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I went looking for evidence of graphic design ethics
and didn’t find much. Well, that’s not entirely true. When I “Googled”
the subject I did find the kind of things I expected, such as
graduate-level design seminar courses and undergraduate-level
professional practices courses that touch on ethical issues. I also
found groups of practitioners and educators creating projects where
they’ve used graphic design as an instrument of social change with very
positive results. All of these things are worthwhile initiatives, and,
by all means, let’s keep them going.
I’m also happy to report that I found some other, very positive
efforts out there. The “Design Inquiry” symposium recently hosted by the
Maine College of Art gave participants a rare opportunity to dig deeply
into the issues surrounding our roles as persuasive communicators in
consumer culture. There are also many initiatives to educate designers
to their effect on the earth’s ecosystem, including an excellent
publication by the AIGA that clarifies many of the misunderstandings
concerning more sustainable production practices.
I also came across the speech delivered by Milton Glaser at the AIGA 2002 Voice Conference,
where he notes that, “In the new AIGA’s code of ethics there is a
significant amount of useful information about appropriate behaviour
towards clients and other designers, but not a word about a designer’s
relationship to the public.” Likewise, in an interview conducted by
Martin C. Pedersen, Glaser had this to say in response to a question
about the way design is currently taught: “I would change the perception
of the purpose of design that is deeply embedded in design education.
Because it’s linked to art, design is often taught as a means of
expressing yourself. So you see with students, particularly young
people, they come out with no idea that there is an audience. The first
thing I try to teach them in class is you start with the audience. If
you don’t know who you’re talking to, you can’t talk to anybody.”
Somewhat tellingly, I didn’t find much else that acknowledges our
profession’s responsibilities to audience members or users, specifically
those who experience the work we create on a daily basis. AIGA has
embraced the concept of “experience design,” which by its very nature
requires the involvement of audiences and users in the design process.
AIGA has also published the Design Business and Ethics
series that addresses a number of topics including “Business and
ethical expectations for professional designers,” which is referred to
above. However, a quick look makes it clear (as Glaser asserts) that our
responsibilities to audience members and users has not been
substantially addressed in what is otherwise a very well-considered
Many of us are quite familiar with the concepts of
“audience-centered” or “user-centered” design, but how many of us can
honestly claim to routinely include users or audience members in our
process of design? While there are clearly segments of our profession
that do practice in a more inclusive fashion, the majority of us do
not—and that is, to my mind, where our greatest ethical failure as a
profession currently lies.
The client’s desire for profits, and our desire for visual
sophistication (and peer recognition) should come after the needs of our
audiences and users have been met. By putting our “constituents”
first—and ourselves last—we might be able to create a more significant
ethical model for our profession to pursue. Further efforts to promote
environmental responsibility and to employ graphic design as a means of
social change are certainly desirable, but so are more effective
everyday messages that the majority of us create.
So, in an attempt to address the issue raised, I’ve taken the
entirely presumptuous step of creating language that outlines our
responsibilities to audience members and users. I envision this text as
an addition to the AIGA’s existing publication on ethics, which
currently includes sections concerning our responsibilities to the
profession and our clients. Therefore, I ask the following questions to
you, my professional colleagues: What do you think of the sentiments
expressed below? Is it necessary for us to have such text included in
our code of ethics? Are you willing to join the discussion and help this
initiative progress from this point? In the spirit of inclusive design,
I personally invite you participate and add your voice to this
Finally, please note that the fourth and fifth statements below are
adapted from the existing Professional Code of Ethics authored by ICSID,
the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. As well,
the sixth statement is adapted from the Code of Ethics for Professional
Communicators created by IABC, the
International Association of Business Communicators. Of the many
professional codes of ethics referenced in the process of writing this
article, these two groups were among the few to include significant
statements concerning their responsibilities to the public.
The Designer’s Responsibility to Audience Members and Users
To conclude, just having such a statement that we may agree with is
not enough. We must now actually do something to improve the current
situation. We must develop a sustained dialog with those who experience
the fruits of our labors, and recognize that their needs are more
important than our own.
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