Creatives are a famously liberal lot: Taught in the liberal arts, often unmotivated by money and keen to change the world with design; we’re optimists who often believe that human endeavour can triumph greed and tyranny. We can use our talents for good, we say.
The First Things First manifestos are often cited as the earliest basis of higher moral thinking in our industry. Their message remains influential: Think before you work for Big Bad Corporation Y, use your skills for good instead. First Things First set the bar for ethical thinking in design and continues to be the benchmark — the 2000 update rekindled the viewpoint in the modern generation of designers and continues to be the key influence for many.
It can sometimes feel at odds with the shareholder-focused world of business. While ethics may not be the goal for many companies, modern brand perception actually gives them little choice — as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”. Damaged brands are difficult to salvage in this world (think of Starbucks, BP or even Sodastream) and branding alone can’t remove the public’s perception of these companies — actions speak louder than words. Where unethical practices remain, the impulse to boycott these organisations remains too.
A new coat of paint never covers up these deep-set prejudices either. The most common way of using the power of branding to escape past practices is running away, forcing people to forget you and starting again. Remember the human-rights violations committed by Blackwater Security? A year after the controversy, they became XE Services. Two years after that, they became Academi. They now ambiguously offer “Best in class operational excellence” and aspire to “be boring”. Any search for the company is still saturated with articles about Blackwater and their pursuit of anonymity. It’s impossible in this age to run away from your ethics.
My old creative director’s working motto was always “no booze, no fags, no gambling”. It was a simple mantra that kept the work out of the studio that he didn’t feel comfortable working on, and it reassured us that he was a good and moral CD to work under. We felt protected by this. It felt very First Things First. I took his learnings to heart, seeing in him a successful creative at the top of his game in a world-class design studio; in him I saw that it was possible to run a business built with morals in mind. It was clean. It was clear. It felt black and white. It felt like a code that I too could live under.
Some years after that period, I found myself at a much larger agency working not on booze or fags or gambling, but on an oil company. It was a big one — and, very recently at that time — a very bad one.
This brief was different though: we were tasked with shaping a new internal rewards scheme. No longer based on large financial rewards for “drilling more oil”, it would be about financially rewarding good deeds happening within. It was their own internal First Things First and it felt Good. We worked hard to create something that could genuinely infect a corporate structure of excess-at-any-cost with the virus of wider thinking and good deeds.
However, sure enough, after six weeks of board-level hand-wringing and shareholder dissent, the rewards program was fast becoming about drilling for more oil again. We had failed. As a studio, however, we were still pressing on with the now-revised brief. The task had changed, the significance was missing, but the money was still there on the table.
This felt like selling out. It was affecting me in a way I wasn’t comfortable with, and I handed my notice in. It felt black and white.
Ever the naïve optimist, I believed that our role had an in-built moral obligation to guide the hand of the clients we worked for; away from pure profits and towards something more creative. I felt let down that we took their oil-stained dollars instead. I had resigned and had done what I thought to be the moral thing, burning bridges along the way. I did it in a most petulant way, but this way I could at least sleep at night.
Design is a powerful tool, and we work in branding because we start the process. We go from nothing and create change. No other part of the graphic design process has as much influence over the final result. It’s compelling, and we do have influence.
I once asked a design director why he likes branding over other forms of design. He answered: “The opportunity to walk into a board room of a multinational corporation and use design to influence their thinking.” This wasn’t hubris, it was genuine. It was his way of using creative skills to effect real change.
So what of my current situation? My job is great; the perks are fantastic. I like going to work, and that’s a rare thing in any walk of life. But the moral code that I had made such sacrifices for is not nearly as black and white as before — we do booze, for example. We do gambling. We don’t do fags though. Where’s the line then? SomeOne’s ethical line is less clearly ethical, but is definitely there — “we don’t work on anything that we wouldn’t use ourselves”.
Gambling? We might have a flutter. Booze? Yes. Would we shoot someone? No. Would we kill someone? No. It rules out jobs based on our own personal set of ethics. If I don’t personally want to work on a betting shop, that’s fine, there’s another person who is quite happy to. And if there’s no-one happy to work on it, the account gets resigned.
So where does the line become tested under this model?
