Finding my Ethics in Design

It would be an enormous understatement, and rather hackey, to comment on how this time in quarantine is changing EVERYTHING. For sure, individual lives, families, institutions, and government will all have to adapt to a dodgy economic landscape and a feeling of overall unease and insecurity. But It’s hard to look at the news and not feel like everything is stuck in molasses.

Despite the U.S. being touted as the land of the greatest creative minds and the pinnacle of innovation, we are leaving a (reductively) ‘failed state’ to our children and grandchildren to deal with. But the question always remains “What can I do?”. How do I resolve these feelings of helplessness and depression? How do I not feel like an ant under the boot of a careless god?

For the sake of my personal sanity, I had to resolve this. The fact that ‘midlife crisis’ could be fueling my current anxiety be damned. I need to find my place in the future. How can I use what I have to help move the energy of the planet in a harmonious direction?

I figured the first thing was to examine what I do. I’m an artist. With over four decades claiming this distinction I have no fucking idea what that means. Now, what I literally do is design for money. I’m a visual prostitute.

As a designer, I seek out the highest paying, or the most glamorous and portfolio enhancing projects and I trade my time for money. No judgment. No shade. It’s what designers do. I don’t think the word ‘ethics’ has ever been mentioned in my 20+ years as a professional designer. Not at Cornell University where I was a lead designer. Not at Lorel Marketing where my biggest client was King of Prussia Mall. Not at the dozens of agencies and brands that I’ve done all sorts of projects for.

Never as a designer am I confronted with thinking about the effects of my ‘creativity’ on society. My ‘art’ fuels consumption and up until this forced quiet time that we’re all going through have I really thought about what my place in all this is. All I know is I don’t want to spend the next twenty years designing ads for Testosterone medication or Digital Tv Services.

Yesterday as I was riding my bike I came across a wall filled with colorful posters all promoting a stay-at-home message. Most were nicely done and well designed but what it sparked in me was a reexamination of my contributions to the world and how I can put my talents to better use.

One of the things that have always bothered me as far as the occupation of the design was the lack of diversity. It’s a lot better than when I started in the late ’90s but it’s still woefully underrepresented. To that end in the past, I attempted a few projects that I thought were approaching solutions but in the end, were unsustainable. There is also a current project in the mix that has potential. But I find it hard to move on unless I really figure out ‘why’ I do what I do.

Finding that ‘why’ was something I thought would make interesting content and hopefully useful to any other designer struggling with these same thoughts right now. Before writing this I simply Googled ‘ethical design’ to see what came up. At first glance, I found a few interesting articles and websites but nothing that really succinctly got to what was bothering me.

I guess what I’m looking for is, for example, the fictional Don Draper’s “Why I quit Tobacco.” article where his agency (for less than pure motives) quit taking cigarette clients. There are plenty of examples of creatives leaving advertising like Ridley Scott but I haven’t come across any major treatise. Over the foreseeable future, I’ll be coming back to this subject and sharing with you what I’ve found. In the meantime, I hope that you are using this time to slow down and take some assessment of how what we choose to do so with our time can effect change in the world.

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