Features / Graphic Design

The only way is ethics: what are the moral obligations of a graphic designer?


Tim Abrahams


Andre da Loba

To a doctor, ethics are about keeping a patient alive. The modern Hippocratic oath that a doctor takes is the main example of this. A doctor must swear to "use treatments for the benefit of the ill in accordance with my ability and my judgement.” To a lawyer, the issue of ethics also relates primarily to treating clients well; although this is about ensuring that no conflicts of interest occur and that a lawyer keeps confidential any potentially damaging information they are told by a client. To a designer, at least a designer today, ethical issues are viewed as coming from the client. Rather than framing ethical questions in terms of how the designers themselves might behave professionally, designers frame these questions not around their own practice but around those of the client. What does the client do? Is this ethically acceptable or not? Indeed, is this politically acceptable or not?

This wasn’t always the case, and it is worth casting our minds back to work out why. The designer Milton Glaser presented a talk called Ten Things I have Learned in London in 2001. In the text of this presentation Glaser says that when he began work in the 1950s he was interested in as being as professional as possible. By keeping his clients at arms length and doing a job for them, but then he says he made a realisation. Graphic design was intrinsically unprofessional. “What is required in our field, more than anything else, is continuous transgression. Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure,” he said.

Glaser’s argument is that graphic designers are engaged in risk and this is an unprofessional position. Designers can give something their best shot but they can’t guarantee their ideas will work, so they are in an unethical position to start off with when it comes to the client. It’s an important intellectual step that was made by Glaser and other designers of his generation. Glaser and his contemporaries began their careers in New York in the 1950s wanting to do the right thing by their hard-working immigrant parents and be professional themselves. However, of significance is that in the 1960s they came in to touch with the potentially conflicting values of personal freedom and social responsibility.

The ethical framework that we operate in today was defined at this time, so it’s worth considering it a little further. Herb Lubalin was an expert at applying typography in a sculptural way and a genius at employing heavily stylized typography to evoke a philosophy or a way of seeing the world. In Unit Editions’ monograph on him the publisher Adrian Shaughnessy describes why Lubalin quit as a partner in a successful agency to set up a design studio: “He didn’t like the idea of selling things to people they didn’t need. But he also did it for creative reasons because he couldn’t do what he wanted to.”

Lubalin did some of his best work for the anti-Vietnam war Democrat George McGovern. He was also nearly arrested for indecency for his work as art director on the erotic review Eros, although he escaped prosecution largely because the publisher Ralph Ginzburg fought the legal case personally. Lubalin’s contribution was a quieter one, creating layouts on interacial sexual relationships which at the time caused great controversy but which today seem innocent and tender. What Lubalin did is find a space around politics and high-end pornography where he could explore graphic design as a creative endeavor.


Of course, Lubalin was able to seek out clients whose very raison d’etre was about licence and permission: permitting the creative to go and do their thing. For everyone else things start to get a little sticky. The professional model for the graphic designer gets a little messy. You would imagine that Paul Rand’s essay The Politics of Design (1985) would be an extensive diatribe on the way in which design has been corrupted by corporate America. It’s not though. It’s a plea from within the ever expanding corporation to be given direct access to the key decision and not have to cover up the reality of the risk of creativity by having to supply endless different versions. “Expertise in business administration, journalism, accounting, or selling, though necessary in its place, is not expertise in problems dealing with visual appearance,” he fumes.

If we leap forward to the present day, we see that who you work for is still the major ethical issue for a designer but in a less-engaged way. The discourse on how designers make ethical decisions is not about how and who they engage with but whether they engage at all. Jonathan Barnbrook is a designer who worked most famously for David Bowie but also for for clients in the cultural or charity sector. His position is that the corporate world can only have a negative impact on graphic design. “There are people making incremental movements to improve companies but the fundamental message in most corporations is profit and that is the underlying assumption of our society.” We can see the influence of Barnbrook’s approach in the Occupy Times which was a magazine conceived during the Occupy London camp and launched in early 2012. It uses Barnbrook’s Bastard typeface which references early print fonts; running this over FTSE infographics from pages of the Financial Times, gives this idea of reasserting a more primitive, disruptive presence.

Judging by the work presented at graduate shows this year it is clear that this ethical position is important to many young graphic designers who seek to explore the media they work in through disruption. However, it is unclear whether this is to defend graphic design as a media or a profession or whether they are disrupting it on behalf of the public who are increasingly media savvy. Jerry Seinfeld who makes capital of the gap between reality and the advertisements in his stand-up routines also did adverts himself. He was given a lifetime award at the CLIOs, the US-based advertising industry, awards in 2014. In his acceptance speech he said the following: “I just want to enjoy the commercial. I want to get the thing. We know the product is going to stink. We know that. Because we live in the world and everything stinks.”

He is joking of course. But his remarks highlight that the public has more understanding than perhaps they are given credit for and indeed this probably makes the job of the graphic designer even more difficult. Neville Brody, Dean of the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art, thinks that graphic design as a medium or even as a profession no longer really exists. He recognizes logos or branding as an ongoing concern but in a much reduced capacity and acknowledges that books have limited appeal in the way that vinyl records do. He feels however that: “we’re no longer in the days when people come to graphic design to make beautiful graphic design.”


Perhaps this true but in a fragmenting media landscape, it is certainly true that clients are more risk averse and that this is closing off potentially rich channels of development for graphic designers. Brody, who worked on magazines and music packaging in the 1980s, sees social media as having been “entirely colonised by brands in search of false histories” (Barnbrook meanwhile is more optimistic about social media and believes that there is potential in it as a subversive platform; something that he believes to be a prerequisite for good design. Barnbrook says: “The rise of the meme is very interesting. Designers might not like the aesthetic but they are an instant hit: an immediate way of getting across their idea. And they stand outside the existing system.” )

Brody though believes one of the reasons why political material is so attractive to graphic designers is because it offers them an opportunity to be open and expressive. The best designers today, Brody believes, are “conscious of issues reflecting the rest of the world, and aware of their role within that. They initiate information, inspire and create awareness. Their work is lively, fantastic, bold.” But this entire argument is surely questionable. Are designers making political statements simply because they allow a certain degree of creative freedom? Doesn’t that devalue what they are saying? Isn’t design school in danger of becoming a place in which one passes around slogans? If as Brody suggests aesthetics are less important, does it mean we simply judge design work on the quality of its sloganeering?

Even, if as Brody suggests, the care for good quality design is self-referential and nostaligic, perhaps that is what we need to fuel the fire until we have a more benign, less fearful corporate climate. Michele Champagne is a writer, educator and designer who studied in the Netherlands but now works out of Toronto. She’s just set up an adhoc school for typography. “Some people I know have ethical principles, they will work for one company and they won’t work for another. But they have no sense of duty about other designers or the profession. They feel about their relationship with themselves and their clients. They wear blinkers,” she says.

The liberating qualities of political work for graphic designers are only so in comparison to other forms of work. Freedom is the great virtue that graphic designers possess. In other professions such as architecture one can see how ineffectual and technocratic ethical decisions become when they are made by a professional body. The freedom to take a more open-minded attitude to the clients is one of many. In taking a responsibility for their outputs rather those of their clients, designers are then free to make good work as well as political decisions which are not bound by the tendency to sloganeering that graphic design led politics creates.