Ethics Can Feed You Meh?

That the project “Ethics for the Starving Designer” is named as such challenges how most designers see ethics in their profession: a non-issue when you need to finish a project to earn your keep. That is the dilemma which got David Goh, a final-year design communication student at Lasalle, started on this final-year project. After months of research and interviews with students, lecturers and practitioners in Singapore’s design industry, he has come up with a 21-point code of ethics for designers that you can now view online and at his on-going exhibition at Lasalle till Friday.

I checked it out this afternoon and was surprised to find it less contentious that it sounds. To me, the word “ethics” connotes some kind of expectation of saint-like behaviour, but David’s code is open and allows a certain degree of interpretations on how ethical you want to be.

That is a realistic approach, considering how we each have different beliefs, but I was disturbed by point 13 of the manifesto:

“Where my financial, professional and personal commitments would allow it, I will say no to all projects that I deem to be overtly immoral and harmful to society.”

Such a clause almost allows one to get away with almost anything, and in my discussions with David, we concluded that this is a pragmatic response to surviving in the profession. But on second thoughts, I think it also sends the wrong message that ethics is a luxury designers can think of only they have made it financially and professionally.

It is exactly such thinking that probably explains why this project has received little attention from Singapore designers thus far — why rock the boat with ethics when you’re doing well as a designer? David said most responses he has gotten about his project have come from overseas thus far, although he hopes more Singapore designers will engage him on this issue.

But that said, I don’t think Singapore designers aren’t ethical. Many of the manifesto’s points are gut instinct decisions that designers often make, but it’s never been really framed here in the issue of ethics. However, I do agree with David that designers should start this discussion on ethics, and one reason is because it tacitly acknowledges what David points out in point two of his manifesto:

“I recognize that graphic design is a powerful tool… for communication, behavioural change and manipulation. As such, I will treat it with utmost respect and care.”

This validates David’s call for “Ethics for the Starving Designer”, keeping the profession ethical is how to ensure designers will continue to be trusted to solve problems and provide services for the world it operates in.

2 comments

  1. David Goh says:

    Hey Justin! It was a pleasure to speak to you, I’m really glad you took the time to come down.

    Great article here. You’re not alone in feeling unease over point 13 – it’s something that a few others have brought up as well. I really can’t think of an alternative however… Perhaps someone else with more experience and more aptitude with writing can take up the challenge in future. 🙂

    Cheers!

  2. j u s t i n . z says:

    Hi David, thanks for this thought-provoking project.

    I do hope it has generated some interesting discussions for you. Maybe you can revisit it a few years after you’ve worked in the industry!

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