is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘The action of constraining
oneself by oath, promise, or contract to a particular course of action; a
mutually binding agreement.’ (OED Online, 2017). This is referring to the word
obligation in the moral sense, rather than a legal constraint in the same
manner that is enacted by authorities such as ASA. This in itself means on the
whole graphic designers must be aware of the laws regarding advertising to be
able to work around them. Therefore, do certain designers not appreciate the potential
consequences, or are they simply unbothered?
Milton Glaser’s essay on ambiguity and truth he describes his test of ‘The Road
to Hell’, in which questions are presented that begin easy and develop into difficult
moral problems. The final question being: ‘Would you design an ad for a product
whose continued use might cause the user’s death?’ Only 3 or 4 in a group of 20
were willing to go all the way, however they drew the line at harming their
family, friends or neighbours (Glaser, n.d.). For the few willing to cause
the users death is thinking of the audience as ‘consumers’, as ‘others’, rather
than their friends and family the key, even though these are one and the same?
And to what extent is this born out of a sense of duty to the company? What is
the role of the designer: to communicate truths or to communicate what is being
dictated, no matter if it is untrue? We come back to the question raised in the
first section: is it enough that it is legal?
morality is key to understanding the reasons behind designing misleading design.
The book ‘Moral Obligation’ is a set of essays and lectures by the Oxford moral
philosopher H.A. Prichard (1871-1947) where he argues against the connection between
duty and happiness or duty and personal advantage (Prichard, 1968). The connection between duty and
happiness is relevant to the relationship designers have to their work, whereas
the connection between duty and personal advantage is relevant to companies
trying to present a product or idea. Milton Glaser touches on this in his
essay ‘Ambiguity and Truth’ saying
“While we often don’t originate the content of what we transmit, we are an
essential part of communicating ideas to a public that is affected by what we
say.” (Glaser, n.d.).
issue of designers using their abilities conscientiously in order to improve
society are addressed in the ‘First Things First’ manifesto; a collective of
designers who called for a reoccurrence of humanist aspects in design. Yet the
issues raised were not straightforward and encompassed ambiguous ideas, this
made them problematic to resolve in a society that was relatively free. These
issues are and were contentious, but remain relevant today (Garland et al., 1964).