Ethics in graphic design remains a predominately subjective area, rigid rules do not define the appropriate use (or mis-use) of talent. The moral framework is determined by the designer’s conscience, often overruled by financial issues or the prospect of career progression.

Yet design ethics have never been more important, as Victor Papenek states:

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design – but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design . . .” (cited in Sherwin, 2012).

The influence of graphic design is felt worldwide, and to prevent future remorse (seen in the case of James Montgomery Flagg and his World War Two “Uncle Sam” campaign) a designer must be aware of the consequence of their actions.

This study aims to establish the importance of moral ethics in graphic design, promote discussion in areas of good and bad ethical decisions and consider how ethics can be improved in the profession.


Prior to exploring moral ethics a definition was established, drawn from multiple sources.

Firstly the most relevant dictionary definitions were considered:

Oxford English Dictionary 2013

ethic, n. The moral principles by which a person is guided

moral, adj. Of a person, a person’s conduct, etc,: morally good, virtuous; conforming to standards of morality

Next, definitions from both design and non design based texts were reviewed:

Visual Dictionary of Typography

Ethics – a system of moral principles and/or rules of conduct that centre on the difference between “right” and “wrong” (Ambrose and Harris, 2010, p.95).

Washington Ethical Society

Ethics – defines the elements essential to human well-being and proposes principles to be used as guidelines for generating an ethical culture. Ethics also refers to the specific values, standards, rules and agreements people adopt for conducting their lives (2013).

Good: An Introduction to Ethics in Graphic Design

Morals – concerned with goodness or badness of human character or behaviour, or with the distinction between right and wrong (Roberts, 2006, p.10).

The sources of ethics were then considered in an attempt to establish how a designer is morally influenced.

Moral ethics in humans varies, depending on the individual’s belief system, experience, political focus, intuition and legal obligations (Andre et al, 2010 and BBC, 2013).

As discussed by Carl Elliott (1992), the ethical framework that the individual applies is influenced by external forces, often beyond our reach.

“The practical difficult with applying ethical theories to particular problems is that ordinary people pay little attention to theories when making moral decisions. Instead, we are guided by our ethical beliefs, which are primarily the result of cultural factors beyond our reach – factors subject to rational scrutiny and to change, but largely out of our control” (Elliott, 1992).

The ethical issues covered in the website relate primarily to morality, a subject not often approached in graphic design and therefore inadequately defined compared to issues such as legality or sustainability.

Areas explored in the study are; manipulation, corruption, dishonesty, misrepresentation and exploitation. These ethical issues often feed into larger problems affecting society, for example; human rights, health, discrimination, crime, politics and poverty.

The definition derived for this study from the analysis is as follows:

“Moral ethics refers to behaviour and/or conduct which is considered to be right and/or good in relation to the rules of conduct outlined through design education, discussion, set by precedent and moral intuition.”

Case Studies

To consider the real-world consequences of ethics in graphic design several case studies were undertaken. Both good and bad ethics were analysed to allow for a broader evaluation of techniques.

Sunny Delight

Sunny Delight, launched in the UK in 1998 by Proctor and Gamble (Sunny Delight, 2013), was initially marketed as a healthy fruit juice and ‘within months’ became the country’s biggest selling soft drink, breaching sales of £160 million per year (Clayton, 2003).

The marketing targeted both parents and children simultaneously:

Sunny Delight Screen Grab

Image 1: Sunny Delight Advert (2003)

Sunny Delight Advert

Image 2: Sunny Delight Print

Sunny Delight appealed to children (image 1) through images of inclusive friendship groups and fun situations. Meanwhile offering parents an image of a healthy drink and the opportunity to be good parents through purchase (image 2), later corroborated by Charlie Powell of Sustain:

“Take Sunny Delight – in adverts we see the child being supplied the drink by the parent, and the child is then embraced into the peer group. It gives the parents the impression that this is the right thing to do” (cited in Muspratt, 2004).

To reinforce its healthy association, Sunny Delight was placed (unnecessarily) in the chilled fridges next to the pure fruit drinks (The Guardian, 2001). However, Sunny Delight’s healthy properties were soon disputed (The Guardian, 2001). It transpired the drink was only 5% orange juice and compromised mainly of sugar, water, vegetable oil, thickeners, vitamins, flavours and colourant. Furthermore excess consumption led to skin discolouration (BBC News, 1999).

