A moral / amoral designer

As our studio approaches a move to Colorado, we have a decision to make: to work with weed, or not?

Information design from Colorado’s Department of Public Health

It’s easy to work away as a graphic designer just making the things on our desks look and work better. Brief comes in, lovely work comes out. We sniff the blood of a juicy creative problem and take the bait, I mean brief, without digging a little deeper to understand the impact of what we do. Where are the morals that help us decide the kind of work we should, and shouldn’t, be doing?

The reason top graphic design studios charge such high fees is that the success of the work we do has a tangible impact on people’s lives: on what they buy; what they click on; which beer they buy; and how much profit our clients make. We can sometimes even change somebody’s mind, help them make a decision, or educate them on a matter they didn’t know much about.

O Street for Edinburgh International Film Festival

One of the reasons we started O Street over 10 years ago because we wanted to have more choice in the kind of work we did—we chose not only a career in graphic design, but also a smaller boutique studio because we wanted to work on projects we enjoyed, ones that enriched our lives! Certainly that means the kind of work we choose to do should be for goods and services that we fully believe in. Initially, we just wanted to do cultural work.

When the arts funding bubble burst, we widened the net to whisky clients without thinking too much about it. It is lovely, well-paid work, and a local product we are proud of in Scotland.

O Street for Glanglassaugh
O street for BrewDog

But working with alcohol is a tricky one. We’ve all woken up with the mother-of-all-hangovers and sworn off the poison for life. We all know people whose life would have been a lot better without the demon drink. Does choosing whisky and beer design work make us bad people? Would drinking it, but then refusing to work on it make us hypocrites? The classic designerly moral conundrum, of course, sits with tobacco.

I’ve always secretly loved cigarette packaging: Lucky Strikes, Marlboro Reds, Camel lights, American Spirits…they were romantic classics. However, a recent ban on cigarette branding in the UK (following Australia’s example) has rendered all packaging completely devoid of brand presence.

While this was certainly bureaucrats sticking it to the designers who hadn’t yet jumped the tobacco ship, I do see this as an endorsement from the government in our industry and our work. It proves that they feel the importance of strong branding in making those products more appealing. Good design sells more fags!

The impending question for us, however, is this: does good design sell more weed? More specifically, do we want to facilitate it?

We are setting up shop in Colorado later this year, and this moral conundrum was brought sharply into focus. A friend and Coloradan said to us, ‘you do realise that as soon as you open up shop here you’ll be approached by a bunch of the marijuana dispensaries’.

We are in need of some big spending clients to help fund our expansion in the US, but would we be happy if that was to help sell drugs? It’s also not just a moral decision but a legal one: would we be able to take profits from selling drugs into our UK bank account? Some high-profile design outfits—such as Pentagram—have firmly taken sides.

Pentagram for Snoop Dogg

I have a feeling I know which way we will fall here, but find the dilemma fascinating. Above everything else though, it reaffirms my belief in the value society should place on great design.

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