Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

On Bias, Tolerance — and Taste

Part of my tutorial duties at the Royal College of Art in London includes interviewing graphic designers for acceptance into the Visual Communication program. It’s a hugely enjoyable part of the job. The course attracts bright, original and maverick designers from around the world. As a faculty we look for non-stereotypical creative thinkers. Mould breakers. Individuals with critically-inclined minds.

So when the College authorities announced that everyone tasked with interviewing prospective candidates had to have ‘unconscious bias’ training, I bristled. I’m not biased. How could I be? I’m a modern metropolitan liberal. I’m free from racial, gender and sexual-orientation bias. None of which, of course, means that I’m free from bias in other areas of my life.

The fact that I class my prejudices and preferences as the attributes of a liberal mind doesn’t make me any less biased than the immigrant-hating, misogynistic, anti-gay right-winger. In reality, thanks to our unconscious minds — those vast repositories of foibles, kinks and irrationality — we are all biased: biased in different ways, but biased nonetheless.

And so, after some petulant foot stamping, I attended a half-day course on unconscious bias. I sat in a seminar room with other RCA staff members, many of them at the sharp end of academic research or creative art and design practice. Surely everyone felt like me?  

Our instructor had a regional British accent (think Ozzy Osborne) — it’s an accent that is often the subject of ridicule by comedians, and I detected a bat squeak of British snobbery bubbling up inside me as he spoke. After a moment’s reflection, however, I dismissed my response as contemptible. Later, he mentioned that he had begun his working life as policeman. This time the bat squeak was a hot blast of instant disapproval. But again, after a moment’s thought, I put my bias to one side: ex-cops can be decent human beings too, I told myself.

In fact, without knowing it, I was getting a through-the-microscope view of bias. The unconscious mind responds with Darwinian brutality to anyone not “like us”. It does this at supernova speed, flooding our neural pathways with the quicksilver of disapproval, malice, even hatred. When this happens, most of us can summon up our conscious minds — reaching into the rational, problem-solving parts — to counter such an involuntary outpouring of bias. But it’s not an even contest: the unconscious mind is far larger and crucially acts much faster than our poor, overworked, conscious minds. This makes it easier to give in to the instant neural surge thereby letting our prejudices govern our thinking and actions.

Most of us understand that our first thoughts are not always our best thoughts. We are all capable of mean-spirited, discriminatory thinking, but we're equally capable of dismissing these feelings as Neanderthal and unfit for civilized life. But what made the unconscious bias training session at the RCA so interesting was that our instructor backed up his assertions that bias is omnipresent with hard evidence. He repeatedly cited academic research to justify his claims. He showed how a simple experiment with a job application c.v. had uncovered the most primitive examples of bias. A c.v. with a male name attached was circulated to employers and positive responses were received. When the same c.v. was distributed with a female name, and then again with a Muslim name, the results were largely negative.

I’m glad I swallowed my pride (overcame my bias?) and took this course. It was a small victory for the rational mind. Since doing it, I’ve become more alert to the ecosystem of bias within which I exist. I’ve reduced the time it takes for my rational mind to turn on the stop light and prevent the onrush of reflex thinking.

However, one question has remained unanswered: the question of aesthetic choice. Aesthetics — our design preferences — seem equally hard-wired and reflexive. Yet this is an area where bias is permitted. It’s called taste, and as long as it isn’t accompanied with personal attacks, we're allowed to indulge in this behavior, choosing as we like to exercise our own prerogatives: typefaces, colors, layouts and so forth. On this topic, I can — and will — reserve the right to be aethetically biased. This, it seems to me, is not so much a bias as an inalienable right.

Posted in: Culture

Comments [8]

With all due respect, it's sad that the belief system in the last two sentences of your piece are still being used as a crutch to justify the greater issue of bias and intolerance within our industry.
Ed Roberts

I agree with Ed Roberts. The class bigotry regarding "regional" accents and occupations is also manifested in issues of "good taste." One of the great lessons of graphic design should be that how you say something is much of what's said. Just as the tone used when saying "I love you" can make it soothing, entrancing, exciting, or creepy, typefaces, colors, layouts, and so forth carry with them messages about culture including group/class and acceptance of group/class standards. Every aspect of design, like accents, manners, and dress, carries messages of "I am like you" or "I am not like you."
Gunnar Swanson

When I was in school, I was the president of a sorority as well as a design student. I often found that the greek organizations that I associated with were FAR more open-minded than my design peers and teachers. I had a design teacher tell me that I should quit my part-time job (couldn't, needed to support myself), and quit my sorority (as president, I got free room and board in the house + a social life) if I was ever going to "truly commit myself to design". He was just a sanctimonious elitist, who lived in a very distant ivory tower. I'm pretty sure he would've thought taking out student loans, having no friends, and living in a well designed cardboard box would be a better alternative to my "life-style". But, jokes on him since I got my first design job because of the social and managerial skills I learned while in a sorority. Bias hurt me in the short term, but it hurts our industry in the long term. Imagine if an employer carried that bias (which I am sure some do)? They'd miss out on some pretty damn good designers who also have social skills and can think differently from other designers.
Marissa Groom

