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Morality in design

Can you afford to have morals? Can you afford not to?

How relevant is morality in design?

I was in London recently on a course run by the excellent Shan Preddy and the dba. In between discussions the conversation turned to tobacco and coincided nicely with reports on changes to tobacco packaging legislation.

Coming from outside business and design I have a different perspective to a lot of other people and what struck me about those conversations was that tobacco – and no doubt other ethically troubling products – provides creatives with the funds and opportunities to do some of their most exciting work: the beautiful 1a St James came up and received a lot of compliments.

The reason these conversations stayed with me is that Design Week had been looking at the question of morality in design shortly before that: “who would you never work for?” What surprised me was that although the question went out on Twitter and the article on their website, there wasn’t as much of a response as I would have expected.

The editor suggested that morality has a large impact on designers and teams when they choose who to work for, but it’s clear that there are some exciting opportunities when you choose to avoid moral questions. The more dubious the product, the harder you have to work to sell it and the more creative you need to be. Imperial Tobacco’s Axel Gietz argued on Radio 4 that the proposed plain packaging changes would mean a drive to the bottom in pricing.


Which makes sense. Why do people smoke? They’re addicted. But why do they start? Because it’s cool. Take away the brand and they’re just killing themselves – expensively. Premium brands are worried about their profits because they know that their entire product is image.

So why did this effort to generate a debate not prove to be all that successful? In business unless you’ve found your niche or are successful enough to be market leaders – with all the power and influence that brings – your ethical stance might be more of a liability than a selling point. On a human level we want to interact with interesting people of substance and integrity, who care about what they do. But we don’t necessarily want to know the details of their beliefs: wearing your politics on your sleeve could be enough to put off prospective clients.

One of the commentators on Twitter found herself in the position of having to make a moral judgement on whether or not to work for a client who had links to the defence industry. The team decided not to work with this potential client. But to expand on the situation hypothetically: that agency politely refuses the work, possibly making it clear it’s a moral question but probably excusing themselves on the grounds of “too much work” “not enough personnel at this point” “not our speciality” in order to not cause offence. Their reasoning becomes known and when a wealthy patron sitting on the board of an art group looking for a rebrand sees that agency’s name on the list of possible agencies, that agency slips just that little bit further down the list.

When we make moral judgements we make them according to our conscience but they can have repercussions. I understand why people are reluctant to offer an opinion on this subject because you can afford to moralise until you can’t afford to pay the bills. As the managing director of a design company your responsibility is to all of the employees depending on you for their mortgage – do you really want to say no to a lucrative new contract when you know it’s an exciting opportunity for your creatives and a financial boon?

But who says that morality damages your profits? Co-op Bank received 74,000 responses to its most recent consultation, asking customers to vote on how they should change their ethics policy. Customers of the bank are by nature more likely to be ethical investors as that is the position the Co-op has taken within the industry. A large response isn’t unexpected but 74,000 is impressive and that along with the ever-growing importance of CSR shows that this topic of morality in business isn’t going away.

Will your principles attract clients or drive them away? Outside of personal satisfaction and the obvious good you are doing, there are advantages to establishing yourself as an ethical business. The Co-op Bank stands apart by making decisions in a very different way to its competitors. Finding that angle can establish your business and give you access to a whole new network. When you talk to vegans or upcyclers you realise just how connected they are across so many platforms and that they occupy another world inside of the one we’re all in. Get access to a network like that and you can connect with so much potential new business. It is, after all, still all about who you know.

Saying you would never work for the defence industry is easy in theory, but what about designing a new website for an apprenticeship scheme sponsored by groups linked to the arms industry? Who doesn’t want to see apprenticeships grow in the UK? And McDonald’s has worked hard to rebrand itself in the UK and move away from its unhealthiest days, but who doesn’t smirk when they see the Golden Arches next to the Olympic Rings? The stats show that 24.9% of adults in the UK are now obese – looking at that figure, would you work on, say, a logo for a new healthy eating initiative sponsored by McDonald’s? They could end up helping people get healthier through money earned from the obese. And given that McDonald’s and Coca Cola have just launched efforts to increase their social purpose this is a topical issue.

Talking about morality in design with other people I’ve found that moral decisions are black and white for some, and shades of grey for the rest. Some people make their decisions with ethics at the forefront and other people just don’t have that moral frame. I don’t believe you could call them amoral – they’re just unaware. We might have moved on from the Mad Men days (smoking in the office and whiskeys with lunch) and science has helped make us healthier – or at least better informed – but we all still have our vices.

Is it better to be true to yourself and what you love and be certain that you’re creating the best work you’re capable of – whatever the cost – or do you have to make sacrifices and take on less interesting work, safer contracts, in the knowledge that at least you’re not making the world a worse place?

That’s up to you and your conscience.