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Where should designers draw the line?

19th January 2015 | Written by David Smith 

Graphic-Design-Moral-Compass

When do you turn work down? Design agencies and small businesses in general exist under the constant pressure of trying to schwerps new clients and projects to keep the wolf from the door. Whilst it’s tempting to chase down every single opportunity or enquiry that comes along to keep the gears of industry greased, what do you do when a potentially lucrative new contract pushes you toward a moral boundary you would prefer not to cross? The next time you are spammed with one of those odious Britain First mail-shots or memes, it’s worth remembering that for better or worse somebody agreed to design that. Perhaps they were a member of that particular merry organisation or a supporter, however, there’s a decent enough chance that an agency was commissioned after resigning to ‘just do it for the money’ and then washed their hands of the implications before handing it over to a junior to slot in between a logo design for a donkey sanctuary and the over 65s ‘Extreme Sowing’ email newsletter for that week. Despite any pay-cheque that may have come our way to keep the bank pleased, we wouldn’t do a job like that because we aren’t politically focused (and don’t like assholes) but sometimes projects come along that do challenge our limits a little more closely.

A few years ago 49th Floor were approached by a group of graphic design students to do some of their degree coursework for a set fee. Apparently they had made a start to the project but had run out of time and their initial concept artwork needed to be given a professional makeover in short order so they didn’t fail the module. Due to the group-based nature of the project, the students had pooled their resources which resulted in a relatively impressive budget being presented which did add some legitimacy to their proposal, but were we going to do what we would never have dreamed of doing ourselves? Ultimately we decided that the future professional development of the lazy but resourceful students would be better served through the experience of failure than it would be by pretending someone else’s work was their own and we said no to the job. I suspect that they went directly to People per Hour and got back exactly what they needed, probably from another student, but it wasn’t from us and thankfully our integrity remained in tact.

A project that we thought hard about before agreeing to do involved the development of a new visual identity for Port Harcourt, the capital of the Rivers State in Nigeria which the human resources unit of New York-based Marsh & McLennan Cos. ranked as one of the world's five most dangerous cities. The basis of our involvement was to design branding which reflected the aspirational values of the official administration which could be used as a springboard to encourage much needed investment and a boost in public morale. We have never been to Port Harcourt and based on the reports of robberies, kidnappings and high crime levels aren’t ever likely to visit in truth, so is it ‘right’ to promote a city based on the straw grasping being done by it’s desperate marketing team to present somewhere in a better light than it actually is? In this case we felt that it was helpful to remember that because the crime rate is high in an area doesn’t necessarily mean that all residents are hardened criminals or that a large city with an interesting history and abundance of natural beauty is not worth visiting. We discussed it and agreed to trust the objectives of the re-branding project based on what our client had told us and approached it on that basis.

We’d be fascinated to learn where other agencies and designers draw the line on projects they accept and if there’s a common system. I used to know a designer who set up a company which specialised in the design and production of those advertising cards you used to find in phones boxes in London - presumably not much of a moral filtration system being used there then.

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