Brian LaRossa | Opinions

Questioning Graphic Design’s Ethicality

Once a year, my family would drive seven hours for a weeklong glimpse of the sea. My mother’s eyes twinkled as she solved the puzzle of squeezing more than could possibly fit into our weary station wagon. Channeling her father, an engineer, she maneuvered old towels, paper bags, hard-shell coolers, and beach chairs against all odds and with a can-do spirit. This is one of my earliest memories of witnessing the design process in action. Years later, standing before a similarly strained vehicle, stuffed with everything I needed to begin my freshman year at art school, my mother asked me to promise her I would never use what I was about to learn to sell cigarettes. Echoing the tenor of her own training as a nurse, she had me take an impromptu Hippocratic Oath right there in our driveway.
“Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. And I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm…” —translated from the earliest known example of the Hippocratic Oath, circa 275 CE

Graphic designers have long been pledging to “abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm.” The 1964 and 2000 First Things First Manifestos suggest that designers could have a more positive impact on society by working for clients outside of advertising. The 2014 First Things First Manifesto goes further: “Some of us have lent our expertise to initiatives that abuse the law and human rights, defeat critical systems of encryption and privacy, and put lives at risk.” Milton Glaser’s The Road to Hell is a series of increasingly harmful design briefs for designers to reflect on: “Would you design an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?” The Copenhagen Letter advocates for a more humane approach to the design of technology: “We will not tolerate design for addiction, deception, or control.” Mike Monteiro hits the nail on the head in his essay A Designer’s Code of Ethics: “When we knowingly produce work that is intended to harm, we are abdicating our responsibility.” Monteiro goes on to share his definition of a designer’s responsibility: “Should the impact [of the thing you’ve been asked to design] be negative, it is your job to relay that to your client along with a way, if possible, to eliminate the negative impact of the work. If it’s impossible to eliminate the negative impact of the work, it’s your job to stop it from seeing the light of day.” He then prescribes a course of radical actions: combat the client, sabotage the product, quit the job.

All of the declarations referenced so far were admirably drafted, but the surefooted language of codes and manifestos leaves room for the topic of ethicality to be explored instead through inquiry. It’s impossible to eliminate the risk of encountering an unethical professional proposition, but it’s worth asking whether it is possible to reduce the risk. If designers take care during client selection, can they evade the type of intense ethical quagmire that’s only resolvable through radical action? Are particular modes of working within the field of design more conducive to sustaining a long term ethical practice?
“For decades [social psychological] research has robustly shown that people typically value honesty, believe strongly in their own morality, and strive to maintain a positive self-image as moral individuals.”
—Francesca Gino

Everything that follows begins with the assumption that the overwhelming majority of people have no conscious desire to intentionally engage in wrong-doing or cause harm. And yet designers do serve clients and employers who “abuse the law and human rights, defeat critical systems of encryption and privacy, and put lives at risk.” The tension between these two statements raises the questions: Why do designers “knowingly produce work that is intended to harm?” What are the situational and social forces that lead designers to serve harmful clients and employers?

In Richard M. Emerson’s 1962 American Sociological Review article, “Power-Dependence Relations,” he describes an inverse correlation between power and dependence. “[The power of actor A over actor B] will be empirically manifest only if A makes some demand, and only if this demand runs counter to B's desires. . . . The power of A over B is equal to, and based upon, the dependence of B upon A. . . . An unbalanced relation is unstable for it encourages the use of power which in turn sets in motion [the cost reduction process]. . . . In general, cost reduction is a process involving a change in values (personal, social, economic) which reduces the pains incurred in meeting the demands of a powerful other.” For example, actor A could be a client who asks actor B, a designer, to perform a task in support of a service or product that the designer deems unethical—a request that runs counter to the designer’s values. The designer is dependent on the client for income, and possibly status, depending on the client’s perceived prestige. The designer’s dependence bestows the client with the power to exert pressure in the form of the demand. This pressure prompts the aforementioned cost reduction process. Cost reduction is a cognitive mechanism of self-deceptive ethical fading that is simply a part of how the human mind operates. For the designer described above, cost reduction could become manifest as a story told to oneself in order to frame the work as ethically tolerable.

