Freelance Employment May Ethically Compromise You

An interview with Author and Design Director of Scholastic Brian LaRossa

We all want to do the right thing. Yet, author and design director Brian LaRossa reflects how freelancing may ethically compromise your work. Read this week’s interview with Brian to learn how.


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Thomas Jockin: Brian, great to have you join us here at TypeThursday.

Brian LaRossa

Brian LaRossa: Happy to be here! Thanks for inviting me.

TJ: You recently wrote about ethics in graphic design on Design Observer. Before we dig into the details of ethics in graphic design, I’d like the audience to learn more about you. I do know you are a design director for Scholastic’s education division. You’re also the proprietor of Type Brut, an art-historic type foundry.

Brian’s Professional Background

BLR: I’ve worked in Scholastic’s education division for 14 years, and yes now manage a small in-house team, supported by flexible network of freelancers. We work on three imprints 1) publishes professional books, and larger classroom programs, for teachers written by thought leaders in literacy instruction 2) publishes materials to help support a strong connection between schools and families 3) publishes training materials that support professional development services which are sold to individual schools and whole districts.

Regarding my type foundry, I’ve always been involved in side projects. During graduate school I creative directed a counter-culture newsprint zine. Then in the beginning of my career I split my time between design and art and was represented by a small gallery in Williamsburg Brooklyn. Eventually my art practice evolved and gave way to other pursuits, like curation, type design, and most recently: writing.

TJ: Which lead to your essay writing for Design Observer? Is that correct?

BLR: Yes. In the Summer of 2016 I began writing essays about the culture of design pretty steadily. In the beginning I was exclusively publishing them on Medium. After a few months of writing Jessica Helfand generously invited me to begin contributing to Design Observer and I’ve published a new essay through them every month or two since.

The structure of a designer’s employment arrangement contributes to the ethical shape of their professional experience

TJ: In your essay “Questioning Graphic Design’s Ethicality,” you go over a survey of the writing on graphic design ethics and then going on to propose how employment arrangement affects exposure to ethical risk. I’d like to understand what is entailed in ethics for graphic design, but first I want to make sure my summary is accurate. Is my summary fair?

BLR: Yes, the piece begins by presenting a broad survey of the writing that has been done on the topic of ethicality in graphic design over the past 50+ years. I then note that most of these have been declarations and so I propose instead to explore the topic through inquiry. I mean, don’t get be wrong, I make a good number of definitive statements in the piece. My writing practice has brought that part of my personality into greater focus. It’s difficult for me to write without making definitive statements. Maybe knowing that is part of why I wanted to push myself to write about ethicality while holding in my mind that I wasn’t quite sure what the answer was. I’ve long believed that the structure of a designer’s employment arrangement contributes to the ethical shape of their professional experience, and my inquires ended up supporting that belief.

Designing responsibly means considering the outcomes of your client’s choices and taking care when choosing who gains from the benefit of your full attention

What is Design Responsible Towards?

TJ: Since my summary was reasonable accuracy, could we back up and expand out what the ethical shape of graphic design is? In your essay “The Wandering Center of Our Attention” it would seem the implied end goal of design is awareness. I feel the end of design informs the ethics of design, but you can certainly correct me if I am mistaken.

BLR: Ok, I hope this isn’t perceived as a cop out but in revisiting the essay you mention above I believe the end of the third paragraph does a succinct job of describing my opinion regarding the relationship between the nature of design process and the effect of design product. I’ll share it below but first I’ll mention that it was writing this paragraph that sparked the larger essay on ethicality. My writing process often works this way. I’ll begin a piece with one idea of what I’d like to write about it. The piece often asserts itself halfway through and says, “thanks, but I’d like to be about something else.” I end up following the writing, and the seeds for future essays are often planted in the writing that came before.

