1.1 What’s the problem?

How do we tackle social

irresponsibility in design?

Social irresponsibility and unethical behaviour exists in the field of visual communication, and appears to be prominently present in a global context. Misrepresentation, disregard for the well-being of society and even deception in visual messages exists at the expense of the consumer. A quick search on Google would uncover numerous examples of design irresponsibility - be it in advertising or graphic design - and for those who would like more proof, books such as Do Good Design (by David Berman), Citizen Designer: Perpectives on Design Responsibility (by Steven Heller and Veronique) Vienne and Design Studies: Theory and Research in Graphic Design by Audrey Benett make for very insightful reads.

A few established designers over the past few decades have taken it upon themselves to solve this monumental issue - in the way of defining a code of ethics for the profession of graphic design, or drafting out ideas of what should be done by designers in general. These have, however, seen varying degrees of success. The First Things First Manifesto by Ken Garland is a good example - while it has succeeded in putting the spotlight on these considerations, it has been criticized for not offering any actionable solutions. Various attempts on defining a code of ethics have also run into certain issues, such as not being properly defined, not easily applicable across different schools of thoughts, or even prove to be too difficult for less successful designers to adhere to in light of the everyday challenges faced from various sources.

In Singapore, there appears to be almost no literary coverage on these issues. Basic research also reveals the troubling fact that many local educational institutes do not formally include discussions on the topics of design responsibility and ethics within their curriculum. In essence, there is as yet little chance for designers to be exposed to these schools of thought, and even if they were to research this topic by their own volition, what they would often encounter are works written by prominent designers in a foreign context.


1.2 What do you propose?

A new way of approaching ethics.

There has to be a new way of approaching ethics for graphic design. As indicated by Lucienne Roberts in her book Good: An Introduction to Ethics in Graphic Design, ethics is a particularly subjective topic to graphic design that is difficult to tackle due to the emotional and creative aspect of the job. This is further complicated by two factors; the first being that compliance to any ethos depends on the personal, professional and religious belief systems that the individual subscribes to, and the second being that adhering to a strong moral code may sometimes come with grave professional consequences.

As such, attempts by established designers at setting down unflinching rules as a code have proven to be ineffective and hard to comply to. There is a need to approach ethics in a manner that is open to subjectivity to a certain extent, is flexible and realistic to follow for designers who are, due to various limitations and constraints, are unable to abide to a strict moral code that are absolute in nature.

In the pursuit of tackling the identified design issue, this research is an in-depth investigation into the causes and impacts of design irresponsibility, the everyday challenges designers face to involve ethics in their practice, and a study on ethics in the context of graphic design so as to develop a code of ethics that is useful, practical, universally acceptable in a local context from an educational point of view.

Successful or not, this research ultimately aims to at least contribute to the ongoing attempts of defining ethics in graphic design and to promote dialogue on the topic of responsibility within local students, professionals and educators in the design field. In the grand scale of things, ignorance is the real enemy here — there is much progress to be made if only designers would discuss and debate upon these issues.


1.3 What questions would you be answering?

Why, what and how.

1. What are the causes behind designers — local or otherwise — overlooking responsibility and ethics in their field from a social, political and financial point of view? The objective of this question is to inform an investigation on the various causes of design irresponsibility from different points of view, and to compare and analyze the state of the global and Singapore industry to understand the depth of this issue in a local context.

2. What are the effects and consequences of a design culture that does not uphold responsibility and ethics? The objective of this question is to examine the full depth of how design irresponsibility and a lack of a universal ethical code has impacted both society and designers, so as to collate data that emphasizes on the significance and urgency of this issue.

3. How can the issue of design irresponsibility and ethics be addressed in an effective, practical and yet universally acceptable in the current design industry from an educational point of view? The objectives of this question are to study the subjective nature of ethics, to understand how to approach ethics and how to do so from an educational point of view so as to be able to record findings in a way that designers and educators would find useful and applicable.


1.4 What kind of research did you conduct?

Literature review, interviews

and focus groups.

1. Literature review. For the purpose of assessing existing points of view on the research problem, literature review of publications such as books, journals and design manifestos on the subject of design ethics will be conducted - so as to understand the perspectives of design responsibility of established designers.

2. Interviews with professional designers and educators. The objective here was to gain a first-hand understanding of the experiences and challenges faced from local designers, and as well as to learn the perspectives of design responsibility from varied social, cultural and financial backgrounds. As such, professionals in both leadership and non-leadership positions would be contacted.

3. Focus Groups with students. The objective here was to understand perspectives of design responsibility from the point of view of students, to learn of their primary concerns with the creative industry and to assess their knowledge and familiarity with the considerations of responsibility and ethics in the context of graphic design.