The marketing for this campaign is unethical. The logo, adverts, bottle shape and placement alongside fruit juices disguises the high sugar, low juice content of the drink aiming to mislead the consumer. The manipulation of parents into purchasing the product through providing easy, ‘healthy’ options coupled with parental guilt for outcasting their children if they are not consumers, displays a disregard for morals. This manipulation eventually resulted in a loss of trust in the company.

Quaker Oats

The Quaker Oats company, founded in 1877 (Quaker Oats, 2013), holds no historical or modern connection with the Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends) except to use their image for its representation of honesty, purity and integrity (Chick and Micklethwaite, 2011).

Quaker Oats original identity 1877

Image 3: Quaker Oats Original Identity

Quaker Oats Logo 2012

Image 4: Quaker Oats Current Identity

Despite the expansion of the brand, the patented “figure of a man in Quaker garb” remains the primary identity (Quaker Oats, 2013). Some Quakers are uncomfortable with this association, as the cereal is better known than the religious following and confusion arises – society still perceives Quakers to dress as depicted by the company and a connection can be wrongly assumed between the Quakers and Quaker Oats (Chick and Micklethwaite, 2011).

This practice of continuing to associate with the Quaker image could be considered unethical as it demonstrates exploitation. Consumers connect the cereal and The Religious Society of Friends, the brand associating with the positive attributes of the society. Quaker Oats however are not amiable to the reverse, demonstrated when they threatened legal action against the Quakers fearing the use would “weaken our very strong trademark” (Lovett, n.d.). It is unethical that a brand would build itself on the identity of another, then attempt to prevent the original owner from the use of that identity for themselves. Furthermore, it could be argued the Quaker Oats company may be detrimental to Quakers, for any negative press could affect the impression of the Quakers; for example the out of court settlement of $1.85 million between MIT, Quaker Oats and children of the Walter E. Fernald State School in 1997 due to an unethical nutrition experiment, where children were fed the cereal containing radioactive tracers without parental consent, in order to study the digestion of the oats (Hussain, 1998 and Anon, 1995).

Carex (PZ Cussons)

The Western World currently lives in over-sanitized paranoia. Outbreaks of SARS (Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and Swine Flu (H1N1 Influenza Virus) in 2003 and 2009 respectively, were declared pandemics and, as Martin Lindstrom discusses, are in part responsible for the accelerated profits of antibacterial hand-sanitizers (2011, p.42).

Carex is a PZ Cussons brand at the forefront of UK hand-sanitation, introducing the first anti-bacterial hand wash to the UK in 1994, followed by hand-sanitizer in 1998 (PZ Cussons, 2013). Carex conveys the importance of destroying germs with their antibacterial products, although appearing health-conscious their method of branding and advertising could be considered immoral. Utilizing a combination of misrepresentation and manipulation Carex (amongst others) nurture a hygiene paranoia, even causing health issues from product overuse (Park, 2010).

In 2009 a Carex campaign appeared to support the NHS campaign designed to halt the spread of Swine Flu (Johnson, 2009). The advert was released on 8th May 2009, one week after the increase of the World Health Organization pandemic alert (Anon, 2009).

NHS Swine Flu 2009 Catch it bin it kill it

Image 5: NHS Campaign (2009)

Carex Caught it binned in kill it NHS Swine flu support

Image 6: Carex Campaign (2009)

Following this PZ Cussons experienced rapid sales increases (BBC News, 2009 and Johnson, 2009) including a 205% increase of anti-bacterial hand gel sales for period April to August 2009 (Benady, 2009). The connection between the two campaigns – beneficial to Carex – shows manipulation, as Carex products are ineffective in the prevention of Swine Flu transmittance (Lindstrom, 2011, p.43). Carex nurtured fear and preyed on health insecurities to promote sales.

Aside from fear-mongering during pandemic outbreaks, Carex manipulates the psyche with their family-orientated advertising approach (Pritchard, Smith and Thij, 1998). Advertisements utilise the concern of exposing children to germs with a consumable solution to alleviate the guilt.

