13 November 2006
Collis Ta'eed
Collis Ta'eed

"This is the real world"

"There are no friends in business"

"Its all about the bottom line"

As a freelancer newly started in the design business, I've been on the receiving end of many such a comment from helpful, if somewhat jaded friends and co-workers. The perception of business as a sphere of life where values are not just out of place but in fact detrimental to success is a surprisingly persistent one. Call me naive but I don't agree. There is no reason why values should not be a part of a business strategy, particularly that of a design business.

As designers we find ourselves in a field rife with loose ethics. Having worked for the last year in the property advertising industry I can personally testify to the sorts of subtle deceit and exaggerations that we perpetuate every day in our work for what are all too often products, services and ideas of no particular benefit to anyone.

Applying a system of values and ethics in your design practice is almost certainly something you ve thought about at some point or another, probably in some hypothetical question relating to doing work for a cigarette manufacturer, oil company or the like. However I think a fuller more complete approach is necessary. In this article I've briefly examined a few of the issues that all designers should seriously consider.

Choosing Projects from an Ethical Standpoint
Touched on in many a university course and perhaps the most obvious ethical issue in the creative industries, this can be quite a dilemma for the struggling agency. In my own experience I was once approached to produce a string of adult sites complete with all the latest bells and whistles and with the prospect of a very large sum of money. I immediately said 'yes, lets have a meeting!" but as the day proceeded my conscience started to kick in. I tried to convince myself that as long as I wasn't creating the content I could stay neutral, and that if I didn't do the job somebody else would. In the end, though, I decided I couldn't feel right about it and called the whole thing off.

While not everyone might feel the same way about adult sites, it's important to have some general guidelines as to the sort of projects you think are ethically sound. The hard part is sticking to them no matter how much money is waved in front of you. It's tempting to give in to the money, or the alluring idea that it doesn't really make a difference what you do, but for your own sake, be prepared to take a stand on issues you care about and to draw the line on projects which you think detrimental to society. In the end, the global community is made up of nothing more than individuals making small decisions every day, but its these decisions that affect us all.

As a designer you have a lot of power held in your hands. You have the power to make almost anything seem desirable or even essential, to change the way people see whats around them. This may sound exaggerated, but consider how important Hitler saw his propoganda ministry. It was paramount to his success in getting Germany to its pre-WW2 attitudes. While you will doubtless never be involved in anything so overtly wrong, you should bear in mind the implications your work has the potential to have.

Here are some examples of the sorts of projects I personally would stay away from. This is by no means a definitive list, but some areas our practice chooses to avoid:
- Anything detrimental to the environment - overfishing, uranium mining, etc.
- Gambling, Cigarettes, Alcohol
- X-rated adult projects
- Marketing aimed squarely at children for products which have little real benefit
- Companies on the global offenders list (companies that use child labour in the making of their wares, take advantage of developing countries, or grow genetically modified ingredients)

I have been amazed by how many creatives have sung the praises of certain multi-nationals for their huge budgets and creative thinking without a minutes thought to where this money is coming from. These companies can often seem like a dream client, until you realise that their huge budgets are made off the back of child labour or shoddy environmental practices.

Creating value, not just making money
This is by far the most subtle issue and involves a bit of mindshift. When considering your business it is very tempting to think of everything in terms of the bottom line, to measure success only in monetary terms. Now I am by no means saying you should forget that aspect of business, particularly if you want to last out the year. However there is more to what you are doing than just bringing in money, there are a variety of benefits that you and your business will be providing for those around you.

The best way to illustrate this idea is with an example. Imagine a hypothetical business, lets call it Anderson & Sculthorp Design (ASD) with ten employees in various capacities. Now even if ASD were to only be just breaking even every year the business would still have value, and I'm not referring to the business assets. There are ten people whose livelihood is provided, who are gaining experience and living off ASD, and there are clients who have a relationship and rely on the ASD team and so on.

Taking this to its logical conclusion means thinking of a business as an entity interconnected with those around it. Rather like a parent might provide for their family, in the same way a business provides for its employees and clients. My own agency Good spends a significant amount of money for web hosting every year. While we on-sell much of that hosting we also provide free hosting for organisations who we think shouldn't have to pay, or put another way, who have better uses for that money. Thus our agency is providing a service to the community and regardless of its profitability has created value.

Free Pitching
Every design practice is called on at some time or another to provide a free pitch for a job. You know the story, great client, big project, you could really use the cash flow, but they have asked for some ideas and mocks up front - for free.

It may seem harmless enough, especially if you get the job, but what you are doing is effectively crippling the design industry. Every time an agency pitches for free they are creating the impression that design is cheap and that it's not really necessary to pay for their or any other design agency's time.

No other service based industry provides a sample of their services for free. Have you ever been to a mechanic who said they'd do an oil check for free in the hope that you'd get them to permanently service your car? or how about a doctor who gave you your first visit to see if the "relationship gelled"? Of course not, but this is the sort of thing that design agencies do all the time, and unfortunately clients ask for constantly. By all means show your portfolio, chat to the client, give costings and quotes, but don't work for free.

Sustainable Materials
Interesting designs and formats with unusual materials are probably the highlight of print work. However, its important to bear in mind when choosing stocks, sizes and materials the environmental cost of what you are doing. There are a variety of things you can do in this regard too, for example choosing recyclable materials over non-recyclable, biodegradable over non-biodegradable, keeping paper sizes relatively standard to prevent huge wastage in offcuts, selecting a printer or manufacturer that has a commitment to the environment and so on.

The key factor to remember is that in virtually any print job, there will be a run of thousands of copies, so a small change will make a large difference. It may cost slightly more (though certainly not always), but you can simply pass this cost on to the client, explaining the reasoning. If you aren t proposing anything outrageous and they are a reasonable sized client, they will more than likely accept, no sweat off your back and you can sleep better at night knowing you ve made a contribution

Telling it like it is
Now we all know that advertising is about glossing over a product's failings and focusing on its strengths and this is a great way to market things. Occasionally however advertising falls into the domain of outright lies. I once built a website for a property development billed as being the ultimate in design and location. The property itself, a perfectly ordinary looking building in an ordinary location near an airport with planes constantly flying overhead. Now I dutifully went about my job and listening to the client went about cropping images in such a way as to only highlight parts of the building, zooming in on the view of the coastline to make it seem closer and so on.

Who loses out in such a scenario? The average guy on the street who is out buying a home. Maybe he's a bad guy, maybe he's a good guy, maybe he's you. We all hope that once the guy gets there he'll make his own decision, but this stuff works, so it seems he doesn't. Why do sports cars have half naked women draped over them? Why do they then sell so well? We are all so much easier to fool than we'd like to admit. The point is, advertising is all well and good, but you should always use your best judgement in marketing products and services and keep things in check, exactly the way I did' t.

Ethically Sound
These few points are just the tip of the iceberg, and there will be issues that you believe in as an individual more than others. But hopefully the distinctions that we at Good believe in have got you thinking. If our businesses are ethically sound, we will have a more prosperous community.

About this article
This article first appeared in
Creative Behaviour. Creative Behaviour is a member of the Icograda Design Media Network.

About Collis Ta'eed
Collis Ta'eed is a founding partner of good, a small design agency committed to applying their skills in pursuit of a better world.