Designer morals.

The Design Psych
Dec 2, 2013 · 5 min read

Should a designer or design team choose who they work for and who they don’t? Or is it better for designers to remain impartial to their clients’ politics and do the best job they can for whomever is paying them? We take a look at the issue of designer morals and the questions it raises.

One of the great pleasures working in design is having the opportunity to be part of such a variety of projects and learning a little from each one. I’ve walked through the private underground chambers of Edinburgh when preparing for a history app; stood on Eric Clapton’s superyacht when creating a yacht designers’ website; and been taken on a tour of Prince Charles’ holiday cottages in Cornwall. However, it can’t be eco-homes and superyachts all the way — the risk is that one day the phone may ring from an organisation, that may have a fat wallet, but doesn’t quite align with your personal beliefs. Should a designer stand by their personal morals or should they separate themselves and remain impartial — much like the design equivalent of Switzerland?

It may seem a fairly easy question to answer at first.

The phone rings and it’s Nick Griffin’s assistant. They are concerned about the BNP’s brand and wonder if you’d like to tender for the job of bringing them into the modern age to attract a younger audience. It’s a juicy on-going contract which will lead into the full rebranding of all their communication channels.

For most, I would imagine it’s a fairy easy decision here. Such an emotive organisation will split you either into a supporter or opponent and your decision to submit a tender or not will depend on your viewpoint. send you a invitation to tender for their advertising and website. You’ve probably seen their cute adverts on the TV with the adventurous elderly puppets. When you look into the company a little further you find that they are a classed as a ‘payday lender’, a modern day equivalent of a loan shark, who charge up to 5000% interest on their loans, sometimes leading people further into debt.

This isn’t so black and white, but would it raise any issues with you at all? I imagine for some it would, but for others it wouldn’t. After all, it’s not actually so clear whether payday lenders are actually a bad thing or not. There are some who argue that they offer a socially useful service by tiding people over difficulties such as job loss, bereavements or just helping to make ends meet at the end of the month. John Plender recently wrote in the Financial Times that “maybe some borrowers can handle 5000% for short periods. For others it is a recipe for beggary.”

There are shades of grey all through the spectrum when deciding whether to take on a new client. Mostly the decision revolves around the tension between your personal belief and the beliefs being promoted by the client. If the difference is too great, then you will probably suffer from, what psychologists call, cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is one of the most popular and extensively studied theories in psychology. It suggests that we all have a drive to keep our attitudes and beliefs in harmony with what we do, and when they become misaligned we feel stress and discomfort and normally apply techniques to reduce the conflict. If we take on a client project that doesn’t align with our own beliefs than we’re going to feel a psychological discomfort with our decision.

Twisting the moral complexity a little further, what if you work for a brand and then learn the parent company have been the perpetrators of something not to your taste? Recently, Unilever came under fire for seemingly having inconsistent morals as a parent company of both Lynx and Dove. The real beauty campaign for Dove took the moral high ground against other beauty brands by challenging the perception of model looks and their shallow advertising techniques. However, at the same time their Lynx brand revelled in images of oiled-up, bikini-clad babes running down beaches after the male protagonist (often in slo-mo so you could really get a good oggle). So how you would you stand as a designer working for Dove — and, for that matter, how would you feel working for Lynx?

It’s one thing when you’re the decision maker, but what about your design team? If you’re not the one making the decision, if you are an employed designer, what do you do when your company takes on a client that you feel you don’t deserve your design skills? You are certainly put in an awkward position. I hope most design companies would welcome one of their team being honest and sharing their concerns — but maybe some designers wouldn’t be brave enough to do this.

You don’t really need research to tell you that products and services that are well designed are generally are more successful, but there is plenty anyway. In fact, there’s so much that it has its own name — the aesthetic-usability effect. This is the phenomenon in which people’s perception of a product’s usability is more influenced by its design that it is by its inherent usability (Kurosu & Kashimura, 1995). Designers, it seems, wield a great power — and as Uncle Ben said “with great power comes great responsibility”. Or is it better to remain impartial, not to get caught up in all the moral quandaries, and do the best job for whomever walks through the door?

To finish here are some more dilemma-inducing briefs to consider:

– Would you help a private arms-dealing organisation?

– Would you take on work for the UK Military?

– Would you design promotional material for Dignitas?

– Would you create suite of websites for a porn company?

– Would you produce a campaign for a potentially harmful product e.g. cigarettes

– Would you work for a religious organisation that wasn’t your personal belief?

– Would you design for the Scientology movement?

Designer Psychology

Exploring the space between design and psychology

The Design Psych

Written by

A psychologist and designer with a passion for finding intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves.

Designer Psychology

Exploring the space between design and psychology