Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Do designers have the responsibility to make the world a better place ?

Do designers have the responsibility to make the world a better place ?

It is apparent that the First and the Second World War of the twentieth centaury, where the two main factors that led designers to question their own roles within society, ‘the political strains and appalling misjudgments that led up to the First World War and it’s aftermath revealed the turmoil of forces underlying modern life: industrial, economic, political and social.’ Roberts, R. (2006) Section 1: Making good / a brief history, Good: An introduction to ethics in graphic design, AVA Publishing, pp 16-31. The shock and the aftermath of the First World War motivated not only designers, but also the public to think about these new forces that had arisen from these atrocities. However it is the events of the Second World War that really brought social, political and economic issues to the full attention of graphic designers and artists alike. ‘Within the return of peace, there was a general determination that the pre-war economic conditions suffered by millions, together with the war itself, would never occur again. The practice of graphic design was conditioned by these feelings. Many designers became openly political and questioned the intentions of their clients, public or private.’ (Roberts, R. 2006). Consequently this could be deemed as the turning point for when practitioners developed this conscious way of designing. Not only did the wars implement these feelings, but also the economic boom that followed produced a mixture of thoughts towards designing for good purposes, as the boom generated a mass consumerist culture, which promoted big business. As a result of this new culture and practice, Ken Garland in 1964 devised the First Things First manifesto, in which he states his opposition to this capitalist society and pushes for designers to create for purposeful reasons over trivial products. And this really is the start of the debate as to whether designers should be socially responsible, or if these intentions are unachievable and void.

‘But we are proposing a reversal of priorities in favor of more lasting forms of communication.’ (Garland in Beirut, 2002, p.5) in the manifesto Garland was stating that he and others alike wanted to change the current attitudes towards design, and societies view upon design, that designers only created for consumer products only with little or no consideration for anything other than money.  He himself rallied against consumer culture and believed in design for a good purpose; ‘we think that there are other things more worth our using our skills and experience on. There are street for streets and buildings … all the other media through which we promote our trade, our education, our culture and our greater awareness of the world.’ (Garland in Beirut, 2002, p.5) here he proposed that these items where more worthy of designers attention and that these types of items should be concentrated on more so than the ‘trivial purposes’ he mentions earlier on in the manifesto. In support of this statement is the work of Burkey Belser, whom in 1990 designed the nutrition facts label for the US food and drug administration (FDA). The design now currently displays on over 6.5 billion food packages, and has been called by some to be the most frequently used form of graphic design in the world. This nutrition label has had a huge impact upon society as it allows everyone to see what exactly is in their food, which in turn has had positive implications on people’s health as they can chose fairly whether they want to consume the product as they now know what good and bad elements are in them. As well as this the company making the product now have to tell the truth about what is in their food and this has meant that a lot of companies have had to revise their original ingredients, as people now knew the truth of the nutrition inside and many where deemed unhealthy. This piece of design is highly valuable to society and it is a positive and purposeful creation, which matches the description Garland made in his manifesto. Further more the desire for lasting communication Garland proposed, has also been met by this design, and has exceeded the expectation of success and longevity he had originally wanted. The nutrition label is still present on millions of items of food, worldwide and it could be said that this design is one of the leading advocators of these principles. The design itself is very simplistic, it is in a grid and laid out in a manner that is functional and this could be a reason for its success. The design choices have made this piece of communication usable, as it is so simple, this simplicity almost makes the label invisible to the world and it passes by everyday without people really every contemplating that it is a commodity of graphic design, and that it was designed by a designer, Burkey Belser. Meaning that the label is silently successful, not bought into, and serves a meaningful purpose.

