design pursuits seemed not only trivial but also non-democratic in the form of commercialization having power over the citizens opinions.
The First Things First Manifestos have proven to stand the testament of time from the sixties all the way into the 21st century. Several questions have come to mind after reading both of the manifestos causing urgency within our profession to join todays growing positive design revolution. With the power to make a difference in the world through communication, designers are now working to revoke the meaningless brand they have held in the past. Knowing that the world could go on without them, designers are now focusing on the ways they can design for environmental, social, and cultural needs that are demanding our talents. What can designers accomplish to push the industry from ordinary to extraordinary? How can we begin presenting our industry as a vision of a more equitable future? What are our responsibilities ethically, environmentally, and socially as graphic designers? How can we help students to better understand their worth in the future of mankind through their creativity and eagerness to learn what’s right from wrong?
Back to the original issue at hand, what do we really consider to be “good” design? In an interview, Mike Weikert of the Maryland Institute College of Art was asked, “How do you define “Good Design”?” His response touches on many points that allow people outside of the design world to better understand what designers actually do and that the process of creation is not just limited to problem solving. Weikert said of “Good Design”: “Design and the design process can contribute to positively impacting our world and creating positive change. The process, however, is more complex than simply designing a brochure for a nonprofit. It involves problem identification, targeting objectives and audiences, immersion into research, implementation of design thinking and strategy, and an overall collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving. This approach to design should not be thought of as charity, aid, or volunteerism, but a significant contribution that plays an important role in local, national, and global well being.” One major part of design that seems to be overlooked in the general definition is the importance of research. With a strong background and understanding, designers have the ability to become professional storytellers when creating designed materials for a client or product once in depth research is completed.
In the past, commercial designers working on corporate advertisements looked at projects with a broader context as extraneous to their portfolio. Today, this work is not only relevant, but is what agencies seek when hiring young designers. Since fledgling designers do not have much authority over the content in which they are designing for, many focus on self-initiated work when entering the job market.
Rather than focusing on non-profits or charity work only, the new focus is to design for the overall impact on your neighborhood whether it be on a local or global level based on your interests or your agencies interests. By doing work that is personal at some level, designers understand their role as communicators and work to solve problems one project at a time with the ability to make an impact.
One important shift in design education is the growth of ethical standards. Design schools such as Savannah College of Art and Design now have design programs focusing on sustainability. Since 2009, SCAD has been working to allow students to learn in cross-disciplinary environments such as Graphic Design and Design for Sustainability. These new educational programs fuse social and environmental methodologies into design education allowing students to enter the industry well prepared to compete with others in the field.
Following along the lines of doing “good” in design, SCAD also holds the Design Ethos conference. An open-air conversation about what we should be doing in the design field, Design Ethos focuses on collaboration throughout the three-day conference. With a selected local community related assignment, designer’s work to create deliverables achieving the mission of the proposed project in what SCAD calls a “Do-Ference’. The attendees are asked to work quickly on a short deadline allowing little time to reflect until they return to their agency lives. This is a great benefit as the overall goal of the conference is to make a difference in your community between visual design and living.
Attending weekend workshops or design camps is another important practice in educating young designers in “good” design techniques. Firebelly Design, a group of sustainable and socially minded artists and designers in Chicago, hosts an annual design camp called Camp Firebelly. The 10-day camp host’s ten pre-selected campers to live and work within the Firebelly Design studio. Focusing on one non-profit client, campers craft a strategic plan while working on researching the client’s needs, designing, and completion of the project with printed deliverables. Camps such as this are held in various forms nationally and are a growing seedling to the future of socially minded design.
In addition to their in-house design camp, Firebelly Design is also responsible for working to create the Grant for Good. By enlisting local like-minded design firms, the Grant for Good works to fine tune one non-profits brand strategy for a year at no cost. In addition to the overall visual appearance, the grant includes professional website development, copy writing, social marketing, photography and video services from enlisted firms within Chicago. Most recently the Chicago Women’s Health Center won the Grant for Good receiving a years worth of professional design services free of charge.
