Design Less Better recently had the opportunity to talk to one of our favorite designers, Milton Glaser, about our favorite topic, design ethics. We are very proud to bring you this interview.
DLB: We all know about your socially conscious design work: the war buttons, Light Up the Sky, We Are All African, and of course the Design of Dissent anthology. Aside from making work with explicitly ethical messaging, how do you express your values in your day-to-day design practice?
MG: I don’t think my ethics in ordinary design practice are different than anybody else’s. Fundamentally, I try to do no harm, not to lie, and to have the same sense of responsibility to the community that any good citizen would have. My idea is that if you have a definition of good citizenship, you behave within that definition. I don’t think it’s terribly complex.
DLB: Could you expand on what’s involved in being a good citizen?
MG: Well, it’s a long and moralistic definition, but I think everybody knows what it means. It means that you don’t deliberately go out and attempt to move people to anything that will harm them; you don’t misrepresent anything that you’re responsible for transmitting. It’s not a very complicated idea. Telling the truth is simple. But the truth is also full of ambiguity. Sometimes you don’t know the truth. Sometimes the truth can produce pain and difficulty.
But I think the fundamental thing in the design field is not to urge people to buy something or to move toward something that would harm them. Beyond that, it gets into a long and maybe overly complex series of issues.
DLB: Let’s talk more about a specific kind of moral complexity in this field. We’ve written about Citibank’s campaign that claims that there’s more to life than the pursuit of money, Unilever’s campaign suggesting that the beauty industry is unhealthy for the self-esteem of young girls, and the many green campaigns that credit card and oil companies are now running.
In one sense, all these messages are good, ethical messages, but in another sense it’s unclear whether those companies have the moral authority to make them. What do you think about designers and marketers delivering values as a form of advertising?
MG: We know the story. If a company uses that as a marketing ploy, you still have to look at the other 99% of their activity. The idea of gratuitously saying that there’s more to life than money and then spending every other moment of your time making people think only of money is a little bit, to say the least, hypocritical.
This morning, I read that there was a demonstration at a gallery in London opposing BP’s activity. And BP said that, despite this, they were not going to withdraw their funding from supporting the arts. They give a million and a half dollars to the arts each year. A million and a half dollars. That’s the cost of a lunch at BP! So that kind of cynical bullshit is enough to make you gag. You know that, in this case, giving to the arts is totally for public relations. It has nothing to do with commitment to the arts, or with BP considering the arts to be significant. If you are BP, and you think that the arts are significant, you’d give them a billion dollars for god’s sake. A million and a half dollars a year. C’mon!
DLB: Truth-telling and hypocrisy are obviously important to you. In fact, famously, your Road to Hell test gives designers a way to establish their level of discomfort with bending the truth. It helps designers figure out what they’re willing to do for a job. On that note, can you tell us about a time when you turned down or gave up a job for ethical reasons?
MG: All moral questions are sensitive to the context in which they arise. I can’t recall a specific idea I gave up, but I will say that it is a single overriding element in my life to do my best to avoid lying to people, misrepresenting things to people, or doing things that I think would have bad consequences. But as you know it is not easy to determine the consequences of any act. As the Buddhists say, “good yields bad, bad yields good”.
It is not a simplistic series of catchphrases that we want to be concerned with. You have to take people’s intentions into account. Experience often shows that things that you think will be helpful to someone turn out to be harmful to them, and things you think will injure them turn out to strengthen them. So we cannot diminish the complexity of these issues nor do we want to make it simplistic. But I do know that I feel better when I benefit the people I communicate with and I’m deeply embarrassed and feel awkward and inauthentic when the work I do ends up hurting people in any way.
I can’t talk about individual cases of course, although I’m constantly turning down work that I think is harmful. But so much is harmful that it’s easy to leave yourself without a basis for your economic life, and that, of course, is the conflict that everybody faces. Everything is a matter of degrees and not absolutes. I will say that as a general principle, I attempt to be truthful and not do harm. How that works on individual cases is very often a complex story.
DLB: In several of your AIGA talks, you have been a very staunch advocate of the importance of ethical thinking for designers. But, outside of a few isolated instances, there does not seem to be a great deal of professional concern about this issue. Do you find that designers seem resistant to talking about ethics, and if so, why do you think that is?
MG: Well, I think it’s difficult to talk about ethics. In part, it’s difficult because designers are very often pressed into situations where ethical considerations are in conflict with financial needs. If you’re earning $300,000 a year and you’ve got two kids in school, leaving BP would be a very difficult decision. And everybody in life — except for saints and maybe those who are more obsessive than anyone I know — has to compromise in order to balance the elements of their life, and has to arrive at conclusions which don’t hurt them too much ethically, financially, personally and so on.
It’s very difficult to put yourself in a position where you’re telling someone else to be more virtuous, to be better or more ethical or as ethical as you are. I hate that crap. I hate the kind of ethical baloney that people talk about in their presentation, and then it turns out that they don’t live their life that way. And it’s not something you want to check on in others. All I can say is that you have to determine in your life when you’re willing to lie and what you’re willing to lie for. It is not a question of absolute decisions. Every decision is relative to everything else that is in your life at the time.
But one of the terrible dangers of ethical discussions is that they soon shift to posing and then it’s like listening to politicians on television. Where does all that preening and posing and posturing come from? The idea of appearing ethical seems to be something that is attractive to people but then when you penetrate the appearance and get to the actual reality of what’s going on, it turns out frequently to be something very different. So I hate to put myself in the position, among others, of saying “I’m an ethical person you should be more like me” because I recognize that everyone is compromised in their lives.
DLB: One last question about a specific AIGA talk, 10 Things I Have Learned. In that talk you mentioned that the AIGA ethics code only covers business ethics. It doesn’t talk about the ethical responsibility that designers have to the public. You also pointed out that professional licenses like those that doctors have are meant to protect the public from professionals. Do you think it makes sense for designers to be licensed? If so, why aren’t they? If not, why shouldn’t they be?
MG: I don’t think you can do it. I don’t think there is a way you could practically, realistically license anybody in the design field. The nature of the design field, the nature of the exchange of goods in it, the nature of capitalism, and the nature of money all militate against arriving at a kind of statement of purpose that says you’re not going to be uniformly motivated by money. The practical difficulties are just insurmountable.
Finally, I might note that the AIGA statement is 10 years old. The AIGA has changed its stated position and become increasingly conscious of its responsibility to the public. So, while that was true 10 years ago, I don’t think it’s true any longer. They have been explicit about the fact that a designer’s responsibility is not only to the client and professional associates but also to the public. That realization was an important one and I think it is in practice now.
DLB: Thank you very much for your time.
MG: My pleasure.
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