Social Responsibility in Graphic Design (and my first foray into public speaking)

At first glance, it might seem odd to be talking about social responsibility in the context of graphic design. Don’t graphic designer just make pretty graphics, logos, ads, product packaging, print materials, websites etc.? Well, you’re partially right, aesthetics are a big part of what we do as graphic designers. But consider the fact that these pretty graphics are all around us, and each of these items has a message to convey. That message is never as simple as “buy our stuff”, it’s crafted to convey a company’s unique qualities and make you relate to them.

So what happens if the message is printed on environmentally unfriendly materials when recycled materials could have been used (or a website instead of printed materials)? What if the message is misleading? What if it is demeaning or bigoted?

This is what the topic of social responsibility in graphic design is all about. It boils down to ensuring that both the means by which a design is produced and the message it conveys are ethical and socially responsible. But this also raises some questions, most importantly about the role of the designer in all of this:

  • Is it the designer’s responsibility to bring up issues with the client’s socially irresponsible message or practices? 
  • Can a graphic designer have a positive influence on a client’s degree of social responsibility?

These questions and more were the center of a discussion panel in which I had the honor and pleasure of participating not too long ago.

The Panel

On March 13, 2014 I participated in said discussion panel, organized by Design McGill (Update 1/4/2014: Design McGill is now Design Cooperative). My fellow panelists were:

Discussion panelists on social responsibility in graphic design at McGill University
From left to right: Sasha Endoh (me), Max Kaplun, Andrew Chen, PK Langshaw, our moderator Isabel K. Lee
Image credit: Midori FH
  • Andrew Chen, President & Art Director at KAI Design & Communication
    Andrew is a soft-spoken man, but don’t be mistaken he is sharp and knowledgeable and I am extremely pleased to have met someone with such a humanist approach to the business of graphic design.
  • Max Kaplun, Art Director at Dynamo
    I found myself nodding along to a lot of Max’s points about making sure that you know the companies you’re working with before signing on to do any work.
  • PK Langshaw, Associate Professor at Concordia University, Department of Design & Computation Arts.
    A lot of the highlights for me came from PK’s involvement in the discussion. Maybe it’s because I have no formal graphic design education, maybe it’s because out of all of us she has the most experience in the field and therefore, a better grasp on what’s possible. Her stories were fascinating and authentic.

I was thrilled to participate in the event though completely terrified, it being my first foray into public speaking since speech class in high school. I practiced my silly little 30-second introduction… of myself. As if I couldn’t talk about myself for hours if that sort of thing was socially acceptable.

Amazingly, I don’t think I screwed up too much! In fact, my nerves calmed down quite quickly once the discussion got underway.  As it turns out, talking about things that you’re passionate about and are interested in isn’t terrifying at all – it’s super fun!

It certainly helped that my fellow panelists are equally passionate about the topic of social responsibility and are, in general, interesting and intelligent people with a wealth of experience to share. Moreover, the organizers of the event did a great job at making all of us feel comfortable. Our discussion moderator Isabel K. Lee is well versed in the art of debate and come up with thoughtful questions throughout the discussion.

Overall the whole event was a giant love-fest which was a bit surprising for a cynic like me, but also extremely comforting and invigorating. It’s easy to adopt a defensive mindset and to buy into the negative stereotype of a graphic designer that’s out to screw you somehow when that’s the attitude you frequently get from your clients. Not that the clients are to blame, they or someone they know may have had an unpleasant experience working with a designer. This event was a lovely reminder that even if there are a few bad eggs out there who contribute to a negative stereotype in our field, in actuality we’re a kind, helpful, and intelligent people.

The Lessons

Having the four panelists come from different backgrounds and varied areas of expertise made for an eye-opening experience. As I already mentioned, I tend towards cynicism and skepticism but I’ll tell you right now that I came away from the discussion feeling reinvigorated and empowered. While I can’t point you to a video so you could draw your own inspirations I can list some of the biggest points of the night right here:

  1. We, graphic designers, are not just technicians, our voices matter and it is possible for us to make a difference. Yes, it’s true that voicing our opinions may cost us a client here and there, but it is our responsibility to speak up because our work influences so many different parts of our society.
  2. We are a community with a unique power to influence the world around us and it is our responsibility and privilege to do so.
  3. If our expertise tells that there’s a better way it is our responsibility to voice that to our clients – we are the experts in our field, not them. If we don’t pass on our expertise to our clients then we are diminishing our own roles to mere technicians.
  4. In general, treat clients with respect and be transparent and forthcoming with them. However, if it is up to you to offer them a social responsible solution to any given problem – do so.
  5. We are a community of like-minded, intelligent individuals. It is through our community that we can find strength to stand up for what we believe is right, it is a responsibility to ourselves, our community, our clients, and our society at large. One great example of this is the First Things First Manifesto (1964 Wiki, 2000 Wikifirstthingsfirst2014.org) – I signed it and so should you (if you’re a designer), at the very least be aware of it.

The Conclusion

For me, the topic of social responsibility has always been of great importance. I often forget that underneath my many professional layers I’m a bit of a hippie at heart, or maybe just a bit of an idealist. I care about ethics, and I care about honesty and transparency, I care about telling the bad guy that he’s wrong and lauding the good guy for being right. I became a designer because I love creating things, useful things, but unfortunately it’s very easy to slump into complacency and lose sight of the bigger picture.

Participating in this panel discussion as well as having recently read a book that I’d recommend to all designer (graphic or otherwise) called “How to Be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul” by Adrian Shaughnessy have both reminded me of the reasons why I became a designer to begin with and have reinvigorated my drive and refueled my passion for the work I love so much.

I have also been very interested in doing public speaking as a way to share my passion about my craft, so the opportunity to participate in this panel discussion couldn’t have come at a better time. I would love to do it again, and hopefully next time I get a similar opportunity I won’t be quite so terrified.

As for social responsibility itself, I hope that this small glimpse into the discussion on the topic has ignited your interest in it. I would love to continue this discussion in the comments section below. What are your thoughts on social responsibility in graphic (or web) design? Where do you think the responsibility of a designer falls when it comes to potentially unethical practices? Have you ever felt standing up for what you think is right comes at a too high of a price?  Is the client always right? Do you feel that you, as a designer, have the power to influence the world?

What I’d like to leave you with is a quote from a magical talk by Mike Monteiro called “How Designers Destroyed the World“:

We need to fear the consequences of our work more than we fear the consequences of speaking up.