Ethics in design: Being a moral force for positive change as a visual artist

Matt McGillvray
10 min readJan 19, 2020


Photo by Daniil Vnoutchkov on Unsplash*

Where the flavor is

The commercial begins with a wide shot of the horizon and a lilting, triumphant musical soundtrack. A narrator speaks in a clear, steady voice: “Rolling clouds, wide-open spaces…” and as he speaks, we see a picturesque expanse of golden grains and purple mountains in the distance; nature untamed by human hands. The sun shines overhead, bright and clear as horses graze and stampede. The American West, long a symbol of rugged determinism and untapped potential, is on full display. The narration is describing the action for us; a group of cowboys rounding up a herd, a lone mustang trotting through a forest. The commercial has a mythical feel to it; an Americana legend taking place before our very eyes. The voiceover then finishes, “…Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro Country.” Wait, what?

Where incentives can temper expectations

We’ll come back to Marlboro, but let’s continue with where we ended the previous essay. We ended the last one by mentioning the stakes involved in changing the incentives typically associated with commercial art. We have a world that is on fire, an economic system that is set against unionization and worker solidarity, and a culture that is increasingly nationalistic. We asked the question: What if we operate our practices by different motivations than just profit?

This essay will dig deeper into that question and explore some instances in which that question will need to be applied. But first, let’s take a look at the type of ethics or morals that are typically mentioned as relates to commercial art creation.

The AIGA (the professional association for design) has a set of professional standards that it sets for its members. It’s a respectable set of standards but not a set that really gets the spotlight. More often, the emphasis in design circles is all about big brands, logo redesigns, award ceremonies, and Adobe. Ethics takes a back seat.

Any kind of ethical or moral “power” as defined by an organization like the AIGA can tend to be pretty wide-ranging in scope, but the ethics that are often discussed at any length in the world of visual art tend to come down to a few narrow (read: money-related) directions: cheating, stealing, and getting paid for your work. In fact, I started this essay under the assumption that the AIGA didn’t even have recommendations like the ones in Sections 6 and 7. (On the one hand, maybe I should read the professional standards more often, but on the other, most design news centers around rebrands, or fonts, or conferences, etc.)

Speaking as a graphic designer—though these tenets ring true in just about any kind of art, but especially in commercial art—we are taught that we should never cheat our patrons. Did your commission (a logo, a painting, a website, etc.) take five hours to create? Well, if you are charging by the hour you had better invoice them for five hours and no more than that. Don’t cheat. Same with stealing. If someone else did it first, don’t take their work as your own. And please make sure that you don’t work for free (barter is acceptable—but don’t come out of the job with nothing to show for it). But, what if there is more, or should be more to the ethics of commercial art than that?

We don’t live in a world devoid of consequences. Our culture “cancels” stuff all the time

Well, if you read my first essay, you know my answer to that. Absolutely yes, there should be more to the ethics of visual or commercial art than just making sure that people are paid fairly. We should consider the consequences of the work we do. After all, really nicely designed propaganda is still propaganda; as Mike Montiero put it, “You can’t buy ethics offsets for the terrible things you do at your day job.”

We don’t live in a world devoid of consequences. Our culture “cancels” stuff all the time; Louis CK, Woody Allen movies, R. Kelly. #MeToo was a good thing because the consequences of exploitation were coming to the forefront and individuals like Harvey Weinstein have experienced financial and social loss and shame. Nike though is still seen as a pretty big client to bag despite the fact that much of its products are made for pennies on the dollar in sweatshops. I contend that its status as a coveted client should be revised. (Full disclosure: I have owned Nike shoes in the past.) And I contend that this powerful profession that we have can begin to stand up to those types of injustices and choose to make good design for businesses that make positive differences in everyone’s lives.

But what power do we have? Where is my proof? Look around you: unless you are out in nature—and if you are good for you—it is likely you are surrounded by designed things. I’m typing this out on a MacBook, sitting on a chair from Ikea, with songs from Spotify playing in a room that has art on the walls. The letters I am typing in are being displayed to you in Medium’s custom-designed typefaces. So much that we buy is influenced by the ads we see, the logos we are trained to covet, and the celebrities that peddle them. Visibility and good design are key components to the success of any brand. But I want to ask you a question: We all size up a brand (or a potential client) based on the quality of product or price of the project, but do you ever make a decision to buy a product, or more importantly to this conversation, to create a design (photo, illustration, etc) based on the moral or ethical choices evinced by that same brand?

Is that a question you ever ask yourself?

How powerful are big brands to commercial artists? Have you been to a design conference lately? Take a look at all the sponsors for Adobe MAX 2019; especially the ones further up the list: we’ve got heavy investment by PC manufacturers—HP, Lenovo, Dell; online storage (both B2B and B2C)—Amazon Web Services, Dropbox; corporate typographic companies like Monotype that own and gobble up smaller outfits; computer chip manufacturers—Intel, Nvidia; print goods and paper companies—Moo, Moleskine, Sappi, Neenah, Mohawk; the list goes on and on. (Apple used to be on that list as well.) Speakers that are celebrities or that work with big brands and have the portfolios that photographers and musicians, illustrators and designers dream of. Not coincidentally, if you want to be successful in those fields, what software has (just short of) a monopoly on the production and editing of photos, music, illustration, and design? Adobe. Why is Adobe so ubiquitous? Take a look again at that list of sponsors.

Protests are not all that strange anymore, but yet big brands still dominate our visual consciousness and big brands care about profits more than protests or progress.