In preparing for this essay, I conducted surveys of design students and interviewed professional designers about their experiences with ethicality. The following anecdote is from a designer who was privileged to have a low level of client dependency at the outset of their career:

“During my first year of looking for a job, I found several opportunities in places that compromised my role as a designer: tobacco companies, ad agencies that objectified women, in-house positions to promote services in a deceiving or confusing way. I was lucky enough to be supported financially by my family so that I was able to turn these jobs down.”

Compare this to a designer whose level of client dependency was high:

“When I was offered a job, I had to take it. It was a good job rather than a dream job, but I felt they hid the fact that they occasionally worked on cigarette brands during the process of hiring me. I later realized that many studios who had offered me internships or interviews also worked in that industry, some almost relying on it to survive financially. Few include this work on their websites of course. When I was asked if I would work on tobacco projects it was very early in my career. Although it was put to me that I could say no, and that other designers had, I felt pressure to say yes, despite knowing for certain I didn't want to do the work.”

It’s important to acknowledge that, as a result of being more dependent on their clients, economically challenged designers experience more pressure to perform unethical work than do their more affluent counterparts. To be clear, this does not mean that economically challenged designers succumb to that pressure more often; it only means they are forced to endure more pressure. It’s also worth mentioning again that designers may primarily depend on their clients for prestige, a social currency that has value irrespective of a designer’s own economic status. Any level of pressure from any brand of client dependency has the potential to spark the cost reduction process.

In their 2004 Social Justice Research article, “Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior,” Ann E. Tenbrunsel and David M. Messick describe the cost reduction process in more detail. “Self-deception helps to disguise violations of our ethical principles. If we do not see that our actions are unethical, then we can behave in a self-interested but ultimately unethical manner. In other words, we don’t code the decision as an ethical one; rather, we see it as ethically colorless. The decision is categorized in other terms, perhaps as a business, economic, personal, or legal decision. Such categorization in turn allows behavior that others would judge as unethical.”

Biological, social, and situational forces must be considered in any approach to promoting ethicality. Tenbrunsel and Messick also address this: “Traditional ethical fixes focus on the more visible formal systems (codes of conduct), which while important, are relatively weak in comparison to the more hidden, and more difficult to correct, informal systems and accompanying organizational climates. Codes of conduct have in some cases produced no discernible difference in behavior. Efforts designed to reduce unethical behavior are therefore best directed on the sequence leading up to the unethical action.” From here the primary question appears to be: How can designers become less dependent on their employers, so that they may create more optimal conditions for sustaining ethical careers?

If you’re a designer, your first thought upon reading that question may have been “freelance.” A popularly held belief in the design community is that “freelance” is synonymous with “freedom” while “in-house” is synonymous with “security.” But, after clocking countless hours in both modes of working, I wouldn’t use the words “free” or “secure” to describe either one of them.

Freelance designers typically serve clients under one-time contracts. Having served a client in the past doesn’t guarantee that the client will hire you in the future. This financial uncertainty in fact makes freelance designers more dependent on their clients. Working in-house does expose you to the risk of being laid-off, but wrongful termination laws and unemployment benefits reduce the financial uncertainty. Freelancers, on the other hand, have no choice but to hedge against the risk of losing clients by servicing a large and diverse roster. A more specific way to describe the difference between freelance and in-house is that freelance is a multi-client enterprise while in-house is a single-client enterprise. Using this distinction, freelancers and design studios both fall into the same multi-client category. Like a freelancer, a design studio also needs to hedge against the risk of losing clients by servicing a large and diverse roster of them.

It’s also important to aknowledge that a client’s level of harm fluctuates over time, that some clients cause more harm than others, and that a client’s harm can vary between being “easy to evaluate” and “difficult to evaluate” (e.g., cigarettes versus algorithms). Assessing the ethicality of a particular client in this leveled landscape of cloaked and changing harm is not a straightforward business.

