Since The Politics of Design was published in the fall of 2016, many people have asked me what they should do to avoid offensive or inappropriate visual communication. Indeed the book has some examples but offers no complete guide or list of instructions. That is intentional as such a list does not exist, even though many management books on ‘cross-cultural communication’ suggest otherwise. Some assign character traits or cultural habits to countries, religions, or cultures, which is insulting and even dangerous. National borders have little to do with cultural behavior and we should never assume a country of origin, a language, or someone’s physical appearance aligns with someone’s personality. The truth is, there is no simple answer of how to avoid insensitive communication or how to avoid cultural bias. That is probably an unsatisfying answer to many readers, which is why I want to share some of the insights from my own design practice.
What we consider ‘natural’ comes from our own personal experience. As a graphic designer you could be tempted to create materials for somebody like yourself in mind, because you consider this to be ‘natural’. However it is only natural to you, not to everyone else. Designers have a position of power because they are (partly) in control of the messages that are sent. Most people are not in that position, and in that we tend to forget our privileges, such as that more than half of the world population does not have internet, that very few people are higher educated, that many people are illiterate or low-literate, that very few people speak or read English, that people have (visual) disabilities, that there are many different languages, accents, skin colours, classes, genders, differences in sexual orientation, ages, cultural contexts. Etcetera, etcetera. The list is too long or complex to simplify or categorize. A good way to begin to understand how cultural bias works is to test your own implicit assumptions at Project Implicit made by Harvard University.
NEVER SPEAK IN THE NAME OF OTHERS*
This quote from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri is as obvious as it is important. Graphic designers are almost always asked to ‘speak’ in the name of others, as we are the messenger between sender and receiver. The paradox is we are incapable of speaking in the name of others, because our designs are made from our personal perspective. Everything we make is subjective and designs can therefore never be neutral, global, universal, or aligned with another person’s beliefs. That is not a problem but rather a blessing. This way we can assume personal responsibility and acknowledge that what we make is subjective, and that any representation of the ideas or feelings of others will be inherently flawed. Practically this means that we should carefully listen to both sender (often the client) and the receiver (the audience or target group) and accept that mistakes can, and will be made in the process. Testing and working with different iterations can help to avoid some of these mistakes.
USE YOUR COMMON SENSE AND SPEAK UP
We should not pretend that inappropriate or insensitive visual communication is something to be learned from books or academia. In deciding what is acceptable and unacceptable social behavior, our common sense and empathy gets us a long way. Sexism, racism, ageism, ableism, xenophobia, transphobia, and other such behavior can unfortunately be encountered in all parts of society, and most of us know all too well what it sounds, feels, and looks like. Such behavior is unacceptable, inexcusable and we should call out and condemn those who are guilty, whatever their social status is.
EDUCATE YOUR CLIENT AND LET THE CLIENT EDUCATE YOU
More often than not, a graphic designer receives text and images from a client. If such material is offensive or inappropriate, it might be difficult to confront your client, as this might jeopardize the work and its associated income. However graphic designers are communication specialists and hired for their professional advice. As a designer you have an ethical responsibility for the work you put into the world, and it is important to communicate your concerns. The client might have overlooked or wrongly assessed a situation and your advice may improve the outcome. If the client insists using offensive or inapproriate messages against your advice, you should be prepared to refuse work. If other designers do so as well, the client will have to reevaluate their messaging. The opposite is also true. If the client tells you your design is insensitive or inappropriate, listen and take their considerations seriously. Be prepared to change your work if you have made mistakes.
DO NOT DO EVERYTHING YOURSELF
Graphic designers are used to doing many tasks themselves, from writing, editing, photographing, to prepress, printing and publishing. During this process you could be tempted to do things or talk about things you know too little about. It is essential to acknowledge everyone has shortcomings and there are limits to what one person can know and understand. Especially if you are working with languages or orthographies other than your own, or visual cultures, media platforms that are different from your own. Do not assume your knowledge in one area automatically translates to another. Reach out to users, communities, translators, anthropologists, sociologists, anyone that might offer needed advice. Seek advice and listen.
YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES
These insights are from my personal experience and will not necessarily apply to other situations or persons. One thing is certain though: despite these insights, and perhaps even thanks to these insights, you will fail. But you should own up to your mistakes, assume responsibility, and learn from them. Learning from mistakes is what makes a design practice better, and these moments of failure gives us important knowledge to become better designers, and better people.
* Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri, Assembly, Oxford University Press, 2017.
Tristan Harris spent three years as an design ethicist at Google, and in a recent article he gives some insight into how designers purposefully manipulate users into social media addictions. He uses the analogy of the interface designer as a magician, using blind spots, edges, vulnerabities and the limits of people’s perception to trick them. Interface designers are experts in using psychological vulnerabilities for their benefit. The most effective are techniques to turn smartphones into slot machines by offering ‘variable rewards’. By constant e-mail and social media notifications, users become addicted to social approval through their smartphones. Websites and apps are designed to keep you there as long as possible, and make you come back as often as possible. Tristan makes a strong plead to designers to tune down the continuous interruption and respect people’s time and attention. Read his article here.