Charity is a good example — it’s non-profit, with a mission to selflessly improve the world. These are good things, surely black and white. But use, for example, a successful charity, extremely good at what they do. They’ve created a lot of good in the world and the world is a better place for them; people are falling over themselves to work with them. A charity so well-run that they begin to work with other charities to make a bigger difference. They now make such a big difference that smaller charities in unrelated sectors are finding it hard to have their voice heard, next to the 800lb gorilla. The big charity is squeezing the life from smaller, but no less worthy causes without the financial clout to compete. Can charity be bad? The truth is as it is with many things in life “it can be”.
A pharmaceutical company can, on one hand, create a drug that saves the world from a terrible disease (and we can create world-changing design to promote and market it). They can also, on the other hand, exploit their power and restrict the flow of their products to generate profits. What if BAE Systems called, with some fantastic new world-changing technology they need a name for? It’s not booze or fags or gambling; but are we naive to think their other products don’t also kill people? How about a Government? Or the endless money in a quick Middle Eastern TV channel identity?
The “corrupting” booze brands that we work on at SomeOne arec raft beers and high-end luxury spirits, not White Lightning or cheap vodka. Is there harm there?
Particularly relevant is the recently-debated Kalashnikov. Would you work on it? Is it a gun that gives the every-man the ability to overthrow tyranny? Or is it just a gun that kills people? It’s a debate that has divided for as long as the AK-47 has changed the landscape of the world.
So what’s the conclusion then? Where’s the line? What should you work on? What should you decide is dirty and not to be touched? It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not clear. Life often isn’t. Very rarely in this world do things finally fall into clear categories of “black” and “white”.
Even in the extremes of broader ethical debate, there’s no clear answer — even curing diseases is far from a clear case of right and wrong; removing leading natural causes of death also removes natural causes of population control. Global population growth over human history shows a direct correlation with scientific endeavour; we cure the diseases we fear, and in the process we end up killing the planet we live on. Even curing cancer comes with an ethical dilemma. Nothing is free from debate. There are no definitive statements.
So if nothing is clear, where do you draw your line? That’s actually closer to the point. There is no line beyond what you are comfortable with. We are instilled with our own moral compasses — we should use these instincts to draw our own lines. But always make sure these instincts are fed with facts — educate yourself.
Scrutinise. Criticise. Follow your head as much as your heart.
Most of all, don’t be dictated by dogma — yours or anyone else’s.
First Things First set out to free creatives from a life of their talents being used to forward unquestioned corporate goals. Don’t let your talents be bound to hollow ethical promises either.
Kemistry Gallery isn’t just a place to see cutting-edge graphic design. It’s also a space to think about graphic design, and to exchange and debate ideas about this vital and hugely varied art form.
Running alongside ‘Kemistry Gallery: 100 Years of Graphic Design’ is a talks programme seeking to answer some of the central questions raised by the exhibition. What is the job of the graphic designer? In what ways has the discipline remained the same in its essentials over the past century, despite sweeping artistic, technological, economic and political change? What even are the boundaries of the discipline these days? And how can we speak meaningfully of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ graphic design in the chaos of the digital age?
Featuring some of the UK’s leading artists and designers, writers, thinkers and academics, ‘Kemistry Gallery: 3 Talks about Graphic Design’ will offer lively and stimulating provocations for anyone even slightly curious about the state of design.
Graphic design: what next?
Tuesday 10th March, 7pm-8.15pm
Speakers: Adrian Shaughnessy, Andy Altmann, Daniel Eatock, Final speaker tbc. Click here to book tickets on Eventbrite.
Love letters: on a passion for typography
Wednesday 11th March, 7pm-8.15pm
Speakers: Anthony Burrill, Robert Green, Dr Catherine Dixon.
John L. Walters (chair) Click here to book tickets on Eventbrite.
All shall have prizes: designing awards and award-winning design
Thursday 12th March, 7pm-8.15pm
Speakers: Malika Favre, Dan Witchell, Mark Bonner. Click here to book tickets on Eventbrite.