Cussons Carex boy and ball advert

Image 7: Carex Boy and Ball

Love Honesty Knowledge Carex good things advert

Image 8: Carex ‘Love, Honesty, Knowledge’

These strategies are disputed by professionals. Dr Val Curtis warns of the implications of an overly germ conscious society “It’s not good for mental health” (cited in Barton, 2012) while Dr Ron Cutler discusses their relative ineffectiveness (cited in Barton, 2012).

Carex fosters the opinion that health requires the use of anti-bacterial products, manipulating the consumer preventing informed decisions about products. While the exuberant claims are discredited by the Advertising Standards Agency, as with the Carex ‘Good and Bad Bacteria’ claim (PRweek, 2004 and The Grocer, 2004) often the damage is already done, fear is cultivated and parenting skills are questioned, as a result children are not exposed to germs creating weaker immune systems (Tremmel, 2009).

Joe Camel

Joe Camel, born to British artist Nicholas Price, was introduced to America in 1988 for the 75th Anniversary of Camel tobacco (Elliott, 1991), to corner the teen market known for its lifelong tobacco brand loyalty (FTC, 1997 and Taffler, 2012).

Joe Camel Corvette 1988

Image 9: Joe Camel

Joe Camel, perceived as appealing to children and teenagers through his ‘cool’ personal was depicted as “hyper-masculine” (Standford, n.d.) and became as recognisable as Disney (Fischer et al, 1991). The campaign expanded to incorporate collectable merchandise.

Joe Camel Drinks Holder

Image 10: Joe Camel Merchandise

Camel Flip Flops and Cap

Image 11: Joe Camel Merchandise

In 1991 the initial backlash against Joe begun to gain momentum and Camel were charged in the Journal of the American Medical Association with “targeting children” (Haig, 2011, p.107 and Margolick, 1994). This culminated in the Mangini trial, leading to Joe’s eventual downfall (Siegal, 1998).

Documents made public during the trial demonstrated research conducted by the tobacco company studied the smoking patterns and addiction of children.

“the fact is that the ad is reaching kids, and its changing their behaviour” (Richards, 1991).

It is widely agreed that this practice was morally unethical, manipulating children into unhealthy lifestyles while dishonestly claiming adverts were intended for legal-age smokers.

It is difficult to enforce ethics to a company selling a product detrimental to health, as the entire practice consists of a complex moral web, depicted in the 2005 film, ‘Thank you for Smoking’.

Thank You For Smoking DVD

Image 12: Thank You for Smoking

“My job requires a certain . . . moral flexibility” (Thank You for Smoking, 2005).

Today Camel continues to use underhand tactics to lure the young and impressionable. The Camel No.9 campaign, launched in 2007 appears as the spread for a fashion magazine (Roan, 2010), only recognisable as an advert on closer inspection.

Camel No.9 Advert

Image 13: Camel No.9

Preference to Camel No.9 increased 10% with teenage girls following this campaign (Pierce, 2010). It is highly unethical to present a product as cool or fashionable when it is as detrimental to health and highly addictive as smoking.

Today designers with greater awareness of their influence have used their talents creating parody responses to high profile tobacco advertising.

Joe Chemo

Image 14: Joe Chemo

Camel Kids and Forever Kool

Image 15: Camel Kids and Forever Kool

Mental Health Foundation

Good moral ethics are normally more evident with design for charitable organizations.

The Mental Health Foundation (initially Mental Health Research Fund) was founded in 1949 by Dr Derek Richter (Mental Health Foundation, 2013) and today is dedicated to reducing the suffering caused by mental illness and helping people lead mentally healthy lives (Mental Health Foundation, 2013a).

In 2011 the branding of the MHF received an overhaul at the hands of SEA Design (Gosling, 2011). The previous identity appeared less corporate, representative of a small charity not a nationwide force.

Mental health foundation boiling Point Poster 2008

Image 16: Boiling Point poster (2008)

The new identity, used through all communications features the new logo, aiming to convey the “authority and credibility” of the charity (Gosling, 2011).

