Agents Of Social Change
Essay / 2,000 Words / 2016

Does the designer have a social/moral responsibility?

A powerful design is an influential agent of social change. Designers have an imperative social & moral responsibility to allocate their skills for the good of society. Some designers, however, don’t think about the moral implications of their work, creating designs for profit or propaganda instead of using their skills for more positive action. Through the course of this essay I hope to reinforce and explain my thinking around the subject, looking at key figures and case studies of design being used both responsibly and irresponsibly.


Design throughout its history has become increasingly powerful in terms of its influence within society and public opinion. Dr. Richard Farson is a psychologist, author and educator with a keen interest in design and its role within the wider world. Farson believes that design is the fastest growing and most important industry as it has the potential to greatly change public perceptions. He goes on to explain that this is because ‘designers create situations, and situations are the most powerful determinants of human behaviour’ (Design Intelligence, 2012). Because designers are in a position to reach a large scale audience, they can use their skills to manipulate the world around us, whether that be for the good of society or to its detriment. One man who recognised this power was Edward Bernays, the father of public relations. By analysing design techniques used to manipulate the masses, such as propaganda, he was able to run large scale successful advertising campaigns which altered public opinion. One such example was the ‘Torches of Freedom’ campaign of 1929, in which he staged an Easter parade in New York which showed models walking down the street smoking cigarettes in public. This caused cigarette sales to boom with women all over the United States to start smoking as it was previously looked down on (The Century of the Self, 2002). This demonstrates the pivotal role of the designer and the way in which they can change the perceptions and opinions of the masses. However this also raises questions about how easy it can be to manipulate the masses, is this moral and acceptable in a visual, media based society? Going back to the work of Dr. Richard Farson on the power of design, he states that ’when you get more powerful, what naturally comes is social responsibility’ (Design Intelligence, 2012). Because we have the power to create manipulative messages through design, we should be more considerate and think about the implications of our work and its wider role within society.

One form of design which has most often been used to manipulate the masses without considering its social implications is propaganda. It has been a powerful tool used by politicians and political parties to gain power, motivating the population and demeaning their opponents. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, a famous communication theorist, ‘Ink and photo are supplanting soldiery and tanks. The pen daily becomes mightier than the sword’ (McLuhan, 2001). In its context, this implies that media and design are becoming in themselves fields of information warfare, especially between countries who are promoting heavily biased stories for their own gain. Could it be possible that the information that we are being fed and have come to believe is only half of the story or entirely false? There are many examples of contrasting media and design being used as political tools to manipulate public opinions. One such example is a Nazi propaganda poster which it states, ‘Our last hope: Hitler’, implying that Hitler was the saviour of the German people. However the US created an image, published in many languages, which reads ‘the world now knows that the Fascists have nothing to offer the youth but death’, this is placed alongside a skeleton holding a mask up depicting the face of Hitler. This provides an interesting insight into how biased the media and design can be, highlighting the importance and need for designers to be socially moral and aware.

In the modern capitalist world designers are using their skills to promote products for economic gain. The main reason for this is because this is where many well paid design jobs are found. This limits the scope of design work being produced as Dr. Paul Polak states that ‘95% of the worlds designers focus all of their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest ten percent of the worlds cultures’ (Smith, 2007). Not enough designers are looking towards the other 90% of the world and how design can be used to improve their lives in positive ways. 

One movement that counters this practice was the ‘First Things First’ manifesto, produced in 1964, which ‘intended to radicalize the design practice that was fast becoming a subset of advertising’ (Heller and Vienne, 2012). It’s most recent edition was in 2014 with over 1,600 people supporting ‘a more humanist approach to design and technology’ in opposition to an industry which ‘prizes venture capital, profit, and scale over usefulness and resonance’ (Firstthingsfirst2014.org, 2016). The idea behind the manifesto is to use our skills for the benefit of society by producing work such as better street signs, catalogues, films and educational aids. However it isn’t about abolishing the use of high pressure commercial design, but instead about reversing the priority towards societies social needs. For example, Guerrilla Girls is a movement which utilises their designs not for profit but instead to fight ‘bad behavior and discriminatory practices’ of big art galleries and institutions (Guerrilla Girls, 2016). Their work is an example of design which involves the wider community by campaigning for their rights. This is one of the main ideas behind social design; designing for a society instead of the designing to exploit it rigorous advertising for products and services. Another example is Candy Chang’s ‘Vendor Power!’ brochure which simplified New York’s ‘complex vending policies for street vendors’ (Shea, Drenttel and Lupton, 2012) by using simple illustrations and graphics following feedback from the community and understanding the street vendors’ needs. Working with the population can be a successful way to ensure that the people you are designing for get a pivotal say in the purpose and outcome of a piece, ensuring that it has been designed to better the solution within the community. Architect, designer and Lecturer, Darryl Condon expresses that ‘we need to expand our influence and ability to impact the community and society effectively’ in order to create a social hub within the community bringing the idea of accessible and sharable media and spaces to the forefront (HCMA Architecture + Design, 2015). This is a way in which designers can pursue a social/moral outcome and situate their work to better serve society.