Next semester Kenneth Goldsmith wants his students to spend class time watching YouTube videos, liking Facebook posts—and, while they’re at it, plagiarizing at will. His latest course might sound like the slacker student’s utopia, but if all goes to the English professor’s plans its benefits could be monumental. “It’s [about] understanding that digital existence,” Goldsmith said. “You know, we’ve become so good at using tools, but we’ve rarely stepped back to consider how and why we’re using those tools.”
Goldsmith—who’s also a published author and poet—is planning to implement these methods in a class at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia this upcoming semester. He explained his ideas in a piece last month for The New Yorker: “Why I am Teaching A Course Called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” “Come January, fifteen creative-writing students and I will sit silently in a room with nothing more than our devices and a Wi-Fi connection, for three hours a week,” he wrote. At the end of the semester the students will be expected to produce a literary work based on their experiences. Goldsmith continued: “Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing.”
Aimless drifting and intuitive surfing don’t seem conducive to learning, so I asked Goldsmith to clarify his intentions. “They need to realize digital language. Everything that they take for granted online needs to be examined through a critical lens,” he said. “Even becoming conscious of the mechanical process of cutting and pasting is something they’ve never done; this begins the process of defamiliarization.”
Writers today are more like programmers in that they often contextualize an already-existing piece of work.
Today’s students are undoubtedly hooked to technology—and the ubiquity of digital devices doesn’t help. In fact, one survey found that 80 percent of college students admit that it’s a distraction in class. Some educators have banned digital devices from class, arguing that it’s more of hindrance than a benefit to learning. But Goldsmith says this approach is misguided. People today are reading and writing at a far greater rate than they did in the past, he says. And he’s onto something: Though public perception suggest that the Internet has created a generation of non-readers, research suggests otherwise. Twenty years ago society was mostly glued to the TV—a passive activity—and making phone calls. Now, tweeting and texting have emerged as dominant means of communication. There’s more reading now—even if it isn’t always classic literary prose.
This isn’t necessarily a new theory. A decade ago an extensive Stanford study revealed technology’s positive effect on writing. English Professor Andrea Lunsford—shocked at the amount of writing students were doing outside of the classroom—dubbed it a “paradigm shift.” Her team discovered that her students were very savvy at “kairos”—the ability to recognize an audience and adjust the tenor of one’s message accordingly. Traditionally, kairos was a difficult skill to attain, but with the advent of social media it’s almost ingrained in younger generations.
Social media, too, has undergone massive changes. Facebook newsfeeds, once a simple venue for photo posts and status updates, have morphed into a curation of news. “We’re typing now, we’re reading, we are immersed in language—but in ways that people haven’t learned to value yet,” Goldsmith said. “What if we throw ourselves into that and force ourselves to use online methods as a way of reconciling our condition and begin to exploit this wonderful environment that we live in right now?”
Teaching an unconventional course isn’t exactly uncharted territory for Goldsmith. In 2004 he began teaching “Uncreative Writing,” a course that encouraged students to plagiarize and even went as far as penalizing people if they submitted original thoughts. At the culmination of the semester, students had to purchase a term paper, and their final grades were based on how well they could defend it as their own work.
This approach was a proactive response to the omnipresence of plagiarism across college campuses—a problem so widespread, in fact, that a cottage industry of sorts has developed. One example of that trend is Turnitin.com, a site where teachers can upload student papers, and the site’s algorithms scour the web and verify its originality.
Language: Reporting – Paraphrasing and Summarising
Reporting uses paraphrase and summary to acknowledge another author’s ideas. You can extract and summarise important points, while at the same time making it clear from whom and where you have got the ideas you are discussing and what your point of view is. Compare, for example:
Brown (1983, p. 231) claims that a far more effective approach is …
Brown (1983, p. 231) points out that a far more effective approach is …
A far more effective approach is … (Brown, 1983, p. 231)
The first one is Brown’s point of view with no indication about your point of view. The second one is Brown’s point of view, which you agree with, and the third is your point of view, which is supported by Brown
Here are some more expressions you can use to refer to someone’s work that you are going to paraphrase if you go to:
If you do not want to give your point of view about what the writer says.
According to X…
It is the view of X that …
The opinion of X is that …
In an article by X, …
Research by X suggests that ..
Sometimes you may want to quote an author’s words exactly, not paraphrase them. If you decide to quote directly from a text, you will need an expression to introduce it and quotation marks will need to be used: