Student Answers 04: The Moral Compass

This is as thorny and subjective an issue as you will be presented with as a designer, it’s also the one that’s most likely to define your career.

‘Are there any companies you wouldn’t work for?’ is a question that has come up a few times and the simple answer is yes. How you arrive at that answer and exactly who they are is slightly less clear.

Last night I was fortunate enough to have a beer with Jonathan Barnbrook after his talk for the AIGA here in New York. He’s an inspiring guy, and probably one of the reasons I got into design and typography in the first place if I look back, and I was happy to discover that his public speaking has come on in bounds since I last saw him give a lecture almost ten years ago.

It’s actually very intimidating being in the presence of a successful – read as ‘well known’ as opposed to ‘rich’ – designer who hasn’t once compromised his clearly defined ethical beliefs, and many of his stories and anecdotes were about the work he hadn’t done, as opposed to that which he had.

One case in point: Toyota once offered him £150k to drive a car around and take some pictures for a few weeks. A simple brief and a lot of money. Barnbrook however – a steadfast cyclist and believer in public transport, especially in cities where people don’t ‘need’ cars – politely declined. For a lot of people, myself included, passing up £150k would be a tall order. Life happens; there are always bills to pay, stuff comes up and that’s when ethics are most likely to become compromised. Barnbrook himself said that his studio exists pretty much on the breadline. However, I think, as a designer starting out, it’s as important that you decide what kind of work you AREN’T going to do as much as the kind of work you ARE going to do.

I’m sad to say that, while I’m not a monster, my moral compass isn’t as unwavering as Mr Barnbrook’s but I have turned down many briefs in the past, the reasons for which I’ll go into shortly. In so many ways it’s actually easier to turn down briefs that directly have your name on them; those working in agencies aren’t so fortunate but, I’ve also been very lucky at Grey. I was asked to be on a pitch towards the end of last year – the billings for which were an estimated $1.6billion – a game changing amount of money for the highest profile client you can imagine. But, it was for an organisation that I had issues with and wasn’t comfortable working for. I explained myself and thankfully, no one gave me any shit about it. A lot of people were absolutely fine with it of course and the pitch went ahead but I felt good that Grey had respected my opinion when it would have been easy for them to strong arm me into doing the work – I’m a paid employee after all.

I believe that people are big enough and smart enough and that there’s enough information around – particularly online – for most people to be able to make informed decisions about their purchases. For this reason I DID take a brief for McDonald’s last year; an easy target if you’re going to ‘dislike’ a company. The job never actually went to print but I did the work regardless.

Two months later, when approached to create work for a cigarette brand I beat myself up a little. I grew up with cigarette advertising all around me and never once bought a pack. So for that reason I was tempted. If I was able to make an informed decision, why can’t other people? But then, the weight of it came crashing down on me – was I comfortable with my name – Craig Ward – being tied to this imagery? That I lost my grandfather to cancer and the general ill will towards companies that manufacture cigarettes was also in the back of my mind but you ultimately have to think about what goes where and how it is perceived. Also, think a few years down the line; are you going to regret having done this work? Because you can’t just call it back in; it’s out there and people know who did it. There’s a tendency to think of your work as being ephemeral and, to an extent, it is. But, if I do an image search of my name there’s work comes up from 5 or 6 years ago that I wish hadn’t done. Nothing morally objectionable but just work that hasn’t aged well. I feel like I have a much clearer idea of my role in industry and what I’m trying to achieve now than I did in 2003.

My other reasons for turning down work have been for a variety of reasons:

• An unrealistic timeline; common in editorial.
• An unfair budget for what is required – so, you want me to spend $2000 on materials when the budget is half that?
• Sometimes it’s just a bad or un-neccessary idea.

My point here, I guess, is that you don’t HAVE to take on every brief that’s offered to you. Screening your clients and being a little more thoughtful in the short term will lead to better work and a healthier state of mind in the long term.