2.3 Issue 2

The Effects of a Lack of Responsibility

in the Design Industry

Graphic design is a prevalent aspect in today’s society. (Roberts, 2006, & Berman, 2009) In the near infinite sea of things that graphic design has improved, affected and harmed, this research is mostly concerned with the psychological effects on both the society and graphic designers themselves, as well as its contribution to consumerism.

Graphic design is an incredibly powerful tool for communication, which has the potential of inspiring behavioral change in the target audience. (Forlizzi, 2006) As with all devices that have the potential of bringing about change in society, responsibility becomes a crucial part of the wielder of the said device. (Berman, 2009) Unfortunately, the lack of responsibility in the graphic design industry has brought about profound ramifications on society, with some of the more prominent ones being psychological in nature. To quote Berman (2009), ‘Designers are at the core of the most efficient, most destructive patterns of deception in human history.’


The Psychological Impacts on Society

To what extent can graphic design and advertising psychologically affect society? To answer that question, let us consider two statements made by Berman (2009).

“The average American encounters over 3,000 promotional visual messages each day (up from 560 in 1971).”

“The age at which children recognize that advertising is not always truthful is around eight.”

Just as how responsible graphic design can improve lives, be it through socially aware advertisements that inform about the dangers of certain habits and thus inspiring behavioural change, or through commercial messages that advertises services and products that genuinely improve the consumer’s quality of life, irresponsible design can cause psychological changes that have catastrophic consequences. Consider this example: The US Food and Drug Association (FDA) allowed drug companies to directly market to consumers in the 1997. (Forlizzi & Lebbon, 2006) Messages were crafted to give the illusion of miracle cures for HIV and AIDs where there were none. The misconceptions caused by these advertisements led to gay men being more careless with practicing safe sex, simply because they were under impression that a quick cure had been invented. In other words, lives have been endangered as a result of irresponsible visual communication.

Berman (2009) is of the strong opinion that irresponsible design and advertising has profound negative impacts on society. Of his numerous examples, there are two that are of a psychological nature. The first is the unintended but equally harmful consequence of irresponsible advertising is its ability to cause inferiority within its viewers. Berman (2009) mentions an incident where he spoke to a group of design students from Jordan, who reported a sense of inferiority due to the excessive amount of advertisements around the country showcasing foreign models that symbolized beauty and success. The second example is a more contemporary one, and is intimately related to the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis in the late 2000s. Berman (2009) attributes the trend of Americans taking multiple mortgages partially to well-crafted viral advertisements campaigns by credit companies.

Singapore is not immune to the consequences of irresponsible design as well. The following is a recent commercial by London Weight Management (Link:, an organization that provides slimming services, has been met with negative critical reaction. (Kapoor, 2011)

To quote Kapoor (2011):

“It is not only the worst reflection of your business ethos and morals, whether you intended this or not, but it serves to reflect how you view women and overweight women: unworthy, unloved, unsupported, and deserving of any and all abuse as a result.”


Accusations of insensitivity and exploitation were not the only consequences of this commercial — the company who may not have been entirely responsible in the direction of the advertisement, in this case London Weight Management, has as a result suffered from a tarnished reputation. Irresponsible advertising that fails to modify the behaviours of the astute tend to garner cynicism over the company in question, as well as over the profession of graphic design and advertising instead. This guarded mentality is detrimental to the public view of the visual communication sector, and makes it increasingly difficult for future designers to communicate to their target audiences.

The long running relationship between society and graphic design is symbiotic and incredibly complex. It is the belief of the research that the examples provided merely scratch the surface of how graphic design and advertising interacts with society.

The Creation of Consumer Desire

The relationship between graphic design, advertising and consumerism is one that is complex, symbiotic and intimate. Consumerism forms the backbone of a successful capitalist economy, and thus goes on to define a large portion of the commercial sector of graphic design. In turn, efforts are made to utilize various forms of media, advertising included, to advance a consumerist mentality within society, be it in a responsible or irresponsible way. Just as graphic design is everywhere, consumerism is equally pervasive and instrumental in the economic structure of the most developed nations in the world today. (Garland, 1999 & Whiteley, 1993)

This research is not anti-consumerist. At its core, consumerism can briefly be described as a system where the interests and choices of consumers determines the form and direction of a society’s economic structure. (Oxford Online Dictionaries, 2010) To reject such a system would also be a rejection of free choice, and more importantly, to advocate an economic system that calls for an individual, or group of individuals, to decide over the choices and opinions over another individual. Consumerism is neither good or evil, and is similar to how design is innately neutral outside of its content. This research is concerned with the irresponsible behaviours inspired by the existence and prevalence of consumerism.

