We Are Not Spectators. We Are Professional Accomplices

Written by Tom Greenwood - June 13, 2017

Maheen Sohail recently wrote an article on Muz.li about ethics in design, in which she argued that designers have a responsibility to think about a wide array of ethical issues arising from the work that we create. Designers not only have the opportunity to influence people’s thoughts and behaviour, but particularly in the case of communication design, we’re specifically hired to do just that.

Our influence as designers can be positive, helping people to do things more easily, educating people on important topics, providing joy, saving people time, or bringing people together to make the world better. It can just as easily though be negative. It can be used to manipulate people into sharing their data or spending money in ways that are less than honest, to hide important information, promote hate, prejudice and misinformation or just generally cause negativity, frustration and confusion.

It is our responsibility

The thing is that we can all too often be hypocrites in our professional lives. We take credit for our positive influence when we work on projects that match our values, but act like we have no responsibility when asked to work on projects or pursue goals that are less than innocent. We hide behind statements like, “I’m just doing my job” or, “It’s the client’s decision and they’re paying for it.

It’s as if money absolves us of our personal responsibility to be good human beings. As if when we go to work, we outsource our moral judgement to our client or employer. The thing is though, we are not spectators, passively watching our clients go about their business. We are their professional accomplices. Whatever it is that they are trying to achieve, good or bad, we’re important members of the team making it happen.  That is after all, why they pay us money – because they couldn’t do it without us!

Use market forces for good

The laws of supply and demand mean that when more designers exercise their moral judgement to prioritise positive work and refuse or resist negative work, those clients or employers who are asking for positive work will gain a competitive advantage because they will have more designers eager to help them. Conversely, those clients or employers asking designers to work on more morally dubious projects will have to pay higher prices and have less talent to choose from.

It doesn’t just apply to designers either. It applies to developers, project managers, copywriters, account managers and every other role within a web design project. In fact, it applies to all professionals in all industries.

We need to use our moral compass

The difference between professionals should not be whether we have a moral compass, but simply the direction that our compasses point. Every individual needs to be honest with themselves about what they believe is right or wrong. Only by being honest with ourselves, can we make informed decisions about how we respond to instructions that have moral implications, positive or negative. In the case of work that we perceive as negative, we need to decide at what point we’re prepared to take action, perhaps by speaking out, refusing the work or proposing an alternative.

Standing up for what we believe is right can be risky. In extreme cases it could mean putting your job or your business on the line and naturally some people can afford to take more risks than others.

We all get put in awkward situations at times, where we’re asked to participate in things that we know are wrong, and there are times when all of us will comply. What’s important in these cases is that we’re at least honest with ourselves and not in denial. When we’re in denial, we re-calibrate our moral compasses to justify our own actions, and that’s when we become dangerous, both as professionals and as humans.

Staying true

At Wholegrain Digital, we’ve had many situations over the years where we have had our moral compass tested. As a team, we’ve tried hard to keep each other true to our values. We’re in a fortunate position in that we get a lot of enquiries and we have a lot of repeat business, so we can afford to be a bit picky about who we work with. We have also always prioritised maintaining significant cash reserves instead of maximising growth, because it makes us more resilient to tough situations, ethically as well as economically.

Learning the hard way

As an example, a few years ago we had a client for whom we did regular projects. In fact, we did so much work for them that they made up about a quarter of our business. They were lovely people who we enjoyed working with. One day they came to us with a project to build another new website, but with one problem. The problem was that the website included a campaign to raise support and lobby government to take military action overseas. As a team, we were unanimous that we did not want to support or encourage war under any circumstances, especially as we had team members who had been directly affected by the horrors of war. As a business owner I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Even if I had agreed to take on the project in order to maintain the client relationship, I would have lost the respect of key team members, who would likely (and rightly) have refused to work on it.

After some sensitive discussion with the client about our concerns, we refused to be involved. Despite trying to handle it sensitively, the client felt that our refusal was an insult to their own moral standards. So we not only turned down a small project, but we lost the entire client and the 25% of our revenue that went with it. We learned the hard way, that standing by your own ethics in business can be costly at times.

It was hard in the short term, but since then our business has thrived and in the long term we’ve never regretted that decision. In fact, it’s made us stronger at making those sorts of calls. Having our own company ethical policy in writing and publicly available has made it much easier for us to hold ourselves to account, and I’m pleased to say that in the past few years we’ve not worked on any projects that fail our negative screening process.  Not just that but we have increased the proportion of our revenue derived from projects that meet our positive screening criteria, meaning that we as a team feel that the project is actively contributing to a better world.

We have turned down several projects on ethical grounds, but have also put our hearts into doing the best work that we can for the wonderful clients that we do take on, many of whom are genuinely making the world better and all of whom we are proud to be associated with.

Navigating the grey area

It can still be hard at times though, particularly when a project is potentially offering a lot of money and even more so when feels dubious but doesn’t technically fail our ethical policy. This happened recently when we were approached by a well known organisation.

After much discussion with the team, most of us agreed that there was no tangible ethical reason to refuse it, but a few people in the team felt uncomfortable working on the project because it represented a type of world that we do not want to live in, and a world view, that although valid, we do not want to be promoting. As the person who makes the final call, I could easily justify it to myself by saying that it is a lucrative contract, a high profile client and an interesting creative and technical challenge, all of which would be true. However, after much deliberation, somewhat painfully, I decided to turn it down. Not only does the morale of my team mean more to me than the prestige and value of this potential client, but deep down in my gut, I felt uncomfortable with our brand being associated with the project and that meant that we were not the right fit as an agency.

Our professional actions matter

In summary, the world we live in is not defined by governments or corporations, but by the sum of our individual actions. That means our actions not just in our personal lives, but perhaps even more importantly in our professional lives. We need to be honest with ourselves about the nature of the work that we are doing and try to be a source of positive influence wherever possible. When that’s not possible, we need to be prepared to ask ourselves hard questions and make hard decisions. Can we afford to put our necks on the line and speak out, or even refuse the work? Is it worth taking that risk? Or could we tackle it from another angle, perhaps by using it as an opportunity to go behind the enemy lines and see for ourselves if things really are how they appear from the outside?

We all have a responsibility to maintain good ethics as professionals, to be aware of the true impact of our work and to make our impact as positive as possible. If we all do that, our collective impact will be incredible.