2.1 What are the areas you've looked into?

This chapter has been structured into four sections, with the first three sections with key issues that corresponds to the scope defined by the research questions and a final section that examines the gaps within the literature. The three key issues are as follows: the causes of design irresponsibility in a Singaporean context, the effects of a lack of responsibility in the design industry and the difficulty of defining ethics from an educational point of view. These issues are derived from and are closely related to the identified research questions.

Section 2.2 entitled “The Causes of Design Irresponsibility in a Singaporean Context” is be a study on the definition of design irresponsibility, followed by an in-depth investigation of the causes of design irresponsibility from a general point of view, then narrowed down to the context of Singapore’s creative industry.

Section 2.3 entitled “The Effects of a Lack of Responsibility in the Design Industry” would be an investigation into the impacts and consequences of a design culture that does not uphold responsibility or ethics.

Section 2.4 entitled “The Difficulty of Defining Ethics from an Educational Point of View” would be a study on ethics in the context of graphic design and the challenges behind approaching it from from an educational point of view.

Section 2.5 entitled “Gaps in the Literature” would be a summary and identification of gaps within the literature in the context of this research: areas that the provided literature are unable to provide satisfactory information on. Exploration of these areas would be left to the primary research methods.

2.2 Issue 1

The Causes of Design Irresponsibility in a

Global and Singaporean Context


To even begin exploring the causes of design irresponsibility, this essay would first provide a working definition of responsibility as well as define the scope that this research is concerned with.

As Roberts (2006) points out, ethics in graphic design is still in its infancy and has many dimensions to consider. The very emotional and creative nature of the graphic design profession disallows its ethical code to follow that of a doctor’s or a barrister’s, which are more definite and rigid. As such, it is near impossible to uphold every existent perception of ethics.

To illustrate an example, let us consider freedom of speech. If a graphic designer is approached to design advertisements for a political party he is personally against, what would be the ethical action? A puritan point of view is that it is unethical to involve yourself in work that is against your personal ideals, and yet, there is also merit to the argument that upholding freedom of speech is the more ethical route, as everyone has a right to have their views represented. A compromise between these two views could be that it is ethical to work for a political party you are personally against, unless you are affected by the content to such a great extent that you believe it will hinder your design process, in which case the ethical thing to do is to inform your client that you will not work for him.

With so many view points to consider, this research approaches the subject of ethics from a democratic point of view. It believes that responsibility refers to two things: the first being to adhere to a design process that involves sufficient research conducted in an ethical manner relative to the scale of the project with considerations for the well-being of society, and ultimately being able to adhere to the code of ethics that everyone has rationalized, justified and defined for themselves. (Garland, 2006) By extension, design irresponsibility is then defined by not following a design process that involves research conducted in an ethical manner, or being unable to adhere to the defined code of ethics, or choosing to ignore or disregard these considerations as a design professional.

To illustrate an example of being unable to adhere to a design process that involves ample research, let us consider the collapse of the skywalks at the Hyatt-Regency Hotel located in Kansas City. (Papanek, 1992) This tragic event that occurred on 17 July 1981, seventeen days after the opening of the hotel, caused the deaths of 144 people and injuries to over 216 more. (Martin, 2011) While the blame was chalked up to mistakes committed by architects and engineers, Papanek (1992) explains that five days after the tragedy, a two-year study regarding the design of skywalks, the first of its kind, was published by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The knowledge of this study, as well as its release date had been made known to the profession of architecture for more than a year. The fact that architects and engineers had chosen to design and construct a specialized structure before the release of its relevant study is a clear example of a design process that did not value conducting ample research relative to the importance of the project, and as a result caused irreparable harm in the measure of human lives and suffering.

Ultimately, on the topic of personalizing a code of ethics, the view of this research leaves many issues up to the discretion of individual designers. However, this view does not extend to behaviour or views that are generally agreed upon to be overtly unethical or immoral. Just as how there would be laws against murder in a truly democratic society, ethics should also be approached with the same mindset. An example would be the advertising of tobacco to children. It is generally accepted that tobacco advertising has previously been instrumental in causing children and teenagers to pick up smoking. (US Surgeon General, 1994 & Berman, 2009) While one can argue that the freedom of speech can applied here, this research calls into question the consequences of the actions. If one has no qualms about advertising tobacco on the argument that they do not necessarily endorse the content, then one also would have no qualms to, for example, advertise tools designed for attempting suicide. On many fundamental levels, such behaviour is unjustifiable.

The full extent on the definition of ethics would be later explored in the Section 2.4 entitled “The Difficulty of Defining Ethics from an Educational Point of View.”


The Emphasis of Commercial Design

in Design Institutes

With capitalism being one of the key driving factors of the modern society, design institutes on the whole have responded in kind by placing huge emphasis on corporate needs and commerce in the formulation of their curriculum. (Ewen, 2003, McKoy, 2003 & Schmidt, 2003) As such, this has gone on to alienate the forms of content that graphic design can tackle with such as social, cultural and political subjects.

