Dave McCourt thinks some thoughts...

Graphic design and ethics: a new relationship?

Posted in: Articles, Design, Ethics

There has been a lot of interest in ethics and graphic design recently. This is fairly clear from the number of companies now marketing themselves as ‘ethical’, and from the number of students contacting me about ethics. I’m a bit cynical about some companies who feel they need to include an indication of their ethical credentials on their sleeves: ‘The Good This’ and ‘The Ethical That’. This simply appears to be opportunistic marketing after jumping on the ethical bandwagon.

The reality of this ‘ethical/eco/organic/green’ branding is it a societal and therefore multi-industry phenomenon so it isn’t unexpected to see this happening in the design industry too. If BP and Macdonalds are ‘socially responsible’ as their marketing and PR tell us, then why not a web-design agency? There is almost a requirement to have an ethical policy statement justifying how a company fits into the grand ethical scheme of things. Don’t you shutdown your computer or turn your lights off in the office at night? Tut tut.

This recent surge in business ethics has followed wider concern about climate change and other issues such as sweat-shop labour; issues that have a direct link to the companies that have in-part created these problems in the first place. Of course consumers are directly implicated in these problems; where do you think that 79p t-shirt from ASDA came from? Does 79p pay for a life of luxury for an Indonesian factory worker?

The responsibility lies with both business and consumer but businesses increasingly have a moral imperative to do things right. This is implicitly on behalf of consumers but at best it is to maximise profits by securing new/niche markets, and at worst to ensure sales aren’t hit by bad publicity.

That is the wider context of the greening of companies but what about design in particular? Combining design and ethics is nothing new. In fact design has always had a social core running right through it – design is a social exercise. Design needs an audience to communicate a message to. It is about sharing, imparting, informing, persuading.

Design’s antecedents demonstrate this: scribes and letter cutters made messages for others albeit usually on behalf of the church or the state. The invention of movable type printing in the 1450s freed communication from establishment-approval. Printing enabled anyone with enough funding and know how, to produce their own messages. Printing emancipated the masses and helped end church and state monopolies on communication.

The Modernist-designers of the early 20th century who were the fore-runners of the design profession as we know it, also saw design as a social activity. The horrors of the First World War meant many saw the way forward had to be a positive one. The Modernists were involved in visualising this feeling towards an obtainable Utopia. Mass production was seen as a good thing, banishing the poverty and squalor many had lived in – washing machines and fitted kitchens for everyone was the social dream.

This seems rather quaint now, with the problems of mass-production and consumerism have brought, but at the time designers were involved in making things better for everyone. There were many reasons why Modernism as a project failed. The economy of consumption promoted by America (and designed by many emigré designers from the European Modernist movement) excluded ideas of social betterment after the Second World War, for the sake of business and capitalism. Modernism only remained as an aesthetic but the ideas of socialism in design were still present in Europe: the First Things First manifesto of 1964 was a reaction to the saturation of advertising and called on designers to re-assess their purpose and put their skills to better use. The 1960s and 1970s also saw the idea of protest and agitation in design gain much wider ground: student and worker protests in France, Vietnam War protests, Feminism protests and many others need a visual voice to organise and complain.

First Things First was re-issued in 2000 and updated, and added a slightly different focus from 1964: charitable causes and the environment. In the original version the remnants of Modernism were still visible as the focus was on using skills to create better signage, educational improvements, instructional manuals – a very Modernist sense of lifting society towards a cultural promised land through industry.

In more recent times the focus of ethics has become two-pronged: the ethics and business model of the client and the sustainability of the method of production. In fact these fit within three main areas of ethics and design:


  • Who to work for
  • Behavourial effects on others
  • Environmental impact


  • How well do I do what I do
  • Ways of working
  • Educating clients
  • Sourcing materials and services ethically
  • Charging and buying fairly


  • What is important to me
  • Being happy
  • How I behave to others
  • Moral choices

I intend to explore these further in other articles but this concludes what I wanted to say here: ethics in design is not limited to recent environmental issues and design as a social idea is nothing new.