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Are You A Good Designer?

April 23, 2008
By

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When I was first asked to contribute a piece on design ethics to Notes, I wondered how I could credibly comment on such a complex and highly academic topic. Whilst sitting at the early stages of my creative career, I wondered how many of us really understand what it means to be a “good” designer, and asked myself, if and how, I am a “good” (socially-responsible) designer?

Design is Ethics

Throughout every stage of my creative training, I have echoed the belief that design is “quintessentially an ethical process” (Devon and Poel 2002). I strongly believe that Communication Design has a positive and negative ability to affect social change, but recognize that its influential power should be treated with respect and careful consideration, of its use, from all its designers.

“Ethics is not an appendage to design but an integral part of it, and we advocate using the moral imagination to draw out the ethical implications of a design. We will stress and develop the social ethics paradigm, because design is an iterative social process for making technical and social decisions that may itself be designed at each stage with different people at the table, different information flows, different normative relationships, different authority structures, and different social and environmental considerations in mind. […] One might make the distinction that professional ethics is concerned with the `good’ […] (Devon and Poel 2002).”

Designers Need to Catch Up Fast

The debate over what is “good design” or what is good in design has forever bewildered me, and as the legendary Milton Glaser suggests, determining ethics in Communication Design is complex and something to be carefully considered. Although a “good designer” may, in academic circles, represent ethical motivation and practice, the majority of students are taught to equate “good design” with aesthetic value. We have all been there haven’t we, admiring a beautifully crafted poster, wishing it was our name underneath it. Unfortunately, with the ease of computer skills and rising consumerism, our industry is saturated with technology and this has failed to naturally associate “good design” to ethically or socially intelligent practice. The socially conscious designer therefore appears to the masses to be running against the grain, and often becomes tagged as a Political- Green- or Eco- designer, just to name a few. In order to ensure the Communication Design sector remains as credible to the public as it does to its internal networks, we must keep up to speed with the ever more socially conscious worlds of Architecture, Fashion and Product design. In the words of Rick Poynor, “If communication design is to play a role – and it must – designers need to catch up fast”.

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Thomas Matthews’ No Shop Campaign


What is GOOD Design?

There are, however a small number of socially and ethical responsible designers that match the contemporary nature of today’s leading Visual Communication. Globally known agency Pentagram, sustainability design firm Thomas Matthews, public service design from Think Public, and the socially responsible team at Spencer du Bois, are just a few great examples of the marriage between intelligent 21st Century design thinking and real-life social challenges.

Are you a good designer?

On discovering last month, that only 23.2% of UK design graduates find work in the creative sector (Think Public 2007), I felt marginally happier in the knowledge that I was possibly not alone in the struggle to secure “credible” work in the UK creative industry. Yet, I continue to wonder where that leaves the remaining 76.8% of us? Are we caught up in the celebrity spin of the design industry and perhaps forgetting the real purpose of Communication Design? Are we intimidated by the technological revolution that has taken over our practice? Do design students and graduates have the appropriate knowledge to utilize their skills to positively impact cultural, social and public challenges? (I am sure, given the chance the majority of us would love to have been involved in Bruce Mau’s Massive Change. In a critique written for Creative Review this month, leading critic Rick Poynor hits the nail on the head, asking if we should be demanding more from our conferences than simply a showcase of (beautifully executed) portfolio pieces from our famous designers?

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Deborah Szebeko at Dott 07


The Real Work Experience

Wodcast recently interviewed Think Public’s founder Deborah Szebeko , who gives her definition and belief in “Public Service Design” and continues to explain Think Public’s recent project “The Real Work Experience”. This initiative is perfectly fitting to this discussion; it is a small London based initiative, offering a form of career guidance to socially conscious design graduates, and potentially challenges the pre-conceived ideas of a typical designer career path. Interestingly, explaining her motivation for founding Think Public, Szebeko confidently describes her frustration of how unaware design students are of how they can use their skills to design for the greater good.

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Graduating Into The Real World

During my degree, design thinking, research and risk-taking were highly credible attributes (due to which I perhaps naïvely accepted high grades). Little did I know throughout those years of caffeine-driven creative freedom that the industry I was about to approach was not looking for a design graduate like myself. However, amongst the freelance work and placements, I dedicated time to explore what was happening in the wider creative industry and its surrounding society. Delving into studies of design theory, critique and ethics, I read 2-3 books a week for over 12 months, followed many an online design community, often contributing my research findings, anecdotes and commentaries in an attempt to spread the knowledge that ethics in Graphic Design are far from stale or unfashionable. In contact with creative’s and non-profits across the globe, exploring themes surrounding ethics in Communication Design, research has taken me from Creative and Emotional Intelligence to Educational reform, from Social and Ethical Design to Sustainability and back, and has left me today with a body of design knowledge and a plethora of resources that I am proud to be able to discuss and share in context of the future of Communication Design. Now, with the intention to return to the designer table, I am excited to think how I can use my wider knowledge of the creative sector to assist whatever design team I work with. I will continue to bathe in social research and ultimately I look forward to finding the suitable platform and balance between developing my graduate skills in Graphic Design and the evident opportunities of socially responsible practice.

3 Responses to Are You A Good Designer?

  1. David C. Baker on April 25, 2008 at 11:58 am

    I’m overstating it a bit, here, but essentially nobody is listening to designers on this front…except other designers. I believe that’s because society as a whole doesn’t believe in the relevancy of design, though sometimes they appreciate it. But more troubling to me than that is what I call the “selective ethics” of the design community. They seem to be more interested in social change outside their businesses than inside their businesses. It’s easier for them to make villains of consumerism and commerce, all the while failing to be reasonably profitable (this is a business, after all), treating employees with respect by managing them actively, and so on. Designers can be more excited about the opportunity to apply their design skills to an entirely new industry than the opportunity to do truly effective work for an industry in which they already have significant expertise.

    Until designers admit their marginalization, trace it properly to their own failings, and begin to treat this like a business, they will not have the audience they covet.

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  3. Alice Francis on May 3, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    A designer chooses what products they will use. They have the responsibility of choosing socially responsible products. As a consumer I love socially responsible design and hate dealing with a conflict of conscience. I feel a designer has much power in this field

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