But what do most of those sponsors have in common? A need for good designers and illustrators, and photographers, musicians, product designers. And customers. Customers who are influenced positively or negatively by our work. Can you see yet why our skills are so important? Why should a company like Adobe be allowed to take our subscription fees every month and barely innovate from year to year, or arbitrarily decide to stop providing service to a nation like Venezuela despite there being a legitimate question about whether it even had to end service in the first place? After public outcry, they gave it back. And they did that days after admitting that user’s accounts had been breached. Figma hasn’t ended anyone’s accounts because of specious trade reasons. Neither has Sketch. Neither has Affinity.

We have the power to influence public opinion. Activists are doing that in so many different avenues of our culture: marches in Chile to oppose President Piñera, protests in Hong Kong to demand democracy, people in the streets around the world to fight climate change, the fallout from #MeToo, requests for free college, free healthcare, freedom. But in a design culture that is dominated by Adobe, where are our protests for competition? Protests are not all that strange anymore, but yet big brands still dominate our visual consciousness and big brands care about profits more than protests or progress. I am not saying that the key to world peace is more selectiveness in the world of commercial art, but I am saying that it can’t hurt; in fact, it might be more helpful than you think.

Where thought meets action

So, how can we help? Say that you or someone you know is commissioned by the World Wildlife Foundation to create a painting, or take a picture. How many people stop to think about whether or not what they are contributing to is good or bad? I think that most of us in this case, don’t have much consideration to do. It’s not like the WWF is a member of the “deep state” or anything. So, how about this: British Petroleum approaches you to do some advertisements to soften the blow to the locals that another off-shore drilling well is going up in your area. How many of you all still take that job? One last example: BP needs a logo design for a new line of ethanol-based biofuel. Is that a trickier quandary to find yourself in? If you think it is an easy yes, why do you think so? If you think it might be a no, why that answer?

Is this a new type of exercise for you? My college experience did not involve a lot of parsing out moral situations from client to client, and a quick search of Google shows me that humanitarian-based ethical matters aren’t often considered by the industry as a whole.

Remember those “rolling clouds” from the beginning of this essay? There was no legal ethical dilemma surrounding that ad campaign when Marlboro started pushing filtered cigarettes—formerly a product that was primarily advertised to women—as a desirable product for men. However, there was a glaring moral problem: unfiltered cigarettes were widely seen in the 1950s as being linked to health problems and companies like Philip Morris & Co. wanted to pivot to filtered cigarettes as a response to bad press. Leo Burnett’s ad company took on the challenge to change the perceptions of men when it came to Marlboro filtered cigarettes. Burnett recounted a conversation that led to the creation of a campaign that would become one of the most lasting, iconic, and infamous in history: “Burnett said, ‘What’s the most masculine symbol you can think of?’ And right off the top of his head one of these writers spoke up and said a cowboy. And I said, ‘That’s for sure.’”

The rise of the Marlboro Man/Marlboro Country advertisements broke no laws, no person involved in the work was cheated out of the work they did (though perhaps some actors were undervalued), no previous artwork was copied. But ethical issues abounded, just not ones we talk about often if at all. Burnett was incredibly successful and his business has worked with many other clients, many based on the success of this campaign alone. But how many millions of people became addicted to nicotine as a result? Tobacco companies agreed to pay billions of dollars in fines in what is still the largest civil litigation settlement in U.S. history. Lives were cut short and many more were ruined in part because kids grew up wanting to be as manly as the Marlboro Man. Read the book A Question of Intent by former FDA Director David A. Kessler to find out more about just how dedicated companies like Philip Morris (for now a part of Altria) were in attempting to evade blame.

This is the intersection of where this thought experiment meets action: no one had to advertise cigarettes, but many chose to anyway. We knew they were addictive before this ad campaign. We knew that tobacco had more problems than just nicotine. Hell, George Washington knew it was bad for his soil and stopped growing it despite its widespread growth elsewhere in Virginia. Philip Morris was trying to market cigarettes to kids before Altria and Altria is still targeting children today with flavored cigarettes and e-cigarettes. What is the cultural impact of not trying to sell carcinogenic products to vulnerable demographics? What are the health benefits of refusing to work at Pfizer or Purdue Pharma or for Martin Shkreli? What we don’t create can be as beneficial as what we do create.

Now, should we condemn Leo Burnett as evil? Absolutely not. Should we follow his company’s example though? Absolutely not. The cost is too high, even if the price is just right. We can touch more on the topic of marketing destructive products in the future. But what can we do right now? What are our next steps?

Our next steps are ones of self-reflection: assessing our talents, identifying our impact, and choosing to act. Some of us work for entities like Philip Morris, or BP, or for companies like Amazon that exploit tax loopholes and ignore employee issues, or companies like Wells Fargo that are no stranger to their own scandals. It is our responsibility to look at what we create in the world, how it affects other humans, and decide if we want to continue to contribute. It may be hard to say no to a good paycheck (or at least a job), but it may be better than losing your soul (so to speak) or even losing a livable planet for our children.

As with every essay, please feel free to sound off in the comments, good or bad; I want to know what you think, I want to respond, and I like to learn about different perspectives.

*Okay, so the picture at the top was taken in Turkey, but come on, it is like the look of the Marlboro Man stuff, right? I wasn’t going to use an image from an ad campaign I believe was ethically wrong to do. Also, in a previous version of this essay, I talked about it being part of a series. I have decided not to restrict myself only to this series, so anything that is part of it will now have the Ethics in design: prefix.



Matt McGillvray

Graphic/Web Designer | Portland, Maine. Writing about ethics in design and working on a book about the intersection between design activism & the climate crisis