However Michael Beirut, disagrees with this, he believes that because this example of design isn’t noticed and it can not be accepted as a adversary for the drive towards responsible design, aimed at improving the world from a social aspect. “Finally here the prescription… things like the FDA Nutrition Facts label… generally receive neither awards nor accolades… ’  Beirut, M. (2007) Ten Footnotes to a Manifesto, Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, Princeton Architectural Press, pp 57-58. In this paragraph it is clear the Beirut thinks that because the design isn’t interesting it does not receive enough attention and therefore it is not successful, and does not create enough of an impact to have a greater social effect. ‘Not only is design grounded in human dignity and human rights, it is also an essential instrument for implementing, and embodying the principles of the Constitution in the everyday lives of all men, women and children.” Buchanan, R. Human Dignity and Human Rights. Thoughts on the Principles of Human-Centered Design, Looking Closer Five Critical writing on Graphic Design, Allworth Press, pp 140-143. Beirut forgets that this label is used across millions of food packages, and it does in fact provide a meaningful purpose, all though it isn’t an obvious cause it has led the way to the truth in food. Buchanan disagrees with this and what he means is design isn’t always about being about really serious, important cause but the smaller things matter too, and that design can range from the most basic level of importance to the highest, the nutrition food label is not considered to be very interesting but it still helps humans in their everyday lives and so it impacts on our everyday lives, which in turn is actually still important. Burkey Belser’s design is quietly successful, simple in its concept and appearance it remains timeless, therefore it could be argued due to the fact the design is humble, and almost unnoticed it hasn’t needed to change to fit in to any type of trend that precedes it, and the label is still used today is due to these factors. As well as this Beirut is also wrong in when he stated that it would not win any awards as in fact President Bill Clinton issued an award of design excellence for the nutrition facts label in 1997 to Burkey Belser in Washington, which is ten years before Beirut wrote the ten footnotes to a manifesto, and therefore it almost makes his point invalid.

Another example of simple but very effective design is the Red Ribbon, which has been used since 1991 to raise awareness of AIDs and HIV. The ribbon like the nutrition food label doesn’t contain a mass amount of design elements, it isn’t overly complex or glamorous, but it works on a huge scale and again like the label it is recognized worldwide. The simplicity of these designs has made them successful, they do not date and they are easy to understand by many. Especially for the red ribbon the concept is the cleverest part of the design and it is actually quite complex. However the ribbon differs from the food label, as its content and message are more serious and critical, meaning it is actually considered and recognized as a piece of design unlike the food label which in everyday life seems to go un noticed. Therefore according to Beirut this would be an example of design that is successful in creating a positive social response to a needed cause, however as the design is still so simple it could be said that the nutrition food label is equally as successful, and this would mean Beirut is wrong. But in saying this Buchanan has also recognized the importance of meaning, ‘I believe we all recognized the significant transformation of the old design theme of “form and function” into the new theme “form and content.”’ (Buchanan, R. 2000) And this would mean that he too would agree that the AIDs red ribbon is indeed a higher degree of importance, than the food label as its content and purpose is as stated more urgent. Yet Buchanan still believes in the significance of design on all levels of seriousness, and design focused on improving human life, no matter how big or small. Agreeably content in the case of the red ribbon is considered more than the function, but again the function of the ribbon is also important and so it is actually form, content and function that are all equally as crucial as each other. ‘It reminded me that quality of design is distinguished not merely by technical skill of execution or by aesthetic vision but by the moral and intellectual purpose toward which technical and artistic skill is directed.’ (Buchanan, R. 2000) would comply with the previous comment. All three count and all three have made the red ribbon what it is today. The success of the red ribbon, as well as the nutrition food label, would be recognized as a ‘lasting form of communication’ by Ken Garland’s manifesto and vision. As well as this the work of the red ribbon would also fit into Rick Poynor’s revised version of Garlands original manifesto, Poynor shared a similar if not more stronger view on the purposes of design. ‘There are more pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention.’ (Poynor in Beirut, 2002, p.6) The statement supports the work of the red ribbon, which not only was to raise awareness of AIDs amongst society, but also culturally, as the disease was never really talked about and was frowned upon up until the mid eighties/ early nineties, the time the ribbon was created. Furthermore the red ribbon was made for charity, it was not meant for profit. This would means the red ribbon design would fit in with the principles of both Garland’s and Poynor’s manifestos.  

