A Discussion of Ethics and Responsibility Within the Media Design Field

Within every profession lies responsibility-responsibility to clients, responsibility to fulfill job requirements, responsibility for oneself and in some cases responsibility to the general public. As a designer, the latter responsibility is something that may weigh in more heavily than for most careers. They are the ones who design Billboards, create ad campaigns, design book covers and board games. This puts their work and their personal style on showcase for all to see and for all to interpret. When designing for the general public, the types of responsibility can be separated into three main issues: the issue of ethics, issue of morals, and the issue of self expression.

Ethics can be a lot of things, but when I think of ethics as it concerns design, I think of the set of principles that define society’s view of, broadly, what is “right” and what is “wrong.” This is considered a responsibility, because you want to step on as few toes as possible, and make sure that your designs are beneficial to your client, and enjoyed by most of the general public. The goal of a design is effectiveness: to create something that makes such an impact that those who view it are affected by it. But, if the design promotes what some view as an unethical ideal, the piece may lose parts of it initial purpose. Therefore, graphic designers should consider social ethics and practice ethical concept art when designing for the public.

Just because a design is controversial doesn’t necessarily mean that it loses effectiveness, or that it is unethical. On the contrary, using controversy as a ploy for a design can be very beneficial and in fact enhance the effectiveness of a piece. It just requires a great deal of judgment and critical thinking on the part of the designer. That is why most graphic artists need to posses an essential duty to also focus on conceptual art. Because almost all types of media art is geared towards communicating a message, it is up to the designer to have a clear idea of what this message will be.It is often up to the public to decide what is ethical and what is not, and the answer won’t ever be a definitive “yes” or “no.” It’s difficult to judge something as ambiguous and personal as morals. In fact there are entire careers based upon the examination of social ethics, and this is just one thing any designer should be familiar with.

A few design students at Massey University developed some provocative designs that sparked interest, and sparked some controversy. One of the specific messages stated: “Why do we have hot cross buns? Because bread rises and so did Jesus.” Much of the public resented the comparison of bread to Jesus. But, many people considered it “irreverent and light hearted.” (“Design Students behind controversial Billboard,” 2004). The student’s defense stated that they researched the surrounding areas and devised the plan to target non-church goers and appeal to their side of the spectrum. There hasn’t been an evaluation of its effectiveness yet, but who is correct in this ethical issue? It is for the public to decide, and this is the dilemma that a designer is faced with.

The issue of Morals within design is very similar to ethics, except I believe that it applies more to the designer’s personal beliefs. In my opinion, a designer has a moral responsibility to display and create pieces that coincide with their own moral belief system, without offending others who may have dissimilar beliefs. For example, if someone is completely against cigarette smoking, even though smoking is considered socially acceptable, they should not be a designer for a cigarette company, promoting something that they are opposed to. It can be argued that no one is aware of the designer’s stance on the issue and that it really shouldn’t matter, but, in my opinion, it does. I believe that a designer owes it to the public and themselves to stay true to their moral beliefs and to not visually display their artwork if it completely disagrees with the designer’s integrity. It is a responsibility that the artist has to the public, and also to themselves.

The final responsibility that the designer has to the public is to practice honest self expression. This isn’t a moral or social issue, this is just a belief that I have when it comes to any form of artistic expression. A designer should never create a design that doesn’t represent their ideas, values, artistic ability or artistic integrity. Obviously there will be times when an artist needs to bring home a pay check and possibly sacrifice their creative values to do a piece that does not necessarily express their true individuality, but expresses the ideas needed to sell the piece. Again, this is a hazy issue, but in general a true artist should always strive to create something that is completely original, and something that they can be proud of. If every designer practices this type of creative integrity, there would be no issues of morals, ethics, or self expression. Because the designer would be an untainted artist, using raw beauty and ability in every piece they create.

Although the issue of an artist’s ethics is barely touched upon in formal education, it should be a viable concern for the designer. The issue should also be something that the designer has thought about, and realized a basic opinion for themselves. When a designer is presented with a job that might compromise their moral integrity, or possibly be compromising other’s integrity, he/she should be prepared and aware of their own rights and stance on the practice of ethical and responsible design.

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