Corporate companies such as Adobe have adopted the goals of The Designers Accord. A project created by a global coalition of designers and leaders, The Designers Accord is working to make a positive impact through the creative community for better social and environmental change. The coalition of artists encompassing the accord hopes to make the term “sustainability” mainstream in all forms of design within five years of its start in 2007. With only a few months remaining, it will be interesting to re-evaluate their efforts in the next year.
An influential and leading example of the value design can hold within the world is the Chicago based non-profit EPIC (Engaging Philanthropy, Inspiring Creatives). EPIC works to empower non-profit clients that are dedicated to promoting good causes, while simultaneously giving designers the chance to use their talent to make a bigger impact. By pairing the non-profits with designers and agency volunteers, pro-bono work is designed with the goal of impacting as many lives as possible. All of the above examples are movements that are putting our design skills to worthwhile uses in todays multi-disciplinary design world.
An alternative practice that works to empower the design community is using the word “no.” If each designer would choose to say no when asked to do work they don’t ethically agree with, we could continue to grow closer to becoming a well respected, value driven design industry. Designing for spec work is something that has been a topic of conflict between designers and clients for many years. By doing speculative work (work that you are not guaranteed to get paid for), you are attaching value to your work in a negative way. If designers work for free there is no value attached and the client will not respect the services rendered. In the future you will be forced to reintroduce yourself with the hopes that the client will offer you a paying project. After ideas are on paper there is no way to get them back that is why the Graphic Artists Guild has created a great list of codes to live and work by. As stated in The Code of Fair Practice under Article 29:
“Work on speculation: Contests. Artists and designers who accept speculative assignments (whether directly from a client or by entering a contest or competition) risk losing anticipated fees, expenses, and the potential opportunity to pursue other, rewarding assignments. Each artist shall decide individually whether to enter art contests or design competitions, provide free services, work on speculation, or work on a contingency basis.”
Sites such as www.no-spec.com work to educate the public and the design community of the importance of declining spec work. Providing facts on the importance of turning down spec work, sites like this can help to change the future of design allowing designers to see the importance of declining work when they know they will not receive necessary compensation for services rendered. The no-spec site also shares a wealth of information directed to businesses on why they should not ask for spec work. Overall, without sites
such as www.no-spec.com designers, educators, and business owners would continue on this risky path devaluing the design profession.
Designers have an overwhelming amount of power to influence society with their creative talents. With power comes responsibility, to what is socially right, what is right for the environment, and most importantly what is ethically right to the design community at large. To clear the air as to what graphic design meant in the past, we must clarify what we stand for today; showcase the importance of our work in society; and clarify what we stand against. What our profession stands for is completely up to us, the designers. We must decide what we promote our industry as and ultimately promote our talents by
With the second edition of First Things First Manifesto being published over a decade ago, how long will the underlying messages of urgency take to remedy themselves with the help of the design community? Knowing that you can make a difference is sometimes the answer to the problem. With so many forces helping designers grow, only time will tell until we are all working to create socially, ethically, and environmentally friendly campaigns.
Currently we have access to so many resources such as educational workshops and camps, future designers will become more than creative problem solvers. Through a thorough understanding of their clients and end consumers, designers have a great chance to become not only problem solvers, but also fully engaged human beings within our ever-changing world. By focusing more of our time on researching the overall meaning of each project, we have a unique chance to become educated on the world around us in a way that can greatly benefit our work. In turn, students will benefit by working with design educators that choose to enhance their curriculum focusing more on the way we research rather than the goal of learning to meet a deadline or creating a visual portfolio. For young designers to focus on the way they approach projects, the questions they ask their clients, and promoting clients in a true and accurate way will all be necessary in reinventing ethics in design.
In conclusion, all designers whether they are students, educators, or seasoned in the field should continue to take a moment and question what it is that they are working on. By allowing time for reflection, designers can work to hone the power that we have and focus our efforts on promoting positive actions whether it be helping get clean water in Haiti or sharing public safety information for your neighborhood. If we no longer focus on design for vanities sake, we can start to make an impact locally, nationally, and internationally on our communities. Being capable of fully understanding that we have the authority to improve the lives around us is an essential tool in any designer’s toolbox.
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