4.1 Introduction

Having gained valuable insight from the numerous research methods conducted, this section chronicles my attempts at answering the research questions as defined in the beginning of the paper.

4.2 Answering Question 1:

The Causes of Design Irresponsibility

in a Singaporean Context

To first discuss the causes of design irresponsibility, one must first answer the question of whether or not design irresponsibility is even present in the Singaporean context, and more importantly, what is defined as design irresponsibility. As mentioned in the literature review, this research defines design irresponsibility as either not following a design process that involves research conducted in an ethical manner, or being unable to adhere to the defined code of ethics. What this means is that design irresponsibility is defined based on the behaviours of designers, and not by its effects. For example — while one may argue that compared to other countries, Singapore has very little examples of designers designing for controversial and morally ambiguous products or services, this is not an indicator that designers are therefore responsible. Rather, all it indicates is that there is little opportunity for design irresponsibility to manifest in a negative and substantial manner.

From literature review and the research methods conducted, this research has identified a number of causes of design irresponsibility in a Singaporean context. Generally, these causes are identified as due to a lack of emphasis on design responsibility and the social aspects of design in local institutes, a general culture of apathy and ignorance, and finally the fact that ethics is often approached heightened sensitivity and unwillingness.

The Lack of Emphasis on Design Responsibility and the Social Aspects of Design in Local Institutes

As mentioned in the literature review, educational institutes are an instrumental part of ensuring that a culture where design responsibility is discussed is promoted and enforced. With educational institutes overlooking the topics of design responsibility and ethics, encouraging students to be more conscious on the aesthetic side of design as opposed to its social impacts, as well as to place an overwhelming emphasis on the corporate needs of design in their curriculum, students are being passively trained into viewing themselves as disconnected messengers between their client and target audience. (McKoy 2003) Literature review of course descriptions in local institutes as well as interviews with lecturers further prove that this is a problem that is applicable to a local context. While all lecturers have reported personally discussing ethics in the classroom, the sample size is too little to ascertain if this is reflective of all local educators, and the fact remains that many local institutes do not have formal coverage on these topics.

Ultimately, by being oblivious to social issues, and by extension, considerations for the well-being of society, as well as to not having given the topics of design responsibility and ethics much thought, one cannot possibly be responsible.

General Apathy, Ignorance and Hopelessness

The focus groups conducted by this research have indicated that most students approach ethics with a sense of apathy, ignorance or jadedness. Even before entering the industry, many students have already decided that being responsible is nearly impossible. Such an attitude is no doubt instrumental in students eventually accepting design irresponsibility as a norm when they enter the professional phase of their careers. Furthermore, the existence of contradictions within the participants’ answers, as well as several occasions where students could not provide answers proves that there is a pattern of ignorance and disinterest with the regards of design responsibility and ethics. For most part, students seemed to be more preoccupied with other considerations in life — such as concerns on whether or not they would be professionally successful, and if they can achieve their financial and social aspirations.

Barnbrook (2006) & Twemlow (2006) have indicated that graphic designers may not sometimes take it upon themselves to investigate the full extent of the impacts and consequences that is brought about in the creation of their work. As mentioned under Research Findings, students also seem to be more concerned with the aesthetic aspect of design as opposed to the functional and social aspect of design. Randal & Sterling (2003) have also mentioned that while some designers agree that the recipients of their works are important, they do not necessarily agree that it is crucial to research their target audience and test responses to their work before publishing it. Focus groups conducted with students seem to suggest that these are problems that are present in a local context. These observations will be further explored in answering the second research question on uncovering the effects of design irresponsibility.

The issue of apathy, ignorance and a sense of hopelessness seems to be less prevalent amongst professionals and lecturers, as proven by the quality and depth of the answers provided by most participants. However, due to the many limitations encountered with regards to the integrity of the answers and the participants, this cannot be verified conclusively as indicative of the entire local industry.


Over-sensitivity and Unwillingness

to Discuss Ethics

From the findings gathered while conducting the primary research methods of interviewing professionals and lecturers, this research has come to the conclusion that locally, design ethics is a highly sensitive topic. While approaching participants to interview, many have either declined or expressed reluctance after realizing the nature of this research topic.

Professionals have also ceased communication with the conductor of this research upon understanding the nature of this research. Ultimately, the sensitive nature of design ethics suggests that it is not being discussed. This is no doubt yet another cause of design irresponsibility — without discussion, design ethics loses its much deserved emphasis.

4.3 Answering Question 2:

The Effects of a Lack of Responsibility

in the Design Industry

The effects of a lack of responsibility within the design industry is well-documented in a great deal of literature. Primary research has also provided insight on other possible effects, and ultimately whether or not the effects identified in the literature review is present locally. From literature review and the research methods conducted, this research has identified a number of effects of design irresponsibility in a Singaporean context, ranging from psychological and behavioural impacts to students, to society at large, and a contribution to a skewed perspective on design ethics.

The Psychological and Behavioural Impacts

on Society

As indicated in the literature review, the psychological impacts that irresponsible design and advertising has on society are profound and severe. The fact that design and advertising’s prevalence in our current society is immense (Berman, 2009) and that there has been lives at stake due to irresponsible advertising — with regards to the HIV medication controversy as mentioned (Forlizzi & Lebbon, 2006) — further proves this. Irresponsible design is proven to be capable of deception, invoking insecurity and ultimately behavioural change that may cost the public lives. Roberts (2006), Mayell (2004) & Papanek (1992) also pins partial blame on economic materialism for the environmental and wastage problems that plague society today.