Still, we all have a sense of our own personal boundaries; we know when something feels wrong. An ethical design practice begins with earnestly assessing the ethicality of potential clients. Add power-dependence relations and self-deceptive ethical fading to the already complex equation and suddenly these client assessments become a high stakes game. It makes sense to simplify the assessment process whenever possible. One way to simplify the process is to serve fewer clients. Because we've established that serving a short list of clients isn't a financially viable option for a multi-client enterprise, working in-house for a single client that you've deemed ethically acceptable then appears to be a more efficient and effective option for sustaining an ethical design career.
“Design is a morally neutral idea. It’s whatever you do with it that can be good, bad, or somewhere in between. We're in an interesting moment right now because of the way people are starting to talk about social media. Suddenly the same things that were being applauded five years ago are now being booed.”
Rob Walker

What if you deem an employer to be ethically acceptable and then the strategy and/or scale of the business shifts in such a way that the company's activities suddenly run counter to your values? Isn’t it less disruptive to end a relationship with a single client in a multi-client enterprise than to quit an in-house position? Yes, ending a relationship with a single client is less disruptive, especially when you’ve been serving them via a string of one-time contracts. But when you consider a roster of clients as a whole with perpetually fluctuating ethical positions, the complexities of managing your relationship to the roster can become disruptive. The comparison isn’t leaving one client versus leaving one employer, it’s managing your ethical relationship with a roster of clients versus managing your ethical relationship with a single employer.

If we accept that working for a single employer may be a more efficient and effective way to sustain an ethical career, the question then becomes: Why are multi-client modes of operation so common in the design industry? What drives individual designers to seek work with/as multi-client enterprises?
“I don't recall my professors or peers being biased either way, but generally, studio, agency, and freelance work was seen as more competitive and glamorous.” —Jessica Barness

Design students, teachers, and professionals do not typically group design job-types using multi-client and single-client categories. In conversation, most designers will talk about how teachers, mentors, or heroes steered them towards studio work over freelance work. Some might draw a more granular, semantic distinction between studios and agencies. That said, on the whole, multi-client work is generally celebrated by design schools and professional communities as being the ideal mode of operation. In an open Twitter survey that I conducted, 71 percent of 137 respondents said there was a bias during their design schooling among their professors and peers towards promoting freelance and studio work over in-house work. In an open Google survey that I led, titled “Starting Your Design Career” (SYDC), 77 percent of respondents (74 students in their senior year at U.S. design schools) said they hoped to work as a freelancer or at a studio in their first year after school. When asked about their ideal job-type 15 years into their career, that number remained roughly the same.

Another driver is financial pressure. If you are a recent graduate, it can feel like your career might not begin—and honestly, it might not. I know more than a few would-be and former designers. Even if your career begins, there’s no guarantee that it will continue. Clients can disappear, methods can change, companies can downsize, and competition can escalate. Desperation is the background radiation of graphic design—a field that’s framed as the safe path through art school. Only 18 percent of the 74 SYDC respondents said they were unconcerned about finding a design job after school; 48 percent said they were very concerned; and 94 percent said they would broaden their search beyond their ideal job-type or even begin to apply to jobs outside the field of design if they still hadn’t secured employment 12 months after graduating.

But even after you’ve gotten a foothold in the industry, financial concerns continue to motivate career choices. Of the 74 SYDC respondents, 91 percent said that earning potential mattered to them in deciding between job-types. The American Institute of Graphic Art’s 2014 Survey of 8,795 self-reported design salaries showed that at companies with 10 to 99 employees, studio designers earn 4 percent more than their in-house counterparts. In companies with 100 to 999 employees, the multi-client/single-client pay disparity jumps to 18 percent, then dips only slightly to 16 percent in companies with more than 1000 employees.
“It was this sort of blurred-line-culture that kept me as a permalancer there for two years, holding onto the idea that someday I’d be full-time, too. I did all the same work as full-time designers, but I couldn’t receive credit for my work, I couldn’t grow. Over time, I was told that if I did X, Y, and Z, I’d be full-time. So I did X, Y, Z, as well as 1, 2, and 3. I worked hard to become staff. It never happened, because of other issues of discrimination this particular place has. I resigned myself to being a permalancer until I couldn’t do it anymore.” —Tori Hinn

