Winter 2006

Being good

Most avenues take me back to ethics

Lucienne Roberts’s talk ‘Being good’ was given at Eye Forum no. 1, ‘Burning Issues’, that took place at the RSA in London, 23 November 2006.

I have been trying to be a ‘good’ graphic designer for the last twenty years. I’ve realised recently why I have found it so hard – because I don’t know what being good in graphic design terms really means. When I try to unpack the phrase I realise it encompasses many things, but I have found that most avenues take me back to ethics in some way.

Please don’t assume that you are now in for some kind of sermon, or a rant about recycled paper. I understand completely that you might be asking ‘what’s so good about being good anyway?’ or feeling uncomfortable since whenever ‘good’ is mentioned then ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ follow swiftly behind. I don’t have lots of answers so this isn’t about judging or pointing the finger. This is a huge and complex subject so I’m just going to cite a few examples and see where we go from there. But I would add that, although it’s impossible to do anything but allude to it here, I’ve found it very useful to test my ideas against objective attempts by philosophers to explore what we mean by the concept of ‘good’.

For many designers the property of goodness (if there is such a property) lies primarily in aesthetics. When a piece of work is deemed ‘good’, really what we mean is that it is either to our taste or that we think it has merit for expressing the zeitgeist or being ground-breaking in some way. Interestingly, if we consider aesthetics further it relates to ‘goodness’ in a more ethical sense too. Is our work good if it engenders happiness for example – if it adds to someone’s quality of life by making the world a more beautiful (I know that’s a loaded term), delightful or pleasurable place?

From this it’s easy to deduce that goodness lies partly in how our work, both directly and indirectly, affects other people. Philosophers would call this the consequentialist position – looking at goodness in terms of outcome, which for us is partly determined by the kind of work we choose to do and therefore who we choose to work for. I know that we don’t always have the luxury of choice but for now let’s assume that we do.

Graphic design is generally a rhetorical art – its job is to persuade – so do we have a responsibility to be mindful of what we are persuading people to do? We might, for example, argue that creating desires for things that people don’t really want or need is ultimately damaging both to the people concerned and to the environment on which we all rely. We may therefore not want to participate in doing this. Alternatively, we may see constant demand as a prerequisite to a successful capitalist society and argue that this is broadly for the good.

So, is there any justification for acting as an advocate for opinions that are not your own and that you believe to be ‘wrong’ – an extreme example might be designing for the Conservatives if you consider yourself to be left-wing. At first this seems clear cut – it’s obviously a bad idea – but what about looking at this a different way. When I asked the philosopher AC Grayling about this, he pointed out that if I believe in the notion of free speech then I should surely want to encourage the representation of a diversity of views – even if I don’t always agree with them? Is upholding these freedoms not more important than propagating my own world view? Personally, in this case I’d still say ‘no’ but what I’m trying to demonstrate is the complexity of ethical decision-making, particularly when the choice is arguably between two opposing versions of ‘good’ rather than an obvious good or bad.

These are big questions and ones that demonstrate how professional decisions reveal something of our personal ethos, but perhaps for the purposes of this debate it is more useful to narrow down the territory a bit and look at what designers are directly responsible for. The golden rule might be quite helpful here – that’s the ‘do unto others as you would be done by’ rule – an equivalent of which exists in nearly all religious and secular belief structures.

Applying this rule might result in a few more ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’. It might mean we take plagiarism more seriously, argue for more environmentally friendly print techniques or advocate inclusive design, although here too there is a conflict between two ethical positions. Most designers fear that in order to achieve access for all, they will have to adhere to creatively restrictive guidelines, so accessible design could result in exclusion of a different kind: aesthetic refinement. This reminds me of the uphill struggle I have working for some charities and NGOs who advocate a sort of anti-design policy because they associate ‘good’ design with wealth and luxury – thereby denying the many access to visually engaging or stimulating work. Some philosophers would argue that goodness doesn’t lie in the design outcome alone, but that the intention of the designer has some bearing as well – perhaps a way to make me feel better but not an idea that I am completely happy with, I have to say.

OK, so what about being professional, this too is surely an ethical concern. In accepting a commission we agree to do the job to the best of our abilities, on time and within budget. In exchange, we have the right to be paid as agreed and not to be hindered in our job. This seems simple enough but how then do we justify marking-up print and not telling the client, or saying yes to a deadline we know to be unachievable? Easy – because clients think nothing of pulling a job at the last minute, are always late themselves and despite the fundamentally neutral nature of the exchange of money for services, abuse financial power all the time. Oh dear, this professional business isn’t very ‘good’ at all is it? I wonder if this is because at present the market decides all. Free pitching, for example, is to my mind unethical. Had a bomb fallen on the Barbican during the private view of the Communicate exhibition, and wiped out great swathes of the graphic design community, ours would no longer have been a buyer’s market and that would have been the end of free pitching. The market won’t determine best practice, so would some kind of otherwise determined code be useful perhaps?

Despite my earlier promise, I can feel a rant coming on so it’s probably time to stop. So although there’s plenty more to say … for now this is the end.

Eye Forum no. 1, ‘Burning Issues’, RSA, London, 23.11.06

See Lucienne Roberts’s follow up article ‘Being good’ in Eye 63.

Lucienne Roberts, designer, author of Good: An Introduction to Ethics in Graphic Design, London

First published online to coincide with Eye no. 62 vol. 16 2006

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.