In our newest design debate, Meredith Hattam, Steven Heller, and Lina Forsgren weigh in on whether you need to agree with the morals of your clients in order to do the job. Ready, set, debate.
When I moved to New York and started out as a designer, I was very idealistic and only worked for nonprofits. I lived here for a bit longer and soon realized just how hard it is to only take on very philanthropic clients.
I do believe that working for ethical causes is at the heart of what I want to do – it is my goal. But when you’re living in such an expensive city, sometimes you can’t pick and choose the work that you’re going to do.
You’re very privileged if you’re able to be picky with your clients in New York. Some designers can be – maybe they have a trust fund or they’re superstars and can take on whatever projects they like. But for the majority of us, we can only do our best. Today, it’s difficult to be strict about which companies you take on in terms of ethics, because the lines get really blurry. Maybe you don’t agree with who’s funding the company, but you support what they produce. Where and when do you draw the line?
I used to work a lot in fashion, which is the number two most polluting industry in the world. There are many wonderful, sustainable brands, but it’s very hard to find a company that produces products that are 100 percent ethical and sustainable. If you’re going about your day-to-day job at an agency or working for a brand, it’s not your responsibility to research the client and whether they are 100 percent ethical, especially if you’re trying to pay your rent. Sometimes you have to put that first.
It was fun to work in fashion e-commerce, with a lot of beautiful art direction and collaborations with incredibly talented people. But with large retailers, you don’t know how those clothes are getting made. I was finding creative fulfillment in my work, but around that time, I decided to start volunteering even more to supplement my more commercially driven work.
For me, it’s about finding a balance. And supplementing. If you truly want to work toward becoming more of an ethical designer, you can supplement the work you’re doing with volunteering, maybe by designing for nonprofits for free. There’s a website called Designers Available that hooks you up with nonprofits that need a hand. I personally volunteer with two nonprofits right now. As a designer, it’s very rewarding, as design is inaccessible for a lot of smaller companies and organizations.
While you often have to put livelihood first, there are still, of course, choices that you can make in terms of how you align yourself. I’ve chosen to support journalism by taking on a full-time position at Condé Nast. It’s incredibly important to support the journalism industry, especially at this moment in time. I really believe in what I’m doing, but a full-time position of this nature has been a hard and rare thing to find in New York.
Policies and ethics have to be separated from each other. A designer could, I suppose, disagree with a client’s policies (or even individual beliefs), as long as the designer does not feel compromised.
Invariably, I do business with some concerns that probably include individuals on boards that do not hold my social or political views. But ethics is a key principle that dictates how a client does business. A designer must be responsible to the client, and if how that client operates in the world is ethically questionable, then the designer is guilty of abetting bad behavior.
There is no law that I know of that says by working for a bad company a designer is ex post facto committing a crime, but it is a breach of personal ethics to serve a client under these circumstances. Some of these are obvious – like a company that promotes discrimination.
One can often justify just about anything, but that doesn’t make it ethically sound. Keeping a job rather than losing work can be justified by any number of excuses. It used to be that advertising agencies that took cigarette advertising (which we can all agree contributed to considerable health problems) justified it by saying it’s “only a job.”
Nothing is entirely black and white. Ethics are sometimes situational. Also, there is the old argument about the better of two evils, or working for good from the inside. In the U.S. now we are so polarized that it’s hard to talk about blue and red without becoming irrational.
I try to warn my students that we are constantly barraged by propaganda for one side or another. The best they can do is try to be vigilant and then do what their conscience tells them to do. As they say, it’s complicated.
I’m a feminist working with an intersectional perspective, so it’s vital to me that my clients don’t disagree with my ethics. Especially in these times – when racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and climate change just keep growing – it’s really important to review the client’s values and actions before going into business with each other.
A few years ago, I was approached by a women’s fashion company called Birdsong London to develop its identity. I said yes because I support its concept and model. Birdsong works under the premise of no sweatshops and no Photoshop; its products are made by groups of female migrants in London who are paid a London living wage for their labor. The company has a feminist agenda, which affects all areas of its business model and structure. To me, it’s important that a client embodies feminist values internally if that’s their image. I’ve seen a lot of big companies that capitalize on good ethics and feminism – that use it as a marketing strategy – while the board of the company doesn’t share these values or have the intention of working with them long-term. Birdsong’s work, on the other hand, is permeated with these values inside and out.
I don’t often get approached by clients who don’t share my ethics, since most of my work is defined by feminist principles. But six years ago, I did get asked to do some illustrations for McDonald’s. I was still in design school, and at first I was stoked to get asked, because I was trying to get my work out there. Ultimately it felt wrong, though. I said no. I didn’t want to work with McDonald’s because I’m a vegetarian and am against the meat industry.
When a new client approaches me, I’ll do research to find out as much as possible about them. If it’s a client that someone I know has worked with in the past, I’ll reach out to ask them about their experience. It’s good to know how a client acts toward a designer – it says a lot about them. It’s vital not only that a client isn’t promoting sexist advertising campaigns, but also that internally their employees are feeling good and being treated right.
To put ethics first as a freelance designer can be challenging. It can be difficult to support yourself, since we live in a capitalist world. It’s also a challenge to make sure you don’t take on too many low-budget projects – so that you don’t get burnt out. But it’s also important not to work for low pay, in order to be in solidarity with other designers: We have to keep a certain rate standard to ensure the health of the creative industry.
Lastly, putting ethics first can be difficult, because when you care, some people will hate and discourage you. I’ve previously received hate messages for my feminist principles, and it can be trying to stay strong.
Ultimately, it’s important for me to work through these challenges, though. I primarily want to work with people who want to see the same world as I do, and who aren’t contributing to its destruction. If I work to promote companies and systems that I do not believe in, then I too am contributing to the continuation of destructive, unethical practices.
The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Madeleine Morley is a design and architecture writer based in Berlin. She studied English literature at Cambridge University and went on to complete an MA in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has written for Creative Review, AIGA, Monotype, magCulture, AnOther, and The Guardian among others.