In the design industry there are concrete cultural and financial incentives to work for multi-client enterprises. But, let’s say, despite those incentives, you prefer to work in-house for a single employer—maybe you even have a sense that working in-house for the right employer might be an effective way to sustain an ethical design career. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple and will only become less so. The opportunities to work in-house as a salaried employee are projected to dwindle as we progress into the 21st century. If current trends continue, by 2027 the majority of the workforce in the United States will be freelancers and/or permalancers—permalancers being freelancers who sit in-house for extended periods via temp agency contracts.

It seems the deck is stacked against single-client modes of working, and may be stacked against sustainable ethicality as a result. The culture of graphic design is not currently structured to prioritize and promote ethical conduct. To be fair, many of the systemic challenges to sustaining an ethical design practice belong to the global economy. Some of these challenges can be solved by designers alone. Many, however, require the same brand of deep cross-discipline collaboration that designers are especially adept at. Either way, if it becomes our collective intention, we do have the tools to change our culture. But our deep experience and expertise in crafting culture means that we also know how slow cultural change can be. In the meantime, sustaining an ethical design career means carefully assessing the ethicality of our clients, both before and after we begin serving them.

I shared the first paragraph of this essay with my mother, and asked her if she remembered me taking the oath in our driveway. We also discussed her experiences with ethicality as a nurse. She talked about oaths, codes, licensing, and ethics boards. She pointed out that self-reflection plays a less central role in discerning ethical boundaries in medicine because the boundaries are well defined and reinforced by the profession at an institutional level. This lessens the burden of conviction for individual practitioners. Cross certain lines, engage in wrongdoing and harm, and you will be fired—possibly imprisoned. These outcomes are mandated by law. The medical profession’s ethical guidelines and the institutions that uphold them are noble, but they’re also reactive—defenses assembled to protect against legal threats and financial consequences.

Conversely, graphic design has an extraordinarily low level of liability. This means that concerns about ethicality in the field have been proactive rather than reactive. Those designers who have made ethical conduct a priority have done so via their own personal resolve and conviction, rather than in response to the fear of retribution. That brand courage, self-respect, and personal responsibility is something designers can be proud of.

The research for this essay could not have been conducted without the generous help of the following people: Jessica Barness, Juliette Cezzar, Rachel Beth Egenhoefer, Mitch Goldstein, Tori Hinn, Brockett Horne, Theo Inglis, Maureen LaRossa, Ralph LaRossa, Mosi Secret, Benjamin Shaykin, Alfredo Sherman, Paul Soulellis, Jason Tselentis, and all the designers who took the time to respond to the surveys that were mentioned.

The First Things First Manifesto, 1964. Link (retrieved 4/17/18).
The First Things First Manifesto, 2000. Link (retrieved 4/17/18).
The First Things First Manifesto, 2014. Link (retrieved 4/17/18).
Glaser, Milton. The Road to Hell, approx. 2010. Link (retrieved 4/17/18)
The Copenhagen Letter, 2017. Link (retrieved 4/17/18).
Monteiro, Mike. A Designer’s Code of Ethics, 2017. Link (retrieved 4/17/18).
Gino, Francesca. Understanding ordinary unethical behavior: why people who value morality act immorally, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 2015. Link (retrieved 4/17/18).
Emerson, Richard M. Power-Dependence Relations, American Sociological Review, 1962. Link (retrieved 4/17/18).
Tenbrunsel, Ann and Messick, David. Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior, Social Justice Research, 2004. Link (retrieved 4/17/18).
LaRossa, Brian. Starting Your Design Career Survey, 2018. Link (retrieved 4/17/18)

Posted in: Design Practice, Theory + Criticism

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