The main consequence of this trend has been to passively train student designers to view themselves as disconnected messengers between their client and target audience, and ultimately to be distant from the content of their work. To cite McKoy (2003), students are being trained to separate their personal beliefs and convictions from their profession. As mentioned, to even begin to define a code of ethics, one has to bring his own personal beliefs into the fore for justification and rationalization. By being uninvolved and accepting of a passive role, this mindset translates into students simply accepting of whatever job they come across regardless of the content. This is no doubt conducive for irresponsible behaviour. As McKoy (2003) puts it, to be distant and dispassionate to one’s work is similar to the work ethic of a prostitute.

In commercial design, the start of a project is often marked by the presence of the creative brief. Apart from stating what is required and expected from the designer, research materials such as market research findings are usually also included within the brief. (Swenson, 2009) In educational institutes that emphasize commercial design, briefs are naturally used extensively to simulate commercial projects. As such, with extensive research materials being provided, students are encouraged to skip to the development and execution stage instead. This trend, coupled with institutes favouring commercial design, can possibly lead to students being overly reliant on existing research instead and to not to pursue methods of design that involve first-hand and active research, which ultimately causes irresponsibility in design on the whole.

In the discussion of personal convictions with relation to ethics, it can be argued that to pursue an educational system where these aspects are glorified may not necessarily lead to an improvement on the issue of design irresponsibility. Personal beliefs are subject to each individual, and values may defer. But the solution is not to impose the values of the educator either, for that in itself would defeat the purpose of defining one’s own ethical code that is self-justified and self-rationalized. Values cannot be forcefully inculcated, but there is a form of education called “values clarification” that is helpful for cultivating student designers to effectively apply their values to their profession. (McKoy, 2003) In doing so, they will be more prepared in defining their own ethical code and thus assuming responsibility.

The last consideration is to apply the Singaporean context — is the trend of over-emphasizing commercial design prevalent in educational institutes of Singapore? As Lim (2010) suggests, Singapore on the whole is still illiterate in design, for it is a young industry. Let us take a quick look at the course descriptions of some of Singapore’s more prominent design institutes: Nanyang Polytechnic, Temasek Polytechnic and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. 


Nanyang Polytechnic

(Accessible as of November 2011, still works on 1st March 2012.)


Temasek Polytechnic

(Accessible as of November 2011, still works on 1st March 2012.)


Nanyang Academy of Fine Art

(Accessible as of November 2011, no longer working. Course description accessible at


For most part, the descriptions are evidently geared towards commercial design with special mention on product, corporate identity and branding, as well as to ‘equip students with the essential skills needed for the advertising, design and media industries.’ The list of modules provided under Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’s course descriptions also seems to suggest that almost no focus is given on subjects outside of commercial design. Only one particular module entitled ‘Visual Culture’ seems to be outside the realm of commerce.

And yet, the blame cannot entirely be placed on capitalism or design institutes. Ethics in graphic design is still in its infancy (Roberts, 2006), and the subjective nature of ethics makes it difficult to approach in the context of education in a manner that is impartial and sensitive. This underscores the need to further develop the field of ethics and responsibility in the discipline of graphic design, so as to arrive at a universally acceptable conclusion that educators can rely on.

To conclusively access the state of local design institutes, this research paper recognizes that referring to foreign trends in education and merely referring to the module descriptions will not suffice. As such, the primary research methods as identified would be geared towards exploring more on this topic.


The Emphasis of Commercial Design

in Design Institutes

As indicated by Randall & Sterling (2003), awareness over the social consequences over the decisions made not only by designers, but by individuals, is an important trait to being responsible. It allows graphic designers to make informed and ethical decisions over their work.

Do graphic designers understand, or take it upon themselves to investigate the full extent of the impacts and consequences that is brought about in the creation of their work? Barnbrook (2006) & Twemlow (2006) believes that the answer is no. For most part, designers seem to be more engrossed with the form of their work, instead of the content. (Randall & Sterling, 2003) While 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. This callous attitude is in itself an act of irresponsibility. It is not only a troubling display of disrespect towards society, but also to the profession of graphic design itself. For graphic design to be taken seriously as a profession concerned with problem solving, designers must intimately concern themselves with the end results of their work and measure its quality by its achievement of objectives. (Frascara, 2006)

This pattern of ignorance is also related to educational institutes. Graphic design is inherently neutral, but it ceases to be so when the content is considered. (Grayling, 2006) As such, content is the key factor that determines the ethical questions behind any design project. And yet, educational institutes have been instrumental in shaping student designers into eventually being dispassionate professionals that are distant from the content of their work. By assuming the view that a graphic designer is just a passive arbitrator of messages, and by extension the content, between the client and receiver, a designer would already make the choice that he will not attempt to understand the impacts and consequences of his work. Research is only warranted if there is a perceived need to it. To them, design responsibility could truly be perceived as simply being able to comply and achieve the expectations of the brief. (Keedy, 2003)

Combined with the effects of over-emphasis of commercial design in educational institutes, as well as the numerous challenges in upholding responsibility in the workplace, there is the troubling trend of designers choosing to be ignorant and apathetic about the consequences of irresponsible design instead. In a Singaporean context, literature review on this issue appears to be limited; as such, the primary research methods as identified would be geared towards further exploring this issue.