Branding – our ethical responsibilities as a designer

By Keri Newman
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Warning – Old Blog! But kept on here as the sentiment remains the same today!

There are a couple of reasons why you may refuse work from a client based on ethics. Perhaps their company is renowned for unfair trading, destroying the universe or spreading debt. Or perhaps the company means well but are aiming to mislead their potential customers. At what point as a designer do we take responsibility for misleading customers?

I work with nice clients generally. I haven’t had too much contact with banks, insurance, or accident claims companies and that is quite intentional. In the words of Aaron Draplin “Do good work for good people.’ I like that. Should we as designers work with clients and compromise our own principles? It is great when you are enthusiastic about your client’s business, you build a connection with them, love their products, and genuinely want them to do well. We design their brand identity and websites without compromising our own ethics because they are generally not doing anything wrong. To a degree though, in order to design their website and create an emotion with the brand we have understood the end-user, and by understanding them been equipped to influence their behaviour. Design is never neutral, we use it to spark emotion and often persuade the user to do something.

We could just design a one size fits all website, with a lack of emotion, non-persuasive copy, and create a pretty mundane experience very cheaply and quickly if we are not interested in creating an emotional connection to brands and influencing and persuading.

But we don’t want to do that. We want to create rich experiences which spark emotion and make people feel connected to the brand. When designing brand identity we give the brand a personality and from our choice of typeface, colour, and layout we are already beginning to shape the end-users opinion of the brand, influencing their emotion. This is part of the design process. On a smaller scale, we know which colour buttons on a website the user is more likely to press – this can be from fact or sometimes user testing. If we know that more people are likely to click a big red button saying ‘shop now’ we will design it like that. Pretty harmless. How about if you are directing a website at someone with debt problems, influencing them to press a button with completely misleading copy to increase their debt. This becomes a problem, and as a designer, you could become at the centre of this problem.

I recently attended a masterclass on data visualisation at the Guardian, where there was a discussion on tweaking data in order to create a nice-looking infographic? Imagine with data visualisation how easy it is to manipulate the data to show inaccurate misleading results. The general consensus is not to tweak data or create infographics that change facts but simply make the data easy to understand and beautiful.

There are thousands of experts out there equipped to have this argument in a more in-depth, eloquent way! My point is merely that I look to work with people I share similar principles with, and not look to trick people with design. Influencing to a point is inevitable, it is what we are trained to do.

“Deceptive forms of influences are those where the outcome of an interaction does not match the user’s expectation. Sometimes this is accomplished through a deliberately confusing interface, and other times it’s by presenting misleading information.” Robot Regime