In a local context, the debacle regarding the London Weight Management commercial proves that Singapore is also increasingly being exposed to the effects of irresponsible design — it has been accused of being derogatory, as well as a thinly veiled attempt at playing at women’s insecurities. (Kapoor, 2011) Indeed, it appears that the psychological impacts on society are amongst the most destructive of consequences of design irresponsibility.

The Psychological and Behavioural Impacts on Student Designers

In the process of answering the first research question, this research has covered on how the jaded mentality of student designers would inevitably cause design irresponsibility in future. This is symptomatic of a vicious cycle; student designers have reported witnessing design irresponsibility in the design industry as a reason of their attitude, and when they proceed on to the professional phase of the career with a disregard of responsibility, it is then conceivable that they themselves would ironically inspire the student designers of their generation to be jaded. Yet another possible effect is that having witnessed design irresponsibility, student designers instead opt to pursue extreme paths to avoid being irresponsible, as indicated by some of the findings gained during the focus groups. Ultimately, the psychological impact that design irresponsibility has on design students has is this — it has placed them in a dilemma where they believe they must choose between survival and their morals, and by extension influencing their choices made in their future careers.

One of the goals of this research was to uncover the effects that design irresponsibility has on professional designers. But due to the large number of professional designers who have reported not having encountered ethical dilemmas, there is insufficient evidence to come to a conclusion on this issue. A few interviewees have, however, brought up the possibility that designers might suffer damage towards their sense of morality in the course of being irresponsible.

However, the fact that a majority of designers have reported not encountering any ethical dilemmas over the years is surprising to say the least, especially since a few of them have had over decades of experience. A few have justified the answers by saying that the Singaporean design industry is young, has tight regulations and thus do not attract controversial clients. Singapore design industry being young does appear to be a recurring answer, and it does partially justify the results gained here.

However, an informal poll done with local students suggests that a great deal of them, who are not professional designers, have already begun facing ethical dilemmas in the earlier stages of their career.

A Skewed Perspective on Ethics

This opens up the possibility that perhaps professional designers have had a skewed perspective of ethics — that by having been in the industry and having witnessed design irresponsibility, their perception of ethics has been unknowingly but surely altered to be more tolerant and liberal. But this is merely a possibility as there is not enough evidence to back this claim — it is entirely possible that professionals prefer not to divulge any details on their clients. Perhaps in their point of view, it is the ethical thing to protect one’s clients by refusing to talk about them. This possibility has merit too, as even those who admitted to having encounter ethical dilemmas were adamant in ensuring that the I do not mention these clients’ names. In light of these few options, as well as a lack of evidence, this research cannot conclusively state whether or not professionals have a skewed perspective of ethics — only suggest it.

4.4 Answering Question 3:

The Difficulty of Approaching Ethics from

an Educational Point of View

In light of the many challenges that come with dealing with ethics, how does one approach it in a manner that is practical, effective and universally applicable so that it can be discussed properly in an educational setting? From the literature review and research methods conducted, this research has discovered several insights that may be helpful in answering that question.

Equilateral Ethics

As discussed in literature review, many attempts at defining a code of ethics have not been successful for the simple fact that they do not uphold three tenets; usefulness, practicality and universal applicability.


Usefulness refers to how defined and useful the content within the code is. It must cover most ethical considerations and challenges faced by professionals in the context of the graphic design profession. An example of a useful rule, “I will pursue a design method that is research-oriented. Before taking on a project, I will to the best of my ability access the significance of the project, its intended and potential impact on its target audience, and that assessment will define the amount of research warranted. The information from the research will be reflected against my personally justified ethical code so as to decide if I should participate in the project.” An example of a not so useful rule; “I will be true to myself.”


Feasibility refers to the need to be relevant to designers regardless of their professional success. It must be sensitive to the financial and professional challenges faced by the everyday designer, and offer realistic alternatives in the even that a compromise from the ethical code is demanded. An example of an unfeasible rule, “I will say no to all projects that I deem to be overtly immoral and harmful to society, no matter the cost.” A feasible alternative would be, “Where my financial, professional and personal commitments would allow it, I will say no to all projects that I deem to be overtly immoral and harmful to society. If the any of the aforementioned priorities have left me without a choice, then I will instead devote my efforts, time and finances at a later date to a worthy cause in an attempt to remedy the harm that I have helped cause.”


Universal appeal refers to how an ethical code must be applicable across the major philosophical, religious, personal and professional systems of beliefs. An example of a rule that is not universally applicable, “I will not work for projects that propel beliefs that are contrary to mine,” as approaching that from democratic and utilitarian points of view will yield different answers. Rather, a more apt way to put it is this: “I recognize the need to personally justify an ethical code that will sufficiently address these considerations: Whether or not to work for projects that propel beliefs that are contrary to mine, etc etc.”

In an effort to illustrate how these three core considerations work in tandem, this research has devised a visual representation of a framework called “Equilateral Ethics,” as illustrated on the next pages.

Ideally, an ethical code should be one that excels in all 3 respects, forming an equilateral triangle on the graph — if it is lacking in one, then it cannot be successful.

One can view it this way — that very ethical code starts out with an empty sheet of paper, and full scores to feasibility and universal applicability due to the lack any definitions. Each rule and definition added increases the usefulness, but the challenge is to do so without compromising on the other two aspects.