Mental Health Foundation Logo

Image 17: Mental Health Foundation Logo (2011)

Campaigns overseen by the MHF are intended to feel inclusive, notable through their composition, unlike the previous product case studies using techniques of manipulation and exclusion to provoke a consumer response.

Typical poster campaigns for MHF often focus on individuals with no unusual features, preventing increased stigmatism while removing the stereotype allowing acceptance of personal mental illness.

Mental Health Foundation, 2011. Insomnia.

Image 18: MHF Insomnia

With the 2011 insomnia campaign positive techniques regarding moral ethics have been utilised. The posters feature honesty, with facts relating to the importance of sleep and the proportion of the population suffering with insomnia. This gives the campaign credibility and as it is a charity it is assumed corruption free. These posters are supportive and educational, with positive health benefits if the campaign is successful.

Posters and literature from the MHF could be used as examples for design in all areas. By not misleading, misrepresenting or focussing on guilt, design can become a more positive profession.


Stonewall is a UK charity focussing on research and education of homosexuality (Stonewall, 2013). Arguably Stonewall’s most recognised and widely publicised campaign is the “Education for All” campaign, featuring the slogan “Some People Are Gay. Get Over It” (Stonewall, 2010).

Stonewall Some people are gay. Get over it.

Image 19: Stonewall

Initially the slogan was distributed on stickers, posters and postcards to every secondary school in Britain. This campaign escalated to include 600 billboards in 2007 across England, Scotland and Wales, it appeared at 20 major railway stations and inside 3,500 buses in 2009, and in 2012 was set to run across 1,000 London bus side panels (Gray, 2012).

Stonewall Bus London 2012

Image 20

The campaign was aimed to raise awareness and remove the stigmatism associated with homosexuality. The design of the campaign is forceful while honest. Ethically this campaign supports human rights alongside issues such as politics and mental health.

This campaign has felt opposition, in the form of the Core Issues Trust and their Christian group Anglican Mainstream, who intended to distribute a parody: “Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud. Get Over It” citing the possible effectiveness of gay conversion therapy.

Not Gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. get over it!

Image 21

The Core Issues campaign could be considered ethically wrong, by suggesting homosexuality can be cured, a view opposed by gay-rights groups and the government who’s official position of gay cure therapies is “that they are harmful and should not be condoned” (Pinfold, 2013). As with the Quaker Oats case, appropriating the Stonewall design could lead to confusion regarding the driving force behind the campaign, leading to the belief Stonewall were condoning gay conversion therapy, leading to potentially harmful results.

Ernst Bettler

The tale of Ernst Bettler caught the attention of the design world at the turn of the millennium. Bettler was infamous in his approach to destroy the reputation of P+H Pharmaceuticals, by creating a series of posters which reveal the letters N-A-Z-I when placed in order, pointing towards the company’s past of supplying drugs to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany (Beirut, M., 2008).

Ernst Bettler - Christopher Wilson Pfafferli and Huber Contrazipan

Image 22: Contrazipan poster

This subversive activist was revealed in 2002 as entirely fictitious (Alex, 2008).

AdBusters described Bettler’s actions as ‘one of the greatest design intervention on record’ (Poynor, R., 2003). Similarly Bettler was described as one of the “foundling fathers of the ‘culture jamming’ form of protest” (Poynor, R., 2003 and Labudovic, A., 2012).

The story reveals Bettler initially considered telling the client to “. . . go to hell” (Wilson, C., 2000) but quickly realised “in that split of a second I had the feeling that I could do some real damage”. Bettler continued to depict the loss of friends through his involvement with the pharmaceutical giant, to his concern about the deceit being uncovered and finally, the important phrase to designers “but you must remember that everything has a Zusammenhang, a context”.

Rick Poynor in his response states that design has limited power to intervene (2003). However it is vital this scepticism of the power of design does not infiltrate designers.

Ernst Bettler demonstrated designers with a conscience and purpose, even fictitious, hold a place in practice as creator Christopher Wilson discusses:

“From the outset, I had planned that my article could be received in one of two ways: either as a fiction about a designer who destroyed an objectionable client and got paid for it; or as a true story which might hopefully inspire others to think more like dear Ernst, instead of wasting time creating juvenile “spoof ads” for their peers to snigger at.” (Wilson, C., 2009)


For comparison between ethics in graphic design, and in areas of consumerism, expansion studies have been undertaken.

