Ethics in design: Making a case for a new morality in commercial art

Matt McGillvray
6 min readDec 30, 2019
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

When is the last time that you considered the importance of commercial art?

Was it when Steve Jobs and Jony Ive took the stage together to tell you that the iPhone, the iPad, the iMac, and iCloud were going to change everything? When Mad Men had a death grip on watercooler discussions across the world, did you think about our influence then? Did you ponder it when Shepard Fairey’s Obama posters came out? Or have you never thought about the impact of packaging, or branding, or simple color theory on our culture as a whole? Would you even agree with the contention that we artists have any sort of “power” at all?

Fellow visual artists, we have a clear mandate — we make stuff look good. But what we don’t consider enough is whether we have any additional duties or responsibilities as we do our job. What we don’t consider is what impact our industries have on a world that is rapidly becoming less hospitable due to the climate crisis, or one in which we market tobacco or nicotine products to children, or one where companies use graphic design or video or social media to discourage unionizing of workers.

Artists, hear me: we have so much power to make change, and not to go full Uncle Ben on us, but power and responsibility tend to go hand-in-hand; the more of the one you have, the more of the other you get as well. How do I know that we as commercial artists have power? And why am I bringing it up? What is the importance of recognizing that we have the ability to affect change? Because there are usually two reasons people make a purchase or choose a service or make any particular decision:

  1. They judge a book by the cover, the music that is the most catchy, the clothes that are trendy, the phone that looks the best, the product with the best packaging, the service with the prettiest celebrity or
  2. They, in fact, have no choice; perhaps, for instance, there is only one internet company in the area, or they do not have enough money for a better product and that necessitates that they buy the less-reliable one, or there is really only one company of software that every employer and client require

The first reason is due to what we typically think of as our job. We began our practices so that we could make the world look like a prettier place and to add value to any client we work for. What I want us to realize is that we have the power — and the responsibility — to physically make the world a better place. Humans will, as often as they can, choose a product (a brand, a book, sneakers, a diet) because of how it is marketed, packaged, photographed, recorded, or recommended. That leaves us, the ones that make products like books, campaign logos, albums, beer labels, websites, and devices free to make our very own choice.

The second reason that a person makes a choice in what to use is basically not a choice at all. Sometimes a consumer can be stranded, without an alternative, usually, a situation that causes more than a little chafing on the part of the person forced to make do. Perhaps a company has become so big that it has been able to buy up any meaningful competitors, stifling both innovation and negative consequences on the part of that entity. Sometimes, we simply don’t have enough money for a superior product and that could be for a number of economic reasons. But here is the thing: we need to realize we can be responsible for that second reason (at least in part). Our work adds value—real or perceived—to the people we work for and that value can eventually be misused. What was your reaction to learning that Wayfair was providing bedding to the inhumane and racist border camps that have grown in size and scope since Trump took office? We have a choice in all of this, even if we might not as consumers.

What is that choice? It is who—and what—we will work for.

The choice of who to work for is a consequential one in a world consumed with consuming. Consumerism is the lifeblood of our economy and our industry. We fantasize (I couldn’t have been the only one) about designing album covers, photographing celebrities, creating the next FedEx logo, or being the next trendsetter. Going through college, I read about rebranding projects, having a graphic design career without losing my soul, and hoping to take a year off every couple of years like Sagmeister. I never considered — nor were we really asked to consider —any real-world problems like designing collateral for a non-profit (at non-profit rates), or even, not designing something regardless of whether or not the money was good. I, and my classmates and colleagues, are the inheritors of a design culture built on commercialism, but what if commercialism is killing our planet? What if consumption for consumption’s sake is perpetuating an exploitative and extractive culture that exists merely to reap more profits? What if we say no to profit just for profit’s sake? And what if we say yes to using our skills and talents to help each other create a better world for ourselves and for the future.

A new type of commercial art for a world on fire

Often now, we are asked to consider our impact before we buy something. I’m suggesting that as people commissioned to make things, that we do the same. I firmly believe that commercial artists need to consider the consequences of a project fully before going all-in, and sometimes that means that if the ends aren’t something that makes the world a better place (not just your bank account) then we should say no. What we don’t make can say volumes too.

What we need today is a new kind of artmaking. One that doesn’t create just for the money, or the portfolio pieces, or even the fucking “experience.” As Greta Thunberg said, “our house is on fire” and yet there are some that are bemoaning fire departments as socialistic. We need to do less finger-pointing (less, not none) and more pointing to solutions. It’s time to take a hard look at our professions and transform them into positive forces.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my legacy to be the guy who designed the logo for a real-life Cyberdyne Systems, or the marketing plan for the Tyrell Corporation, or InGen, or ads for cigarettes, or whatever BP eventually becomes. I want to be remembered as a human making and advocating for positive changes for humanity, even at the expense of my comfort or my personal brand. The house is on fire. Let’s not wait to do our part until the ashes are cold.

In 2020, I want to begin a series of writings or essays or whatever about how and why we can bring a new sense of morality and humanity to an industry all too tied to commercial enterprise and I would like you to come along. Who is talking about what designers and illustrators and photographers and musicians can do to change the ethical and moral conversation around commercial artists and commercialism? Include links in the comments. I’m putting together some examples, both good and bad and writing some drafts to release next year, but I don’t want to do it in a vacuum chamber, so please join me and add your voice.

Note: Along with a couple of small edits I’ve made, I’ve re-considered my previous goal of making a series of interconnected pieces. I’ll write as I get the time and they may not all be in a series, but I still would love any comments that anyone has.



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