Designing Morals

In many ways, the boundary between graphic design and art is disappearing. We see artists like Damien Hirst recontextualizing the language of everyday branding in order to make a point, and designers often create completely conceptual visual identities for subjective purposes. However, one fundamental difference still exists between the two: While artists create work independently, designers serve a client. Where must designers draw the line between their beliefs, the values they seek to promote, and the job that defines them?

A recent example illustrates the frustration and confusion I face when walking this line. I was asked to rebrand a rooftop farm in Copenhagen called Østergro. The farm is a publicly accessible cornucopia of vegetables, fruit, and eggs. It provides a beautiful view of the city and positively impacts the neighborhood climate, both in weather and morale.

A worker at Østergro Farm

My excitement for the project faded as I learned more about it. First off, the farm was less accessible than I thought. To eat or buy any of the food grown there, one must be a member of an exclusive CSA, which only allows in thirty members at a time, who must each pay a hefty monthly fee. Further, the location of the farm in a middle-class residential area does nothing more than provide fresh food to those who already have easy access to it. The concept of an urban farm did not sit well with me either, parading as a solution to the staggering amounts of waste produced by those same middle-class urban dwellers, as if a plot of land on a roof could forgive and heal the oil stained earth.

I realized the project was directly at odds with my personal beliefs. My ideological views have been shaped by a confusion with the sterile world of late capitalism, which I have tried to understand through the lens of cultural anthropology, philosophy, and art history. I have come to resent forms of experiential capitalism which both distract from and feed off the root causes of misery, whether intentionally or not, by offering menial excitement and commodified meaning. Østergro appeared to be one of these organizations, and I wanted to share the hypocrisy of the organization with the world rather than attract more visitors.

This is where the dilemma of the graphic designers lies. Should I create a dishonest and positive brand, or abandon the job and any hope of starting a discussion? My private reason was at war with my public reason. But in my profession, the sharp delineation between the two is less clear.

One philosopher, Immanuel Kant, believed that for a society to function steadily, freedom had to be limited. He promoted the idea that speech, in its public and debatable form, “must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment in human beings” (2). On the other hand, actions that are privately carried out in the context of a business, relationship, or state, must be “narrowly restricted”, in order to maintain relative order. These private duties “cannot be free, since [in doing them, one] is carrying out another’s commission” (3).

However, what if the actions carried out in a private context happen to be an ideal delivery point for public critique? Kant portrayed public speech in a scholarly, literary form. But graphic designers have the power to change minds not simply through words, but through visual language. They can choose to display images that will disgust or delight, use typefaces that connote eras or places, or combine disparate graphics to draw connections in the everyday world that might not otherwise be noticed. In essence, graphic designers can change ideas through the very brands they create, perhaps for the greater good, and perhaps for subversion.

My public use of reason will never be channeled through polemic essays or speeches to my clergy, but through the brands, publications, and designs that I create. How else can I communicate my message to a sizable audience? With the opportunity I was given, it would be a shame not to somehow embed an indictment of the very brand I was creating within itself, as to simultaneously attract and educate consumers on the lies which they consume.

However, as personally satisfying and perhaps globally beneficial this subversive act would be, it would not be morally sustainable, according to Kant. Kant’s categorical imperative states that all enlightened individuals must “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” If universal law allowed graphic designers to freely insert their own biases and preconceptions into all jobs they were given, brands would be conflicting, books would be misleading, and communication would cease to become trustworthy because nothing would have a consistent message. The core purpose of graphic design is to help people understand complicated mechanisms, and if the presentation and the content of those mechanisms conflict, the designer has failed. If all designers were to follow my lead in critique through production, the entire profession of graphic design would become useless.

On the other hand, if every designer were to follow the lead of their client, pushing their beliefs aside to allow a company’s message to clearly emerge, designers would lose their sway in the world, the subtle control over perception that they hold. We know that graphic designers insert their own views and perceptions into their work, otherwise, there would be no original design, no innovation. But at what point does their public use of reason overshadow the private duty they are hired to fulfill? Perhaps their primary role is not to critique or obey, but to find a way to do both.

I ended up developing a positive brand for Østergro, one that painted it as a genuinely rustic farm right in the middle of Copenhagen. I combined visuals that reminded me of the land, of handmade items, and of everything that Østergro pretends to be. Is this a lie? Perhaps. Is this achieving the opposite of what I hope for on a grander scale? Indeed. But at least at the end of the day, I expressed my public reason somehow, if only in this essay.

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