Food Labelling

A recent UK scandal was the discovery of beef products containing horse meat (BBC News, 2013). This was unethical as, while horse meat is high quality and consumed worldwide (Prescott, 2013), consumers in this case were unaware and the choice of consumption was no-longer theirs. Here companies labelling the products were not aware of the contamination, contrasting the intentional mis-labelling of genetically modified (GM) and monosodium glutamate (MSG) containing foods is a far more serious breech of ethics.

With GM food, labelling has been legally required since 2004 (FSA, 2013) following aggressive campaigning against ‘Frankenfoods’ through the 1990’s. In 2010 it became apparent supermarkets were selling meat reared on GM crops without declaring this (Gray, 2010).

In comment to this, Michael Meacher former Labour environment minister stated:

“This is a significant health and environmental issue and people are entitled to know, not have it foisted upon them” (Gray, 2011).

As with graphic design, there is no single code of ethics governing agriculture and food manufacture. Standards enforced in the UK by the Food Standard’s Agency are legal requirements and do not relate to the manufacturer’s moral duties.


The moral ethics of pharmaceutical companies has often be brought into the spotlight. Legal frameworks should prevent unethical practice, yet pharmaceutical companies often exploit loopholes preventing the distribution of complete information or research relating to drugs (Klein, 2010, pp.98-101).

Like graphic design, pharmaceutical companies are not subject to a stringent ethical code, allowing comparison.

One example is Paxil, which first entered the market in 1992 through SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline) and is prescribed for treatment of major depression and other psychological pathologies (Drug Watch, 2013). Since its introduction, many have campaigned against Paxil for increasing risk of suicide in children, adolescents and young adults (Wooltorton, 2003). From 2003 it was banned in the UK and Ireland for prescription to under 18’s (Tracey, 2003).

It was later stated GSK “improperly concealed deficiencies” with regards to Paxil’s treatment in adolescents (BBC, 2005) and were facing criminal charges for the withholding of information (Tracey, 2003).

When considering the long and short term effects this drug had on adolescents, it was morally wrong for GSK to withhold the vital information from trials which may have helped reduce fatalities.

Another case is Dr Betty Dong. In 1987, Dong of the University of California at San Francisco received $250,000 grant to study the effect of the drug Synthroid in comparison to others (Bodenheimer, 2000). As the study reached completion in 1990 it became apparent the drugs tested were bio-equivalent, meaning the most expensive brand-name, Synthroid was no more effective than the cheaper generic alternatives (Turk, 2000, p.59).

As a result Boots threatened legal action and tried for many years to suppress the findings of Dong, preventing the use of cheaper alternatives (Klein, 2010, p.99).

Clearly this is immoral. It prevents the cheaper alternative being available, not only increasing the profits of Boots dishonestly through misrepresentation of fact, but also may prevent poorer patients from accessing the medication.

Product Crippling

Today’s consumer culture of high-priced electrical goods has created a practice of product crippling to make a variety of products from one top-end piece of equipment, creating technology available at each fiscal level (Timmer, 2012).

For example, in 1990 IMB launched their LaserPrinter E, an economy version of their popular LaserPrinter (Deneckere and McAfee, 1996, p.153). The two products were found to be virtually identical, save the economy version was programmed to print slower (Jones, 1990).

Similarly, the Intel 486SX processor intended to be a low-end version of the 486DX processor, achieved by preventing the floating-point unit from functioning (Howe, 2010). This crippling resulted in the 486SX being more expensive to produce, but with reduced functionality (Deneckere and McAfee, 1996, p.151).

Today basic Canon cameras were found to be able to support features of high-end cameras with a simple firmware upgrade (Pash, 2008).

More recently in 2009 Mike Beauchamp discovered the only difference between two “high-quality” headphones with a $150 markup was the insertion of a small piece of foam, reducing the sound quality (Beauchamp, 2009).

This product crippling provides a range of products available at levels appropriate to different groups of consumers, however it is unethical. From research conducted by the Journal of Consumer Research it seems people are likely to react negatively on discovery of product crippling (Gershoff, 2011). By offering a product that is simply a broken by the manufacturer prior to distribution this is a dishonest form of marketing.