‘We do not advocate the abolition of high-pressure advertising: this is not feasible.’ (Garland in Beirut, 2002, p.5) In this part of the manifesto Garland is implying that consumer selling will never be completely gone as people will continue to buy and companies will continue to sell, but Garland is asking designers to think about their responsibility in the world and how they could possibly do work for both. He himself created the manifesto but still designed for a toy company. It could be considered that both types of purposes for design might be the most realistic. For example the work of Janet Lai, who created a campaign called The Notion of Luxury. This campaign featured bags from the infamous luxury jewelry company Tiffany’s. Based in America, this company makes billions a year and their products are considered to be luxury items, they even make jewelry with real diamonds. The campaign explores the differences of developed and developing countries, posing juxtaposition on the idea of what luxury is. For example cards where inserted into the bags, on one side it said ‘$2 can buy you a cup of latte’ and on the other the same value could buy a family a meal in Haiti. This really questions the audience on their own values. ‘Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising … a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact.’ (Poynor in Beirut, 2000, p.6) Poynor in his manifesto expressed how he felt the mass consumer culture that is now present, especially in Western society, has simplified the thoughts of the public, and that design, advertising and so forth has just become noise and no-one really takes in any meaningful message or ever consider anything worthwhile. However The Notion of Luxury, does question the audiences thoughts, it addresses them directly by using a company that by Poynor, Garland and others, perceive to be a commercial, and consumerist. The design work of this campaign again like the red ribbon, is for charity, and again isn’t overly complicated, this means the concept and therefore the message really stand out, and so the content is the most important aspect of the campaign. However the campaign is still in a way promoting and selling Tiffany’s ‘the greatest designers have always found ways to align the aims of their corporate clients with their own personal interests and ultimately, with the public good.’ (Beirut, M. 2007) and this describes the idea that a designer cannot just choose one or the other, it is not a straight choice, and that the best designers do work for big companies but they don’t forget their own values and try to take responsibility wherever and whenever possible. This is important as it balances the work of consumer and socially good purposes, as Janet Lai’s campaign does. The campaign at least considers its implications on the world and in society; the designer is pushing for the consumer to do the same.

But actually how good is this notion. Can it even be considered to be good socially, when there is the involvement of a big business? ‘ Yet like many cultural institutions, they are supported by philanthropy from many large corporations, including the generous Phillip Morris Companies… and come to think of it don’t I know a lot of graphic designers who smoke?’ (Beirut, M. 2007) Some designers take no responsibility for who they design for, and for what purpose, hence the volume of mass consumerism. For example when Frank Gianninoto designed the new packaging for Marlboro cigarettes, in 1955. Cigarettes are mentioned, within a list of products that mostly have ethical issues surrounding them and the companies whom sell them. ‘Encouraged in this direction, designers then apply their skill and imagination to sell dog biscuits…’ (Poynor in Beirut, 2000, p.6) Poynor mentions these products on purpose as he is trying to point out that designing for the products and their companies is irresponsible and unessential. Cigarettes in themselves are questionable, they do not benefit anyone’s health and are the cause of many health problems globally, they are also one of the main causes of cancer, and they inherently are not good. And so in designing for this type of product, trying to get people to buy the product you are therefore adding to the problem and selling a product that you know is wrong. As Poynor stated these types of products are somewhat unethical, and designers should really consider whether it is right to create designs for them. Not only are cigarettes bad but also to add to this the company who owns Marlboro, Phillip Morris, who as Beirut agrees, are a large company who promote the activity of smoking, Marlboro as their flagship brand of cigarettes now has four or five brands of cigarettes with over four or five ranges each. Further more Phillip Morris himself has admitted himself that seventy-two children on the tobacco forms where he sources his plants for the cigarettes for, some of the children where as young as ten years old. With all of this in mind, designing for this company and product would be deemed as irresponsible. The packaging designed for the Marlboro cigarettes is similar to the three examples previously discussed, designed with only three colours plus stock, and purely type, it could be classed as again simple and modern in its aesthetic. This like the other three could have made it successful and its simplicity has made it applicable to other areas of design, including the Marlboro formula one car, in 1972, again this application has many applications and this too could be seen as irresponsible design. However if companies like this are the ones who provide the work, it is not the fault of the designer, and the blame of unethical practice should really be put upon the companies themselves.