It is then an ironic thing that some of these issues listed here are not reflective and symptomatic of the consumerist system of values, but rather, due to a perversion of it. In the spectrum of emotions that advertisers wish to inspire within their target audiences, one consistently stands out the most: desire. There are already countless methods on inspiring desire, and yet till this day, the industry is abuzz with experts trying to uncover more. Having established that irresponsible behaviour towards graphic design and advertising can result in psychological repercussions within society, there would no doubt also be consequences from generating desire in an carelessly managed manner. Roberts (2006), Mayell (2004) & Papanek (1992) pins partial blame on economic materialism for the environmental and wastage problems that plague society today.

Beyond the usual accusations of supporting materialistic behaviour, an alternate yet visible consequence can be seen in the recent 2011 England Riots. Shaughnessy (2011) identifies that many targets of the riots have been retail brands that are prominent in England’s commercial background. Shaughnessy (2011) believes that the culture of creating insatiable and unmet consumer desire of popular brands through the use of media has inadvertently been responsible for the angst suffered by the rioters. By extension, designers are also involved by playing their roles of communicators. This is an apt example of how the consumerist structure is being distorted — instead of consumers dictating the state of the economy, corporations have in turn taken upon themselves to impose desires upon consumers in an attempt to construct a system where those who can satiate their desires can continue to do so, and yet those who cannot will be driven mad.

Graphic design’s potential at psychological influence, combined with the greed-inspired need to create desire, can lead to catastrophic consequences in consumerist economy. It is no wonder that many have questioned and criticized the structure of a consumerist-based economy. (Garland, 1999 & Whiteley, 1993) And yet, the benefits of consumerism is undeniable. Although still in its infancy, increased environmental and social awareness amongst consumers have led to corporations to pursue socially responsible marketing. (Schwartz, 2003) The bigger, more difficult question that is often posed is whether there exists a structural flaw with consumerism in relation to the current state of society. To assist in answering this questions, perhaps efforts should first be made to fix the systemic problems of how a consumerist economy should be approached. Designers can do their part in this respect by assuming ethical and responsible behaviour when they are handling the desires of their consumers.


2.4 Issue 3

The Difficulty of Defining Ethics from an Educational Point of View

Ethics is truly a difficult topic to approach. Great minds across history have approached the subject of ethics, and as such, there is a wealth of information and differing opinions. In the field of graphic design, ethics is still in its infancy, and a universally acceptable ethical code has yet to be defined. (Keedy, 2003, Roberts, 2006 & Nini, 2004) The creative, and thereby emotional and involving nature of graphic design has prevented a stringent code of ethics to be developed, such as those that are predominantly seen in professions pertaining to medicine and law. (Delyth, 2006) As with approaching any topic fraught with subjectivity in the classroom, the last factor that further compounds to the difficulty of defining ethics in graphic design are the issues of sensitivity and impartiality from an educational point of view.

In light of these problems, there is a need to further develop ethics in graphic design and to address the challenges that educators face in the classroom. Previous attempts to define a code of ethics by established designers have been criticized for being idealistic and unrealistic for the rest of the industry to adhere to. (Keedy, 2003, Michl, 2006 & Garland et al., 1999) Having a code of ethics will be useful to the profession of graphic design on the whole — just as how a patient can trust his doctor to keep his details confidential, a client will then know what to expect when he approaches a designer.

Approaching the Subjective Nature of Ethics

in the Context of Education

Within ethics, there are many schools of thoughts to consider. Both the Kantian view, which is briefly described to be an objective perspective relative to a defined universal law, as well as the Aristotelian view, which is briefly described to be a subjective perspective that places the virtues and values of the individuals first, are amongst the more popular of approaches in design ethics. (Anjou, 2010) But in the view of this research, a Kantian approach to ethics in graphic design is unfeasible and not likely to be practical. A fixed ethical code would fit poorly within a society that is complex and ever-evolving. (Anthony, 2006 & Roberts, 2006) Personal views and convictions must undeniably be factored in the discussion of ethics within a creative, emotional and involving discipline such as graphic design. This poses the ironic problem of ethics in the context of graphic design — there are many problems symptomatic to the lack of a universal ethical code, and yet, ethics cannot be subjected to the traditional approach of creating a rigid absolute code in a discipline such as graphic design.