From the case studies it is obvious that, like other professions capable of such influence, ethics in graphic design require improvement.

This improvement must come from either an external body, regulating graphic design or the graphic designer’s themselves. In reality it would most likely be a combination of both.

Unlike other professions, for example medicine, law or architecture, graphic design does not have a singular code of ethics to govern the actions of its participants.

One common joke amongst designers: “bad graphic design never killed anyone” (Newark, 2002, p.6) demonstrates the confusion surrounding the power of graphic design.

Primarily a code would be intended to evoke a sense of responsibility within the designer. A code of ethics would relate to employers, employees and fellow professionals, as outlined by Oliver Bothwell (n.d.) and would help improve integrity within the profession.

There is no code of ethics, applicable and enforceable to all. Existing codes present a starting point, however are not widely distributed. Similarly legal enforcements from other professional bodies (for example Advertising Standards Agency – ASA- and Press Complaints Committee – PCC) influence the field of graphic design yet the designer is not singularly answerable to them.

Official codes, provided by professional associations, are only enforceable to accredited members of the association and require the individual to see joining the association as favourable first. Codes by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) and Chartered Society of Designers (CSD) were all considered and provide sound ethical frameworks. The primary consideration is how to convince designers to adopt these codes of practice. Within his dissertation, Bothwell (n.d.) discusses the difference between architects joining the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and graphic designers of no professional body.

As architects are required to fulfil RIBA qualifications in order to register with the Architects Registration Board (ARB) most then continue to become chartered with the RIBA. While Bothwell questions if there is stigma associated to failing to join the RIBA, it should also be considered that as the term ‘architect’ is legally protected there is a higher perceived level of professionalism, which can be endorsed by association with the RIBA (RIBA, 2011).

In response to the lack of ethical codes, students and professional alike have attempted to draft their own codes, assumedly in the belief they would become commonplace.

In his text “Do Good: How Designer’s can change the World” (2009, p.146) David Berman presents the “Do Good Pledge”, a small ethical code intended to establish ethical activism within the designer.

Similarly David Goh has produced Ethics for the Starving Designer (2012). After discussing the impossibility of forming an all-encompassing rigid code, Goh presents a flexible framework, adaptive dependant on resources and availability of work.

As discussed, codes of ethics are not legally enforceable, and a designer must first be aware of their influence and responsibility before considering following a code, as a result it seems hard to believe a code of ethics would affect truly unethical designers.

Alongside a code of ethics, as identified by Steven McCarthy (2010) and Kane (2010), education is fundamental in influencing ethics in graphic design.

As University of Minnesota lecturer McCarthy discusses in his article, “Who’s Responsible?” (2010):

“Educators should be the first to address graphic design’s fuzzy disciplinary borders, and not merely treat graphic design as the job that one gets paid to do.”

The article compiles information from educational conferences in graphic design, reiterating the significance of education and highlighting flaws of self-proclaimed responsible designers. The education of ethics is often ill-considered, due to the external perspective of graphic design as moralistically simple.

Additionally, the accelerated industry expansion through self-taught skills further increases the necessity of accessible, engaging information.

Few universities offer a comprehensive ethics element of both undergraduate and postgraduate studies in design. In addition, self-taught designers will not come into contact with such resources as a course of their design education.

Sources of ethical education to non-university educated designers require an initial interest in the subject of moral ethics to pursue. This naturally presents the same problem as the code of ethics, that the most unethical designers are unlikely to search for these resources.

However for those in pursuit of ethics in graphic design resources are available both electronically, through seminars and in written publications, detailed in the ‘Resources’ section.


As discussed through the case studies, moral ethics in graphic design is fundamentally important, without a framework to follow unethical practices can result in health problems, lengthy legal battles and eventual loss of trust in a brand.

The improvement of ethics with in design lies with education of designers and conveying the importance of strong morals from as early as possible in their career.

While much must still be done, the foundation laid by David Berman, Lucienne Roberts, Milton Glaser and Eileen MacAvery Kane provides a base for expansion, demonstrating the importance of ethics and allowing designers to assess their ethical contribution.


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