Illustration by Laura Breiling

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Love the Design Work, Hate the Designer. How Much Do a Designer’s Morals Matter?

Illustration by Laura Breiling
Love the Design Work, Hate the Designer. How Much Do a Designer’s Morals Matter?
Published February 9, 2018 by Madeleine Morley

Each month we present three diverging opinions one on divisive issue. Here, Erik Carter, Debbie Millman,and Paula Scher take sides on whether we can (or should) separate great design work from a morally objectionable designer. Ready, set, debate.

“We must set a precedent so that the design industry becomes more inclusive and diverse.” Erik Carter, independent graphic designer and art director

The industry needs to show people that bad behavior won’t be tolerated. We shouldn’t celebrate the work of a morally reprehensible designer; it sets a terrible example. It says that even if someone has done something awful to someone else, they’ll still be championed. When we discover that a designer has acted terribly, first they should be called out. Then, they should be historicized for what they are. And then, their work shouldn’t be promoted by the community. If someone you look up to or work with is outed for bad behavior, it’s your responsibility to stand by their victims and against their malignant viewpoints. If someone is outed today, we cannot invite them to design conferences, or write profiles about their work online. They need to have no opportunities for financial gain whatsoever, and no professional gain.

Someone like Eric Gill should be discussed as he was: a type designer and a child molester. If it’s a choice between using Gill Sans or Johnston Sans, I’m more than happy to use the latter. There are more than enough good typefaces by decent humans to go around.

Western graphic design has had a persistent diversity problem and if someone is rightfully called out for abusive behavior, then that’s an opportunity for a designer with an underrepresented voice in the community to be heard instead.

The sexism and lack of diversity that is in design is not a problem that’s unique to our profession. It’s rooted in many things outside of design, but it is our job as designers to try and fix it. For the next generation it’s even more important to try and create a community that is more diverse and inclusive. And it is the responsibility of those currently working to stand up for victims and call out bad behavior.


“It’s very difficult to reconcile the fact that we’ve been duped.Debbie Millman, writer, educator, artist, brand consultant, and host of the podcast Design Matters

I’m conflicted by people whose work I adore when I’m also disgusted by their behavior. I’m crushed by Woody Allen, for example. Growing up, Woody Allen’s movies helped me become the person I am now. If you look back at interviews that were conducted with me at the start of my career, when people asked what my favorite movie was, I would always say Manhattan. Always.

But I fell out of love with Woody Allen after he started a relationship with his stepdaughter while in a relationship with Mia Farrow. Now, the allegations that he sexually assaulted his daughter has made it impossible for me to see any new Woody Allen film. I don’t want to participate in s contributing to his prosperity, knowing the things that he’s done and been accused of.

It’s also really hard for me to reconcile the fact that Elizabeth Moss is a Scientologist, and Scientologists have very specific points of view about women that I don’t agree with. But I loved her performance in The Handmaid’s Tale. The fact that she’s a Scientologist doesn’t take away from the excellence of Moss’ performance, but what it takes away from is my willingness to participate in her artwork.

Discovering that someone is morally reprehensible really changes how I view the person, but whether or not their work is good work becomes hard for me to assess. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a fair thing to do. And as someone who has been perpetrated against in some really difficult and abusive ways, I’m saying this fully cognizant of the bad behaviour people are capable of.

I wouldn’t commission or collaborate with a designer that I discovered had behaved badly. Why would anyone? I wouldn’t buy a typeface from them, or hire them to do work with me, or collaborate with them on Design Matters. If they wanted to come clean on Design Matters and talk about their regret and apologize, I might consider it. But I would not give them a forum to promote their work if I felt that their behavior was abusive.  


“Don’t confuse protest with value judgement.” Paula Scher, graphic designer, partner at Pentagram

Ezra Pound is a great poet, even though he was a fascist.

Louis CK was a brilliant comedian, and I will miss him.

Al Franken was a terrific senator who committed a misdemeanor, and I will miss him.

We all know about Thomas Jefferson’s treatment of Sally Hemings; do we throw out all of his achievements?

Sometimes terrible people make great art, and sometimes wonderful people make mediocre crap.

Repugnant human behavior has nothing to do with the judgement of art. The two are not aligned. If you want to boycott something in protest, that’s okay. But you can’t make a value judgement about the work that way. Art is art.

I had an experience with Planned Parenthood recently. I was doing a mural for them that was theoretically about their history, but I couldn’t put up a picture of the founder, Margaret Sanger, because it turned out she was into eugenics. So the founder of Planned Parenthood, who essentially changed the power structure and shape of women’s lives forever, is written out of their own history. I mean, that’s sort of sick. To put her on the mural doesn’t mean you’re for her position—which is disgusting—but by leaving people out from history, you become part of this crazy dialogue that doesn’t accept the fact that human beings aren’t perfect. By this standard, we’d never be hanging up Pablo Picasso’s work. Wouldn’t that be a loss?

I’ve only ever had problems with people—never their work. I knew a few designer-predators firsthand; they were terrific designers and their best work is still great. It’s always a bit confusing because you can admire them for their work while you also resent and hate them. But you can’t make a visual judgement about a typeface because the person who designed it is a predator. That’s insane. It’s pointless, actually. You could say that they shouldn’t get a royalty for it, but that’s another story.

Peter Martins of the New York City Ballet was my client. On the one hand the notion of him is as completely offensive; and on the other hand, there are movies made about people like him. He was an artistic director who had a Machiavellian relationship with his ballerinas that’s like something out of literature. You can’t say you’re shocked when you discover he’s a predator, because that’s his expected role.

This stuff is very confusing. I don’t think any woman should put up with bad behavior, but also you can’t change your judgment of artistic or literary or political contributions based on it. We have to look at the culture that something occurs in. It’s the culture that should change.

More about Madeleine Morley

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.

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