We were recently contacted by Fran Hope, a graphic design degree student at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Fran is researching design ethics, specifically the practices of companies ‘who put ethical values before making a profit’ and put a number of questions to us, some of which we found particularly interesting – more so than usual – perhaps because Fran’s perspective is informed by some time in the industry.
Fran agreed that it might be more constructive and useful to post and answer the questions posed here, so that other students could share in the responses and perhaps initiate some dialogue. Responses are given by Paul Buck (PB) and Ela Kosmaczewska (EK) and we’d be happy to take up any further discussion in the comments below.
1. Are you familiar with the First Things First manifesto?
(PB & EK) Absolutely. We’re assuming you’re aware that the original manifesto was published by Ken Garland in 1964, and updated by Adbusters in 2000, endorsed by contemporary practitioners, writers and academics of the day, many of whom are still prominent. There’s an interesting archive of comment on and criticism of the 2000 manifesto here.
2. Were you concerned with ethical design as a student?
(PB) To a degree, yes. The various projects I undertook during my time on a degree course were generally, but not exclusively orientated towards social issues or activism (eg. theoretical materials for an age concern style charity, and subjects like the occupation of Tibet). I think these choices were a reflection of a distaste I had for self-motivated projects that conveniently focussed on subjects and audiences that the designer already had an affinity for, or could pre-qualify an aesthetic solution that best suited them. At that time, I had no appreciation for concerns about the sustainability of print design, or insight into business/brand ethics, just an inclination to differentiate my work and skills. My ethical concerns as a designer really took form when I began work and inadvertently found myself assisting various brands that I perceived to be obnoxious and harmful.
(EK) Yes, prior to becoming a graphic design student I had already developed an interest in environmental concerns and animal rights issues. Some ‘live projects’ at college enabled us to work with clients who were in need of design assistance and we were encouraged to seek out such projects for ourselves. This allowed us to focus on key areas of interest – at that time I worked with a domestic abuse support group, which was an amazing experience. We also had a module – be it only one lecture – which dealt with the role of ethics and the designer and helped me reflect upon my own interests and ideology.
3. Do you feel that by labeling yourselves as ethical you open yourselves up to scrutiny in every area of the way your company operates? (for example, using a carbon neutral web hosting service, or banking with an ethical bank)
(PB) Definitely, but I can’t say I feel we’ve been scrutinised. We’re a very small company and, as such, there’s certain aspects of our business ‘footprint’ (mainly environmental) that we find difficult to fully control. For example, we can choose our banking providers (Co-operative Bank) but our office arrangements don’t allow us to be selective about our energy supplier. In some respects, I think that service provision choices of this kind can provide a smokescreen for more problematic issues – it’s easy to switch energy suppliers while, professionally, you continue to work uncritically with and support some of the nastiest brands in exchange for financial reward. It’s obviously important to make ethical service choices wherever you can, but it’s also vital to do this critically – I’d prefer to see responsible lifestyle and business attitudes become firmly established than a reliance on the concept of carbon neutrality – retrospectively addressing a carbon footprint by some debatable means.
(EK) Potentially so, but this is not a problem. We know it’s a bold statement to make but if we claim to be something, we must be prepared to justify our position.
4. How do you feel about the way your philanthropic approach at Zerofee (such as your ‘design donation’ policy) might be perceived as a promotional tool?
(PB) Very interesting question. Our design donation policy predates Zerofee as a company entity – it led us to the desire and possibility of starting a design studio of this kind, so the policy is inextricable and unavoidable (our name was a great concern to us, since it originated as one means of communicating what we offered). While we’ll always talk about our pro bono activity, we’ve seen it as a need to make our origins and interests clear (it was retained, rather than replaced when we ‘started up’ as a company because it always was a good conversation starter but, equally, a distraction at times). In my experience, the large majority of our current or prospective commercial clients have no practical interest in our design donation work – once we begin and continue to engage with them, their interest lies solely in design ability, experience, professionalism, costs and personality. We’ve always understood this and always wanted to emphasise design ahead of any philanthropic detail. If our design donation has a promotional, business-generating potential, then we’ve failed miserably to exploit it.
It might sound pretty crude but I’m pretty clear that I don’t care if our design donation story and work is perceived cynically – it’s something we choose to do, love to do and we’ve never deviated from it, nor – as far as I can tell – directly benefitted from it in a business sense. I don’t really feel that we’ve really promoted that aspect of our work to prospective clients or interested parties – perhaps others would disagree, but I don’t think our site, blog or Twitter use reflects an emphasis on donation, beyond describing it where appropriate and necessary. I’m personally more interested in the ethical characteristics of the company but, like design donation, I don’t think any client past or present has elected to work with us on that basis alone – it would (and should) never supersede consideration of effective design and experience.
(EK) I have no problem with how we’re perceived. We know the donated work we create makes a difference to those we help and at the end of the day that’s all that matters. If a commercial client responds well because of that work, then that’s a great thing, as we probably view the role of design in a similar way.
5. Do you consider the long term changes that are bought about by the projects you undertake and is time taken to discuss them in work place?
(PB) It’s important that we consider the possibilities of long-term, meaningful outcomes when we choose to undertake a project, but primarily in terms of the ‘capabilities’ of the organisation behind it and their objectives in that particular case. If it’s a design donation scenario, then the intent and possibilities of the project, as we perceive them, are primary considerations when choosing to commit to the work. If it’s a commercial project, then we’re more concerned about ensuring that the outcome isn’t going to be harmful, or that the organisation behind the project doesn’t have a track-record of doing harm. In either case, we always consider the effectiveness of a particular exercise – not just from a visual design perspective – and do our best to relate this to the client. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, if a project is misguided in the first instance, great design work is not going to save it or help it overcome the inherent problems it has. We try to identify such problems and either avoid the project entirely or offer input that we hope might help direct it in a more positive direction. Sometimes that’s successful, other times it’s not – where we have long-term relationships with the clients concerned, it’s usually more the former than the latter.