Beyond philosophical schools of thought, other considerations also include political, religious and cultural beliefs that play a part to define an individual’s ethos. To stress on the need to respect the differences between belief systems and practices in the pursuit of defining an ethical code is to subscribe to the school of thought termed as ‘Ethics of Difference.’ (Roberts, 2006)

How do belief systems affect the ethical choices made in graphic design? An example would be to compare the democratic and utilitarian philosophies. The democratic point of view values freedom of choice and expression, and stresses that all views have the right to be represented. As such, a designer who is faced with a project he is personally against would still choose to work on the said project, as he believes that while he does not agree with the views of the clients, it is a basic right for each and every view to be represented. (Roberts, 2006) In that sense, the designer is still answerable to his personally justified code of ethics. On the other hand, when a utilitarian designer is faced with a project that is against his views, he may choose to reject it on the basis that any views contrary to his are counter-utilitarian, and thus working on the project would be an affront to his ethical code.

In the context of education, these considerations are especially crippling when educators are demanded to be impartial and sensitive to what they teach. The topic of ethics also runs the risk of fitting awkwardly in curriculum that emphasizes on commercial design, a trend that is predominantly present in today’s context. (McCoy, 2003) Perhaps the solution here is not approach the discussion of ethics as an educator in medicine or law would do so, but to start out by admitting the complex nature of ethics in graphic design is highly prone to subjectivity, more so than other professions. (Delyth, 2006 & Roberts, 2006) One can, however, argue against the effectiveness of such an approach, claiming it to be unhelpful and even confusing. Ultimately, what is clear is this — there is an urgent need for the identification and creation of a useful method of addressing ethics in the context of education. (McKoy, 2003)


Previous Attempts at Defining Ethics and their Practicality in Singapore’s Design Industry

The lack of a proper ethical code and prevalence of design irresponsibility is recognized by many established designers. As such, there have been many attempts at defining a code of ethics, or at least a set of ethical guidelines. When taking into considerations the challenges that designers normally face, as well as the subjectivity of ethics, how do these attempts hold up in terms of feasibility and usefulness? And more importantly, can they be applied to a Singaporean context?

Let us first consider the First Things First manifesto (Link:, first written by Ken Garland and then later edited in 1999.

In short, the manifesto is a call for a reversal of priorities within society so that instead of serving commerce, design can be utilized in ways that are useful to society. In essence, it is called ‘First Things First’ is because it is a call to put forth the first and most important things in society, from the writer and the signatories’ point of view, in the forefront of the design profession.

While not explicitly directed at ethics and responsibility in graphic design, it has severe ethical implications: to call for a reversal of priorities is to call for an entirely different way for designers to approach ethics. For one, it appears that the manifesto takes a very objective view on the importance of certain things such as commercial products and luxury goods, claiming them to be ‘inessential at best.’ Whereas the more important things include social, cultural and environmental causes, as well as things such as books, magazines, exhibitions, televisions and so on.

Many schools of thought would agree to the importance of social, cultural and environmental causes, but the controversy comes in when commercial products are put along side books, magazines, exhibitions and other seemingly important things from a designer’s point of view. (Michl, 2006) It can be argued that amongst the many useless products that society generates, there are those that go on to make a phenomenal impact of enabling and improving lives. The views expressed on what is and what is not important are simply too objective and too fixated on the views of a designer’s perspective — to apply such a mindset to a designer, and by extension, to his code of ethics, is too absolute, closed and unfeasible in light of the many differing belief systems that even designers themselves subscribe to. Ultimately, it is a view that only values the important things of one’s profession and to exclude all others. (Michl, 2006) This mindset will be counter-productive in the context of a complex society that holds many different systems of beliefs and priorities. A view as absolute as this may even be considered unethical from the point of view of a democratically inclined designer.

The problem of practicality is further compounded by the prevalence of consumerism and capitalism in most economic structures. The call for a reversal of priorities within society by Garland et al. (1999) suggests that the realization of a society without emphasis on commerce would require the overturning of consumerism and capitalism. What then, would be the alternative? Firstly, this view is of a blatant rejection of the priorities and values of those in the business sector. This is not to say that designers have to agree with their views, but it is definitely ethical to respect a different point of view as long as it has been ethically justified as well. (Roberts, 2006)

The very nature of objectivity and refusal to at least consider the current states in society makes this manifesto extremely hard to adhere to. Many of these arguments are applicable within the capitalist and free economy of Singapore (Singapore Economy, 2011), and thus this manifesto will be difficult to follow in a local context.

Let us consider another example. A manifesto by Dieter Rams, entitled Ten Principles of Good Design (Link:, takes a different approach to defining ethics. Here, the state of the creative industry and society is disregarded — instead, the author has tried to limit the subject to the discipline of design, and what constitutes to as good design in his opinion.