With the emergence of mass media and the internet many artists and designers are creating increasingly political work to criticise the world’s issues. By exposing these matters to the public, they are placing their work within a wider social context as well as bringing important topics to light. One such method that can be used is often referred to as ‘culture jamming’. This is a tactic used to disrupt and subvert modern culture such as advertising and corporations. Greenpeace launched a competition to ‘rebrand’ BP’s new logo which was aiming to make the company appear greener to the public. Many of the results played on the contrast between this green image and the industry, corrupting the logo with black to represent the BP oil spill. Greenpeace stated about the winning logo that ‘It's a logo that reflects the tragic consequences of the company's reckless determination to extract oil at any cost’ (Greenpeace.org.uk, 2016). It is this kind of campaigning which can be used to raise awareness of the falseness of industries, companies and politics. Another example is the work of Barbara Kruger who produces work on a ‘fantasy-fueled appetite to consume’ (Rosenbaum, 2012). One of her key pieces ‘I shop, therefore I am’ is a great example of this as it gives the impression to the viewer that it is our material possessions which make us and that we have a need to shop so that we can feel complete. Through examples like these you can start to see an enduring sense of design rebellion within certain creatives which is starting to become more prevalent in the media in order to open peoples eyes to certain things they may not otherwise notice. It is this awareness which is key as transparency between designer, client and the public is important to achieve a moral outcome in the modern world.

Looking forward into the future, one of the biggest problems we face as a species is our ever changing environment. Due to polluting, wasteful mindsets and ignorance we are leading ourselves towards a large scale environmental and ecological catastrophe, as ‘if the entire world lived like the average American, we’d need 5 planets to provide enough resources’ (WebEcoist, 2008) and because we are currently ‘using up 50% more natural resources than the Earth can provide’ (The World Counts, 2016). We need to start addressing these issues within society. Designers can play a big role in this concept by promoting these kinds of messages and a more sustainable mindset. Marks & Spencer launched an advertising campaign called Plan A in which they proposed 100 commitments to become more responsible and the ‘world’s most sustainable retailer’ (Chick and Micklethwaite, 2011). These were paired with images of products, putting the statements/commitments into context. Asking questions around this subject, and what more we can do is vital, otherwise, nothing would change. Another retailer looking to change their environmental impact through design is PUMA who in 2010, announced a change to their shoe packaging to lower their environmental footprint. Through doing this they were able to ‘reduce [their] cardboard use by 65%’ leading to a reduction of ‘carbon dioxide by 10,000 tons’ (PUMA, 2010). One thing these projects have in common is a transition from sustainability being a part of design, to an approach in which design is a part of sustainability. ‘Sustainability must define our world view’ (Chick and Micklethwaite, 2011).

This sustainable way of thinking can unfortunately pose a few issues however as the idea of green and being sustainable is losing its impact with the public. This is because sustainable is a term that has become saturated along with the environmental messages and images that go with it. After a self-conducted interview with Darryl Condon, it became apparent that this is a key issue the design industry and society face. His view on sustainability is that ‘it needs to be a three legged stool’ in which social, economic and environmental issues achieve an equilibrium. He went on to explain that ‘social and community capacity will make us more resilient and more adaptable, opening up the floor for more meaningful environmental discussions’ Condon, D (2016). The key idea is that there is no point trying to better the environment if we are not also focusing our energy on bettering society. Towards the end of the interview, he put an emphasis on changing our use of the words sustainable and green to the more appropriate term, responsible. London graphic design firm, Thomas Matthews have already made this shift by creating the slogan ‘we believe in good* design. *Appropriate, sustainable and beautiful’ (Thomasmatthews.com, 2016). By situating the word sustainable within the overall term of good, it highlights the fact that sustainability is just an aspect of social and moral design which needs to come naturally to all design.


Before I started writing this essay, I had a strong stance on sustainability within design and how I should be striving to situate my own work around the idea that it must be environmentally conscious. However through the research I conducted and the writing of this essay, my opinion has changed. I now take the opinion that we, as designers need to begin transitioning towards the broader scope that is ‘responsible design’. We need to address every social and moral issue we come across, not just the environmental ones. It is important that designers are cautious to not abuse their power, considering the entire population exposed to and affected by our design.  When asking the question, does the designer have a social/moral responsibility, I believe the answer is most definitely yes. We as designers must strive to be more responsible and consider every aspect of our design, creating conversations around what our role is within society.

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