We designers. We think we’re something special, often to the aggravation of those around us. At the basic level, we like pretty things and will go to foolish lengths to procure them.
I’ve bought beverages simply for the bottle and have a deck of gorgeously made, unused playing cards. I bought them knowing I’m not even particularly fond of card games. For me the joy I have every time I see them is worth it. Because I’m a dork, but also really, really cool.
We also have lots of opinions about the way things should work and look because it’s our job. We think we’re lucky sons-of-a-gun because we found something we really like to do, and if we’re any good someone will pay us for it. We make things and put them out into the world. I don’t think we talk about this responsibility enough, and when we do it’s not always from the right perspective.
Design won’t save the world.
Go volunteer at a soup kitchen, you pretentious fool.
Designers have the special privilege of tangibly changing the world around them through their profession. We would all like to believe we do, and we do, but designers are responsible for making things work well and coming up with something better.
We’re also tasked with making your product stand out on the shelf or encouraging a viewer to click on your ad. Whether your product advances the world or not.
The illustrious designer Milton Glaser, of I ♥ New York fame, devised a check list for designers to determine how far along they are on the trip to hell:
Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy.
Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
Designing a medal using steel from the World Trade Center to be sold as a profit-making souvenir of September 11.
Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
Designing a package aimed at children for a cereal whose contents you know are low in nutritional value and high in sugar.
Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labor.
Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
Designing a brochure for an SUV that flips over frequently in emergency conditions and is known to have killed 150 people.
Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death.
With great power comes great responsibility. Doctors are required to take the Hippocratic Oath, declaring they will use their knowledge and experience in the best interest of their patients. As graphic design is gaining attention and respectability in the world of business (notable designers Michael Beirut and Jessica Helfand have joined the faculty of Yale School of Management), designers would do well to take similar considerations.
I will do
no harm good.
If a medical practitioner is not causing harm, by nature of their field they are doing “good.” They are keeping someone alive. Designers don’t have it quite that easy, though I’ll certainly take the trade off for extensive years of education. If we are not actively pursuing “doing good” through our work, we’re missing out on a massive opportunity and what it truly means to be a designer.
I will respect designers before me and gladly share the knowledge I gain with those who follow.
Every single time I try to replicate a certain style of design, it is never as easy I would have hoped. I’m by no means an expert but have been messing around with Adobe products for almost ten years.
The tools we currently use make it comparatively effortless to make something. It’s easy to brush off the advice of seasoned designers who make a sustainable living off their work. Young designers need to listen rather than post something on dribbble and pray they go viral.
And when you do learn something new, don’t keep it to yourself. It does no one any good. Obviously if your technique is what makes your work stand out, you might want to keep that under wraps. But we live in a time where everything and anything can be googled. Sharing what you know can help someone else out, establishes your credibility and generally positions you as a good person.
I will not make work I do not believe in, and will do my best to avoid work I am not proud of.
I will remember there needs to be a message in my work and that a concept is equally if not more important than the tools and typefaces to execute it.
I will remain curious about the world in which I live in order to enrich my life and produce the best work.
I will acknowledge my design isn’t necessarily perfect; if the client doesn’t like it, then I have not fulfilled my duty as a designer to explain my choices.
I will acknowledge my goal is not to create pretty images but convey an idea.
I will prevent bad design whenever I can, for prevention is better than a headache.
I will remember that I am a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, in spite of the number of likes on my Instagram post.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.
The best designers, after all, are treated like doctors: they diagnose the problem and fix it through design.
“When you go to your doctor and your doctor tells you what you need to do, you don’t say, ‘No, no, I think we should do something different.’ We trust our designer the way you trust your doctor and that’s hard for people on staff to accept. Everyone thinks they’re a designer. Everyone has ideas, but I think it’s been so important to have a guiding intelligence in our brand. Milton has spent his whole life doing this and he’s pretty good at it. He’s kept us on the straight and narrow over many years.” Co.Design, The Story of Milton Glaser’s Best Client.
Unfortunately (and fortunately), most of us are not Milton Glaser. To be good practitioners of design, we need to work with our clients and explain our decisions to get the best possible solution. Hopefully, we can create some good along the way.
Roundpeg is an Indianapolis graphic design firm.