There are different points made, but no rules. Only suggestions are offered, with elaborations on its implications. The suggestions attempt to relate ethical practices from moral, social and professional perspectives to what is generally accepted to be “good design.” In that sense, it is subtly saying this: to be a good designer, one must also be an ethical one.

Such an attempt at defining ethics is commendable, for it emphasizes the link between ethics and good design. However, it is the view of this research that the usefulness of this manifesto is limited due to two factors — its inherent idealism, and its execution as a set of insufficiently defined guidelines. Idealistic values are espoused without considerations of what is the ethical course of action in light situations that compromise on the values of the manifesto, thus limiting its feasibility. Its existence as a set of guidelines makes for a useful reference for a designer who is looking to define his code of ethics, but it is not strong enough to stand up on its own.

Finally, let us then consider the Code of Conduct (Link: drafted by the Charted Society of Designers.

It is truly an informative piece for the designer who wishes to understand how to conduct himself in a proper manner as a designer. But while the document has since been updated, Whiteley’s (1993) observation that the code of conduct hardly mentions much beyond professional conduct still holds true to a certain extent. Where it does make mention of responsibility and ethics, this document suffers a peculiar problem of being ambiguous despite set out in a format that demands conformity and rigidity. Lines such as ‘Members shall conduct their business competently and act at all times with integrity and honesty.’ (Chartered Society of Designers, n.d.) fail to be of much use to designers. Integrity and honesty are familiar and obvious concepts, thus it will be the intricacies within those considerations that ethical designers would be concerned about. It is thus difficult to judge whether or not this code of conduct is feasible as its ethical considerations are still superficial at best. But at least, it is definitely a good starting point for designers looking to conduct themselves professionally. Perhaps the underlying references to ethics in the document will eventually lead its readers to consider their role and responsibilities from an ethical point of view.

Assessing these examples have led to the realization that most attempts at defining ethics thus far have been either too absolute to be feasible, or too suggestive to be useful. In a country that has deeply rooted values based on a diversity of ethnic groups and views, ethics in design cannot be approached in a manner that is unflinching. The Code of Conduct (Chartered Society of Designers, n.d.) seems to be the closest to being useful and practical in a Singaporean context, but its lack of ethical definitions leaves more to be desired. More insight will have to be gained through the identified research methods before coming to a acceptable conclusion on this issue.


A Useful and Practical Way of Defining Ethics in a Universally Acceptable Manner

In view of all the mentioned issues, it appears that the the pursuit of defining a universal code of ethics in graphic design boils down to three primary concerns. The first is that the code of ethics must being useful in that it covers all ethical considerations relevant to the profession and discipline of graphic design, as well as its intricacies. (Roberts, 2006) The second concern is that it must be practical, in that it does not just appeal to established designers, but to the everyday designer as well. To be practical, the code of ethics will be sensitive to the financial and professional challenges designers normally face, and would also have to provide alternatives when compromise is demanded. (Bush, 2003 & Levrant, 2006) Finally, the code of ethics must to a large degree be universally acceptable. It must fit in the present state of society (Wolfe, 2003) and be flexible enough to be applicable to most religious, political, cultural and philosophical schools of thought. (Grayling, 2003 & Roberts, 2006) This last aspect has severe implications on the other aspects and is truly the most difficult one to uphold, for it is near impossible for this research to study and scrutinize every existent school of thought. To reiterate, the aim of this research is thus not to conclusively define a code of ethics, but to contribute to the numerous ongoing attempts of doing so.

Let us first consider the issue of usefulness. Diversity in beliefs must be respected, as such, ‘Ethics of Difference’ is a crucial factor to observe to ensure universal appeal (Roberts, 2006). This subjectivity is no doubt problematic to any attempts at putting down objective rules. But despite this, there exists several points that seem to be universally pervasive in almost all belief systems. Roberts (2006) offers her perspective of using ‘The Golden Rule’ as a starting point. The Golden Rule is a principle that is embraced by almost all religions and secular ethical philosophies; that we should strive to treat others as we would wish to be treated in the same situation. Such a basic and universally acceptable concept should be amongst the fundamentals of any ethical code. (Berman, 2003) It is an apt example of a rule that is both objective in practice and yet subjective in its coverage, for it depends on the designer’s reflection of how he would like to be treated. A useful code of ethics can then elaborate on this rule, contextualizing it to the profession of graphic design. For example, when considering a project where the designer is tasked to design advertisements that deceive the target audience about a product, the designer can reflect inwards on whether he would in turn like to be treated that way. Assuming the absence of other factors, this particular code can help in guiding the designer’s decision.

