Unlike doctors, lawyers or the police, designers are not often forced to make life-and-death ethical decisions. But the messages designers choose to impart and how they communicate them may have the power to influence many lives. What, then, are a designer’s ethical responsibilities in the creative process?

How do you decide which clients you will refuse to work for? And should you steer clear of certain design elements or influences – either because you don’t approve of the behaviour of their creators, or because using these elements might mean, shall we say, ‘borrowing’ someone else’s ideas?

Unless you’re freelance – or the boss – deciding which accounts to work on is often out of your hands. When he was working for an agency, Kenn Munk was faced with the difficult decision of what to do when given a project for a large pesticide company. After trying and failing to persuade his boss firstly not to accept the project, then not to assign him to it, Kenn resolved to do a poor job, knowing that he was planning to leave anyway. “The last thing I made for them was a three-metre-tall inflatable pesticide bottle for a trade fair – and no, I wasn’t allowed to keep the skull and crossbones I’d put on it,” he laughs.

Kenn Munk

While a young designer at Saatchi & Saatchi, Chris Harrison (right) likewise worked on accounts he found morally problematic. One of these was Silk Cut – ironically, the account that all the creatives in the agency wanted a piece of. “It was the campaign winning all the awards and helping creatives make a name for themselves,” says Chris, now creative director of Harrison & Co, based in Brighton. “Today I wouldn’t think twice about turning down an offer to work on a tobacco account, but times change and so does the landscape. Who knows which accounts, which are totally acceptable today, we will be dropping like hot potatoes in the next 10 to 20 years?”

But should designers only work with clients that reflect their personal ethos? Illustrator Lizzie Mary Cullen believes that the very nature of design and illustration means that you can be divorced from the intentions of your clients without being unethical. “I’m not a moral compass,” she says. “The wonderful thing about being an illustrator is the upfront nature of it. An artist may say, ‘I don’t want to sell out,’ but for an illustrator that’s our profession. We get paid to present a certain idea, brand or view.”

Lizzie Mary Cullen

Kenn adds, “Visual communication is always about getting people to do something, to steer their behaviour in a certain way – we manipulate. Is it better to manipulate [on behalf of] something that you think is good, or is manipulation in itself bad?”

For the people who run London consultancy Cog Design, talking through these difficult issues – and formalising an agreement – was an integral step in becoming their own bosses. Cog creative director Michael Smith drafted their core ethical policy, which states that the agency will not work for or directly promote petrochemical manufacturers, pornographers, arms manufacturers or dealers, or the tobacco industry. Their clients are, in fact, mainly drawn from the arts and culture sector.

Michael Smith

“Not everyone shares those values, including some occasionally disgruntled team members who don’t understand why we’d turn down well-paid projects,” Michael says. “It’s important not to be po-faced about it; we do have to be pragmatic. Many of our cultural-sector clients have oil-company sponsors, hence the inclusion of the phrase ‘seeks to directly promote the work of…’.”

“It’s really important for us to hold our nerve and stay true to our aims, says Adam Giles, creative director at London design studio Interabang. “It’s not a case of being smug or superior about it, rather that I really believe that what we do now, laying the foundations for our business, will continue to echo as we progress.”

Adam Giles

Then there is the difficult line we tread between appropriation and plagiarism – after all, the designers, artists and visionaries that came before for us have helped form our artistic sensibilities. “There’s a great quote from Picasso, ‘Good artists borrow, great artists steal,’ which I think is an interesting view on plagiarism,” explains designer James Webb of Webb & Webb, based in east London. “We all steal from the things we see everyday, consciously or subconsciously. The job of a great artist or designer is to remember that ‘stolen’ piece of information and form it into a great idea of their own.”

Back in the 1980s, Trickett & Webb (now Webb & Webb) designed a poster for Volvo Parts and Service. It featured a Volvo car, completely dismantled, with the strapline: “A Volvo is the sum of its parts”. A friend of James’s once admitted to using the poster as inspiration for an advert promoting an innovative shoe, shown with its various parts all laid out – an idea James liked. However, he was not so impressed when a big American clothing company scanned in his Volvo poster, removed the logo and stuck it on thousands of T-shirts.

1980s poster by Trickett & Webb for Volvo

Should certain elements, such as Eric Gill’s typefaces (see 'Death of the Typographer' here), be boycotted? There have been countless well-documented examples of questionable life choices of certain creatives, and we might have qualms about using or enjoying their work.

“For me, celebrating an artist’s creation is far from the same as condoning their lifestyle,” Adam says. “But it undoubtedly becomes trickier if the artist is still alive and profiting from our participation in their work. Should we see the latest Roman Polanski film? It’s certainly a lot easier to put aside any moral objections with the passing of time.”

Mike Dempsey

In the pointed case of Eric Gill, Mike Dempsey of Studio Dempsey, based in London, believes we must distinguish between typeface and typographer. “Gill’s Perpetua is without doubt one of the most sensitive and beautiful typefaces of the 20th century,” he says. “It may be from the hand and eye of Gill, a man with a dubious past, but it has a life of its own and has transcended its creator.”

For Kenn, Gill’s work raises potent questions over not just whether we can separate design from its creator or past associations, but also what we expect from design. “The interesting thing here is the thought that a man with such a warped personal life is capable of creating beauty. Somehow we want beauty to spring from a pure and good mind, and suddenly it’s everything but,” he explains.

Rob Coke

Rob Coke, partner at Studio Output in Nottingham, adds that mulling over these issues also makes us question the role of the designer. Are designers neutral observers, arranging other people’s content in a way that best aids comprehension, or more ‘active’ participants in the process of relaying that information?

“Certainly, the decisions a designer makes are not purely based on appropriateness for the job; we are all guilty of allowing personal preference to colour the work we create,” Rob says. “In that respect, every piece of work should be regarded as being ‘edited’ by the designer – perhaps best exemplified by David Carson’s infamous decision to typeset a Ray Gun magazine interview with David Byrne in Zapf Dingbats, because he didn’t believe it told us anything we didn’t already know.”