On Social Design

The least a designer can do: about codes and deontology

In his new book Quantum Shift in the Global Brain (1), systems theorist and twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize Ervin Laszlo, suggests a practicable behavioural code derived from an ecological and planetary ethics. He ascribes this code a ceiling and a floor, or a maximum and a minimum code, i.e., what one should be doing ideally, and the least one can do.
The maximum code can be formulated as: Act so as to further the evolution of a humanly favourable dynamic equilibrium in the biosphere.
Laszlo himself states that this ideal code, though a long-term aim to keep in sight, is Utopian in the short-term as a guide to action. Hence the need of a more immediate regulation – the minimum code. That is to say that if we can’t without further delay shift our behaviour into positive contributions to the systemic functioning of nature, than we should concentrate in limiting and neutralizing the negative impact we are now having. The minimum code would then be formulates as: Live so that others can also live. (Needless to add this is a global “others“, not just the “others” down the road). This is derived from Kant’s: Act so as to allow your action to become a universal maxim (2). That was – in 1785 – Kant’s standard of rationality from which all moral requirements were to be derived. But back to Laszlo:

“In the final analysis the minimum code would create breathing space, buying time for the necessary behavioural changes, while the maximum code would offer an ideal toward which to strive when the time is ripe for such changes.”

More than taking the opportunity to signal a book that I suggest as a direct entrance to the top-10 must-read of 2009, I hope to raise the question over the lack of a shared deontology within the design industry. How would Laszlo’s minimum and maximum code translate into a set of actions in design methodology?

If you’re reading this, let’s say, from Canada or the UK, you’ll find it perhaps a less pressing question. This moral incentive was most likely since always in your curriculum as a student, and this notion of social responsibility perhaps thoroughly debated. It has been gradually but permanently integrated in your overall approach to design (if all went well). However, there is a large geographical discrepancy when it concerns socially engaged design as something fostered at an educational level. My personal experience led me to believe just that, having studied design in Portugal, with short experiences in Belgium, Holland, and Germany. Back then the gap was huge. I never had these issues debated in my classrooms, even if I’m aware (and rejoicing with it!) that now after only a couple of years they have taken the stage.

Over the years, I’ve managed to build a (vague?) idea of what is happening in American universities, in the UK, a bit in Canada, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Italy – largely informed by having designer friends studying and working in these places. But I would love to know what is happening in India, Venezuela, Japan, Turkey, Greece, Brazil – and so forth. If you are reading this and have a bit of knowledge to add about such places – among others – perhaps you could leave a paragraph or two about it in the comment area. (Thank you in advance).

I leave you now with AIGA’s Standards of professional practice, which include the essential “The designer’s responsibility to society and the environment“. I leave you as well with a personal favourite, Milton Glaser’s Road to Hell. (2002)

“A few years ago I had the pleasure of illustrating Dante’s Purgatory for an Italian publisher. I was impressed by the fact that the difference between those unfortunates in Hell and those in Purgatory was that the former had no idea how they had sinned. Those in Hell were there forever. Those in Purgatory knew what they had done and were waiting it out with at least the possibility of redemption, thus establishing the difference between despair and hope.
In regard to professional ethics, acknowledging what it is we do is a beginning. It is clear that in the profession of graphic design the question of misrepresenting the truth arises almost immediately. So much of what we do can be seen as a distortion of the truth. (…) To establish your own level of discomfort with bending the truth, read the following chart:

12 Steps on the Graphic Designer’s Road to Hell.

1 – Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
2 – Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy.
3 – Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
4 – Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
5 – Designing a medal using steel from the World Trade Center to be sold as a profit-making souvenir of September 11.
6 – Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
7 – Designing a package aimed at children for a cereal whose contents you know are low in nutritional value and high in sugar.
8 – Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labor.
9 – Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
10 – Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
11 – Designing a brochure for an SUV that flips over frequently in emergency conditions and is known to have killed 150 people.
12 – Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death.

(Taken from MetropolisMag. I recommend you go and look at the source as I find it that the colour gradation adds some needed drama to it.)

Original article by Joana Bértholo

(1) LASZLO, Ervin, Quantum Shift in the Global Brain, How the new scientific reality can change us and our world, published by Inner Traditions, 2008.
(2) Kant’s categorical imperative is the central philosophical concept in his moral philosophy, as well as modern deontological ethics. It may be defined as the standard of rationality from which all moral requirements are derived. (From Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, 1785).

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