Point of clarity. The final two sentences of my post were added by the wise and all-knowing editors of DO. What I actually wrote was: "So I’m not giving up my bias in favor of certain typefaces, colors and layouts for anyone. In aesthetics, I reserve he right to be biased." I did not use the term "inalienable right."
Adrian Shaughnessy

Interesting how that small, apparently innocuous, edit alters the tone of the whole article Adrian. Your original phrasing signs off with a reinforcement of what came through to me as the most powerful and prescient point made in the piece, that bias is not something to be eliminated but rather recognised as an omnipresent and inescapable reality of all situations: “we are all biased: biased in different ways, but biased nonetheless.” The recognition that bias always exists in each unique individual and in all sorts of multiple and complex directions, is a fundamental prerequisite required in order to properly begin to address our design towards those others who are like us and not like us in many different ways. The case of the unfortunate edit from “right to be biased” to “inalienable right” showcases this beautifully. The “right to be biased” suggests a nuance of the right to be different to, and to be in disagreement with, others. The “inalienable right” to be aesthetically biased on the other hand subtly suggests tones of an arrogance and superiority which has been picked up and objected to by those above. Inalienable rights belong to me, they cannot be transferred to another, in fact they preclude relations with the other. No doubt the culturally loaded phrase “inalienable right” packs a bigger emotional punch across the water in the states (can we speculate on the nationality of the particular DO editors in question?). In this tiny edit, your own voice along with the thrust of the article has suffered which is a shame because there’s a really important issue at stake here. For an interesting discussion of the vital importance of this issue of the recognition of aesthetic bias in forming the foundations for tolerance in society, take a look at the work of German philosopher of aesthetics Wolfgang Welsch in his book Undoing Aesthetics. Illustrating this point he writes: “Tolerance without sensibility would be merely an empty principle. Imagine just once a person who has made all of the maxims of tolerance his own perfectly, yet who in everyday life lacks the sensibility even to notice that the intuitions of others are different on principle and not just a matter of some arbitrary lapse, that is, that it’s not a case of deficit, but of cultural difference. Such a person would never be embarrassed by so much as having to make use of his fine maxims of tolerance, but rather would incessantly practise imperialisms and oppressions – but with the clearest of consciences and in the securest beliefs that he’s a tolerant person. Sensibility for differences is thus a real condition for tolerance. – Perhaps we live in a society which talks too much of tolerance but possesses too little sensibility.”
Peter Buwert

Whether and "inalienable right" or a reserved right toward aesthetic bias, I'll happily grant you that. When it comes to bias of taste, be it visual aesthetics or whether I prefer chili to a salad, I should be free to express my personal loves and tastes, and disagree with someone else about the reasons for which I like it while not devaluing them as people. The point is not to avoid bias at all costs, but to not count a bias in a particular area as all-defining. So if I'm biased toward modernism for good reasons, I don't hold those reasons to be of the greatest weight, and I don't think someone who disagrees with me to be a fool in all other matters. In weightier matters, as someone with great respect for you and who leans toward the right, let me call you to not caricature right-leaners as "immigrant-hating, misogynistic, anti-gay[s]." Perhaps that's the Darwinian spirit raising a bit of its own head.
Greg Warner

I don’t believe you really mean what you say about aesthetic choice Adrian, I think it’s just a stage of life thing – and you wouldn’t be interviewing potential students at the RCA if it were true. I contend that your definition of taste has changed from when you were younger. I’ll bet that it was your interest and curiosity for the arts that drew you in – your taste. And it was the development of that faculty as a journeyman, and not aesthetic bias, that got you where you are today. Clement Greenberg said “Taste refines itself; it’s true. It discriminates more as it develops, and yet at the same time, paradoxically, it becomes opener. Open in this way: that you look at Hindu sculpture, say, in the same way, by and large, as you look at contemporary art or the art of the old masters or any other kind of art. And you look, it’s hoped, with the same honesty.”. I’d like to think that our taste is biased toward this adventure, this journey in the visual world, rather than discrimination. It’s what keeps us young.
Miles Newlyn

The first sentence misses 'of' or replace part with partly. Sloppy Giuseppe. I think the piece is upside down too. Before the final 2 paragraphs the piece is just rambling. Take those final paragraphs, instate them as the opener. Being biased leads to sometimes bristling people (can it be used as a verb)... but to help them improve.

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