Another apt rule is mentioned by Madsen (2005). To be ethical, one must consider the ends, means and constraints of any project and apply due importance to them. For example, one way to emphasize on the ends is to measure and recognize the importance of the project, and by extension, the level of research it warrants. As such, the means in this case refers to being ethical in the course of conducting research. And finally, the constraints refer to the manner in which one should conduct himself under different circumstances in an ethical manner. This rule is more objective in nature as it is deeply rooted in the profession of graphic design. One’s religion and philosophy hardly matters in this case — very few designers would argue against the importance of research when a project has the potential to affect change in the world. (Twemlow, 2006)

To be practical, a code of ethics must go beyond just espousing rules and leaving no mention of what can be done when it cannot be upheld. So what can a designer do when he is put in a situation that compromises that rule? The code of ethics can offer that he in turn devote time, effort or finances later on to compensate for the breach. For example, if a designer is forced to work on a tobacco campaign under the threat of professional termination and thus would have no choice but to breach the ‘Golden Rule,’ (Roberts, 2006) he can later work on campaigns aimed at raising awareness for lung cancer out at his own expense. It is not the ideal conclusion, but a useful compromise is at the very least offered on the part of the ethical code. (Barnbrook, 2011) The designer is still able to adhere to the ethical code to an extent and his conscience is constructively and carefully handled.

Ethical definitions are often written in a manner that tries to make the designer aware of the responsibilities and laws he should uphold. (Chartered Society of Designers, n.d., Roberts, 2006, & McKoy, 2003) But beyond informing what responsibilities the designer should assume, a practical approach would demand that designers be informed of the responsibilities they should not assume. To illustrate an example, let us consider some of the advertisements in the past.


When scrutinized, these vintage advertisements exhibit many traits that would be considered objectionable or downright unethical in our modern context. But are the designers behind these advertisements, who may have existed in an era of ignorance, responsible for the harm they have caused? Roberts (2006) believes otherwise, for responsibility is borne out of the ability to choose. Designers, or anyone for that matter, should not blame themselves for things that are outside of their control. It is the awareness of our actions that we possess as human beings that differentiates us from other creatures. This example does stress on a few other things, however: the importance of understanding the content that we deal with in commercial design, being generally well-informed, and seeking other avenues of information apart from our clients and their brief.

The final concern is to ensure universal applicability. With so many points of view to consider, perhaps it is a more logical and politically correct approach to accept that no inherent code of ethics can be truly complete without input by each individual. Finding common ideals shared by the majority of belief systems can only go so far. (Roberts, 2006) An example of a limitation faced by a universal code of ethics is that it cannot define what designers should do when confronted with a project that is contrary to their personal beliefs. As previously mentioned, the course of action will vary if, for example, the person subscribes to a either a democratic or utilitarian point of view. In terms of execution, the overall implication is that the universally acceptable ethical code must be presented in an incomplete format, with the blanks left for the designer to define through self-justification and self-rationalization. An ethical code must first concede to the personal belief systems of the user, only then it may be universally acceptable and reliable. But as previously mentioned, this is with limitations — It does not extend to behaviour or views that are generally agreed upon to be overtly unethical or immoral.

The quest for a conclusive code of ethics is one that is fraught with countless limitations and constraints. How then, would we know when an apt code of ethics for the profession of graphic design has been successfully created? As Roberts (2006) puts it, the Aristotelian point of view is that happiness is the primary driving factor in the decisions that people make. To create a successful code of ethics is to create a device that assists designers in their choices as they seek balance between their social responsibilities, personal desires and professional fulfillment. (Basett & Lynne, 2006)

2.5 Gaps in the Literature

The literature review has been very informative on the subject of responsibility and ethics contextualized to the discipline of graphic design. It has provided an intimate understanding on the perspectives of established designers and academics, as well as case studies to support their claims.

However, several gaps within the literature have been identified and are as follows:


1. The lack of a Singaporean context. All of the literature regarding responsibility and ethics in design are written by foreign writers for a foreign context. As such, it is imperative to discover contextualized information from local students, professionals and lecturers.

2. The psychological effects of design irresponsibility on designers. The literature assessed mostly addresses the psychological impacts on society, but not on designers. This is important to address in order to conclusively assess the depth of the identified research problem.

3. The perspectives of the everyday designer. Most of the literature assessed are written through the point of views of either established designers or academics. It is thus imperative to discover the perspectives of less successful designers, to understand financial and professional challenges that may elude established professionals.