Design Less Better was very grateful for the opportunity to sit down with Milton Glaser recently and talk about his views on design ethics. This interview was originally posted over the course of three days. You are currently reading the first of three. You can read the whole interview here.
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!
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