“Whether a brand is a global conglomerate or a single person, we all clamor in the virtual gold rush to be noticed. This context places attention at the crux of graphic design’s practice and product. Toggling between high and low frequencies of focus is critical to a designer’s ability to evaluate and refine value propositions. Designers use these modes of seeing to shape ideas into vessels that catch and hold the attention of customers for their clients. But the power to turn heads comes with responsibility. It can be employed in service to the widest possible range of endeavors, including the shaping and selling of harmful products, and hateful ideologies. Designing responsibly means considering the outcomes of your client’s choices and taking care when choosing who gains from the benefit of your full attention.”

TJ: Life wouldn’t be so fun if we always knew where we were going. To summarize, the ethical dimension of graphic design is informed by “considering the outcomes of your client’s choices and taking care when choosing who gains from the benefit of your full attention.”

A common rebuttal to this inquiry into ethics is such questions are not immediately useful for everyday life. For designers, concerns such as employment or how to do their work more efficiently are more worthwhile concerns. How would you reply to such a rebuttal?

The culture of graphic design is currently structured not to prioritize and promote ethical conduct.

Why is Ethics in Design Important?

BLR: I’m glad you asked this question. I think we have to begin by assuming the overwhelming majority of people have no conscious desire to intentionally engage in wrong-doing or cause harm. I do believe that. In the essay I reference a paper by Francesca Gino where he points out that for “decades [social psychological] research has robustly shown that people typically value honesty, believe strongly in their own morality, and strive to maintain a positive self-image as moral individuals.” From here the question becomes: what are the barriers that are preventing people — designers — from expressing this desire. I wrote the essay with these practical concerns in mind. You don’t have to look far to find writing about ethicality, with regards to design or otherwise, that very quickly jumps on a box and demands that the reader quit their job, or sabotage the product they’ve been working on for the greater good. I agree that this is easier said than done. That’s why I begin by asking “If designers take care during client selection, can they evade the type of intense ethical quagmire that’s only resolvable through radical action? Are particular modes of working within the field of design more conducive to sustaining a long term ethical practice?”

I later propose that “sustaining an ethical design career means carefully assessing the ethicality of our clients, both before and after we begin serving them.” And I make a case for the fact that it is more efficient to perpetually assess a client’s ethicality in a single-client (in-house) mode of working specifically because less clients means less variables to consider. So that presents some very concrete, practical recommendations for how one might approach their design career.

Of course, from there I go on to point out that the deck is stacked against single-client modes of working and will only become more so as we move forward into the 21st century. It doesn’t seem to me that the culture of graphic design is currently structured to prioritize and promote ethical conduct. You are right, this larger cultural criticism does not provide us with immediate action points — we can’t change that overnight. But I hope the point I’m making will at least push people to begin thinking about the way things are, and imagining how they might be different.

TJ: You shared before as you write one essay, the idea for the next one may reveal itself. Where would you like to take your writing going forward?

Brian’s proposed book

Brian’s Next Work

BLR: I’ll share something unwisely here in the name of just being honest about what I’m working on right now. I’ve been spending this Summer working on a book proposal for a collection of my essays. I say “unwisely” because if I fail to secure a book contract, the fact that I’ve shared my intention here will make the outcome that much more public and painful. Still, heart on my sleeve. In order to put together a compelling proposal I’ve had to include essays that aren’t available on Design Observer or anywhere else. Right now I’m working on two pieces for that proposal. One about the intersection of design and identity and another with a title that summarizes its topic succinctly: “Should Book Publishing Leave New York City?” I’ll share a paragraph from the identity piece to help explain what it’s about:

“Over the course of four years practice calcifies into personification, and the line between ourselves and our work blurs. We become a snake eating its own tail. Our work is our identity — our identity is the reason we work. Striving for excellence in the things that we make becomes indistinguishable from striving for excellence within ourselves. But practicing service disciplines, like graphic design, first requires permission from a client…School moulds us into the embodiment of our craft. If a client then denies our request to practice that craft it can feel akin to being denied breath.”

TJ: Nothing like speaking your truth to the world! Now the pressure is on for you to accomplish your goal. Brian, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

BLR: Thanks so much for inviting me! I’m a BIG fan of Type Thursday. It was an honor. :)


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