Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Think about it.

A design podcast I recently discovered has been keeping my mind occupied at work. The episode I listened to yesterday was an interview with Milton Glaser, the designer of the famous NY graphic. The discussion was about ethics, a topic I wasn't expecting for a design show. Glaser's passion for ethical design challenged many of the ideas I've adopted just because they're popular, not because I've actually thought through them and formed a conviction.

One of his life convictions is to avoid promoting or participating in things that harm a human being in any way. I think most of us would agree that this is good and right. And then he got practical. As a designer, he must decide what sorts of jobs he's willing to accept and which he's not. Can he in good conscience design a campaign to market a food product to children that is high in sugar and low in nutrients? Can he design for a dieting method he knows won't work? What about companies that in some way use child labor? Can he design ads for cigarettes, knowing the product does only harm to its consumers?

He asked a group of design students if they would work with a company that used child labor, and of course they immediately said no. He then asked if they would design a campaign for cigarettes, and many of them said they would. He presented the question another way: what if that child has no other way to make money, so although he makes a brutally unfair wage, is it better for him that he have no work, or work at little income? And then there's this unfriendly fact: according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, tobacco is the leading preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the United States. It takes an estimated 400,000 American lives every year. That's tangible evidence. Why would we more readily support something that directly caused someone's death?

Milton Glaser believes it's the popularity factor. His point was that we like to appear to have compassion. We like to be trendy and appear to care about today's moral, ethical issues. But when you find someone who would refuse to design something for a company who uses child labor but would willingly design graphics to sell a product that would directly cause someone's death, a thinking person must realize that these don't match up. So then, how many of our so-called convictions are for appearance's sake? Do they really hold up when we stand back and look at them with a thoughtful, objective eye?

Social justice is a huge trend for young people, and I think this is an important thing to ask ourselves. Why do we want to be involved in social justice? Do we truly care about people? If I support a child who lives in Swaziland but don't think to give food to my neighbor who can't pay his bills this month, do I really care about people? Or do I just like having Swazi girl's picture on my refrigerator and patting myself on the back when I see it?

This has challenged me to look for pretense in my convictions and to replace it with substance. To be aware of what's really happening and not take pop culture's word for it. Glaser has written 12 Steps on the Road to Hell for Graphic Designers, and they're presented well in this video. Most of us aren't graphic designers, but all of us are faced with decisions that could help or harm someone else, so what are we all about, really? Think about it.

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