In conclusion, it seems that designers and their way and purposes for design are becoming increasingly aware of their impact socially, politically, culturally and even environmentally. It seems that designers like Garland and Poynor have led the way in this almost form of design activism. ‘We propose a reversal in priorities … and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning.’ (Poynor in Beirut, 2000, p.6) They have expressed the need for more lasting forms of communication, which the nutrition food label and red ribbon have certainly proved. Social responsibility can take many forms, and there are different degrees of activism. As discussed the nutrition food label, isn’t for a critical cause, like the red ribbon and the campaign; the notion of luxury, nonetheless, it does enhance the living standards of people in their everyday lives, as Buchanan describes is also an essential part of design, and furthermore any design that is based upon helping the lives of all humans is in some way a push for a greater world. It is clear that they all believe that this kind of design is the designer taking responsibility for what they create. Beirut has argued that this way of designing and these ideas are flawed, the choice is not simply one or the other, like in the case of Philip Morris, who supports cultural institutions which are good, but then still sells and promotes cigarettes and smoking, and Beirut questions whether anything can be purely good. Although it could be said that projects like the red ribbon inherently are. In conjunction with this Beirut thinks it depends on the circumstances and position of the designer themselves, as to whether they can design for good. However he does not completely rule out the responsibility of promoting positive social ideals through design, and as Roberts wrote ‘ Practically every decision we make as designers has an ethical dimension, requiring us all to “balance the forces” in our own small way as responsible individuals.’ (Roberts, R. 2006)

Nutrition Food Label, 1990, Burkey Belser

The Ribbon Project, 1991

Marlboro, 1955, Frank Gianninoto

The Notion of Luxury, 2009, Janet Lai


Beirut, M. (2007) Ten Footnotes to a Manifesto, Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, Princeton Architectural Press, pp 57-58

Beirut, M. (2002) ed. Looking Closer 4: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, New York, Allworth Press pp 5-6

Buchanan, R. Human Dignity and Human Rights. Thoughts on the Principles of Human-Centered Design, Looking Closer Five Critical writing on Graphic Design, Allworth Press, pp 140-143.

(CNN) Red ribbon: Celebrating 20 years of the iconic AIDS symbol ( [Accessed on: 7 February 2014]

Cranmer, J. and Zappaterra, Y. (2003) Conscientious Objectives: Designing for an Ethical Message, Switzerland, RotoVision SA

(Print) Design Inspiration: Who is Burkey Belser?  ( [Accessed on: 6 February 2014]

Papanek, V. (1974) Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Academy Chicago

Roberts, R. (2006) Section 1: Making good / a brief history, Good: An introduction to ethics in graphic design, AVA Publishing, pp 16-31.

Roberts, L. (2006) Good: An introduction to ethics in graphic design, Lausanne, Switzerland, AVA Publishing

Simmons, C. (2011) Just Design: Socially conscious design for critical causes, Ohio, HOW Books

Shea, A. (2012) Designing for Social Change: Strategies for Community-based Graphic Design, New York, Princeton Architectural Press

(The New York Times) Design View; Marlboro was once No Man’s Land ( [Accessed on: 7 February 2014]

(World AIDs Day) The Red Ribbon ( [Accessed on: 7 February 2014] 

(U.S Food and Drug Administration) Significant Dates in U.S. Food and Drug Law History ( [Accessed on: 6 February 2014

Word Count: 3,142

No comments:

Post a Comment