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Every Magic Comes With a Price

How to be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul – can you remember this book?

In some industry disputes, this concern still echoes. We use up a lot of energy for preserving our autonomy and sparring ideas with clients, but as the design industry grows into its own, shouldn’t we start caring for more than our own professional security and comfort?

We exchange our knowledge on how to get the clients on board with our visions. We celebrate projects that, despite (or perhaps thanks to) being different from the client’s initial idea, turned out to be a roaring success. In various social media groups for graphic designers, we can vent and complain about our clients’ lack of technical and aesthetic background.

We want to maintain our independence, create projects that adhere to the rules of good design, and to enjoy creative freedom. And while we could say it’s a natural way to act and protect our autonomy, we have to accept that at the end of the day, there is more to it. There is the broader context of what it means to be a designer in today’s world, what is our purpose and what is the scope of our responsibility.

The exacerbating climate crisis provides a useful context for our debate, the global pandemic being the icing on the cake. A hopeless optimist might say we live in interesting times, while a realist would fire back, saying this isn’t the kind of ‘interesting’ anyone was hoping for.

Run for your life – but from what?

Who is a ‘designer’ today and who are they going to be in 10 years from now? Will a part of our work – using graphics software – become automatised and deprofessionalised? Out of all issues, this one seems to be the least uncertain. It should be enough to take a look at what happened to photography and its evolution over the past three decades. Popularisation of photographing techniques that are now commonly used, along with the accessibility of equipment mean that nowadays, almost anyone can make decent photographs. The threshold has been lowered.

So we know it’s going to happen. But should we be concerned? It might seem like a paradox, but automatisation of processes could give us time and space for more in-depth analysis of each project’s context. The task awaiting designers is comprehensive consulting and providing better understanding of the whole context. It is more than the textbook ‘understanding of the client’s needs’. Instead, I would encourage taking into consideration the extent to which what we do affects people, various social groups, or even (don’t let this perspective intimidate you) the planet as a whole.

‘The world is not broken, it was designed that way’

It might seem to us that we are just a tiny cog in a great machine that is the business machine that runs today’s reality. But once we realise that every product of our action is a result of a several, several dozen, or even several hundred decisions (including those made by us as designers), we will feel the weight of responsibility pressing down on our shoulders. What should we do with our freshly-discovered power?

The key part of design process is research – we look into the market situation, analyse target groups and their needs, and define the level of effectiveness of our planned actions. We ask many questions, but there are two that should be asked more often and in-depth: Why?’ and ‘What for?’. Why should a project be executed this or that way? What is the purpose or this action instead of a different one?

In many situations, we are forced to ask those questions over and over again, until we find the real reason why our client wants fo pay for a project. That’s when we’ll be able to make an informed decision whether we want to go ahead, and to what extent we’re happy to support the project with our skills and knowledge.

Looking under the veil

During the initial analysis of a project, we should aim to look beyond our client, their needs, and the profile of our client’s clients (that is, our target group). There is also a social context to take into consideration, such as taking into account certain groups our project might be excluding, and keeping the environmental aspect in mind. Only when we go through all those issues we can circle back to the question whether the project will be fulfilling for a designer.

So how can we employ our ‘ethical sense’ in design? We could begin with classics, such as Kant’s categorical imperative: making and following the rules we would like to be applied to anyone at all times. John Rawls’s concept of the ‘veil of ignorance’ echoes similar perspectives. Rawls’s veil is supposed to cut us off from who we are in any given project – obscuring our race, gender, financial status, or qualifications. In other words, it allows us to make sure our concepts and ideas don’t exclude any social groups.

In practice, Rawls’s idea could be turned into a simple thought experiment in which we assume that after the project is implemented, we might find ourselves in the shoes of every person involved. For example, when designing a social media platform, we could be someone who gets to share their opinions freely and comfortably, but we might also end up being bullied or ostracised.

In theory, the veil idea gives designers a chance to prevent far-reaching consequences of their decisions. It allows to adopt the perspectives of groups that would otherwise be ignored (or straight-out excluded) if we did nothing but simply ‘execute the client’s business needs’. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves – thought experiments alone won’t help us ensure the right level of inclusivity in our projects. Only various kinds of ‘empathy workshops’ and doing market research among target groups other than the ‘majority’ will allow us to make the first step towards creating design for the people, rather than for a handful of privileged individuals.

The new design order

Does commercial design take into consideration the interests of groups that are not its primary clients? Very rarely. After all, the reason why we select our primary target is to give it our full attention, isn’t it? However, this would make sense if we were to design our solutions in the void. But in reality, we share one space, one environment, and one planet.

All those decisions have their social and environmental consequences that affects every one of us. Which is why, aside from the technological issues, matching the product to the recipient, and supporting our clients in their ongoing progress and growth, we must also consider the environmental aspect of our actions: generated waste, pollution, and the effect they have on the natural resources.

When analysing target groups, the client’s resources or capabilities, it is our duty to consider the real social impact of the ideas we introduce. By diagnosing potential threats, we can eliminate them in the early stages of the project (or at least provide some bitter insight into how easily our choices can affect the society and the environment.) There are many tools that allow us to better examine and approach this context, both as part of our work with the client, and in a project team. Here are some of them:

Reverse Maslov

Analyse Maslov’s hierarchy of needs – from physiological through safety, love and belonging, all the way to esteem and self-actualisation. Which needs does your solution address? Can your solutions stand in opposition to those needs? How can you improve them?

Motivation Map

This exercise is a good follow-up to the Empathy Map.

We will have to consider people’s motivations, such as profit (both material and immaterial), ambition, social acceptance, fear, power, and self-actualisation. We analyse all those aspects from the perspective of a certain target group and its context.

Carbon Carbon Footprint

Count the real carbon footprint of your project, considering production and transport as well as the energetic expense of your project (servers, communication, meeting). See which aspects can be optimised or compensated. See myclimate.org for solutions and ideas.

It is high time to open up the discussion about designer ethic. Not only in the context of working with clients, conditions of employment and payments, but also the ways in which our work affects reality. When discussing business, we must keep the public interest in mind. And when thinking of our recipients, we should strive to take into account a variety of perspectives instead of excluding those not mentioned in the brief.

The Emperor has no clothes… But who is the Emperor?

If we remain committed exclusively to meeting ‘business goals’ imposed by our clients, we shouldn’t be surprised when the results of our work solve one problem while creating ten new ones.

How come the Polish jewellery company Apart release their ridiculously long and vapid Christmas ad in the midst of a global pandemic? How come nobody realised the Pepsi campaign featuring Kendall Jenner was not only tone-deaf but also simply disrespectful to social movements such as Black Live Matters? How come nobody ever considered the fact that forms and applications required by most offices are too complicated for an average business owner to fill correctly? How come someone came up with, produced and released plastic packagings for bananas?

One look around shows there are dozens of examples like those in our immediate surroundings. We have learned to laugh at them, and only sometimes we wonder how come nobody out of all the people who worked on a project never said: ‘Look, this is dumb and harmful. Let’s not do it!’

Perhaps it is time to become this person in our projects?

Reading list

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, Harvard 1971.

Victor Papanek, Design For The Real World, Thames & Hudson, London 2019.

Scott Riley, Mindful Design, Apress, Nottingham 2019.

Code of Conduct Ico-D http://dash.ico-d.org/files/resources/code/ICO_Professional_Code_of_Conduct.pdf

Paul Nini, In Search of Ethics in Graphic Design, https://www.aiga.org/in-search-of-ethics-in-graphic-design/

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