Final year student Benedict Povey used his dissertation to look at design responsibility in the industry. As he approaches the end of his course, Benedict sets out his concerns here:

In a World of Immediacy, has Debate Become Absent?
Immediately satisfying visual content designed to collect followers and generate likes seems to have replaced design criticism. Have double taps become more important than problem solving?

In Jarrett Fuller’s podcast Scratching the Surface (2017), Adrian Shaughnessy speaks about graphic design discourse. He shares an insight from the early days of the Design Observer and how the comments section used to be rich with debate. ‘There were comments better than the original piece, and often I would read some comments and it just make me want to rewrite my piece again’. But today our discourse isn’t so rich. ‘The place where I see that happening most is in education, I think that debate is now carried on in academia’ affirms Shaughnessy, ‘I do not see it taking place in the profession or the industry’. Fuller asks the question, is it possible for the kind of discourse which is more than an Instagram post or a tweet possible today? Sadly, Shaughnessy can’t agree that it is.

Does this mean there is a lack of space for debate in the graphic design industry? From my own experience as a student of graphic design, criticism is essential to design. Students are leaving academia with a good knowledge of design; its history, context and application and their responsibilities as designers.However, I’m apprehensive that debate may not extend outside of higher education.

Shaughnessy isn’t the only one that highlights the absences of debate. Steven Heller (2018) writes ‘criticism is essential to intellectual conversation. In fact, such writing was more frequent ten and twenty years ago’. If designers don’t keep up the debate in the industry, then I worry that it will become too commercial and primarily driven by profit. The quieter professional designers become, the harder it will be to create debate. While revenue is important to running a business, we must not forget that design is about problem solving.

Although in recent years we may have seen a decline in debate within the design industry, we have also observed a rise in the number of socially driven design studios. In his book How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul (2010),Shaughnessy’s view is that the growth of socially driven design studios may be the antidote to this issue. ‘I see hunger for ethical guidelines expressed in design blogs and by the rise of interest in design with a social focus … there was a time when they might have struggled to attract clients, but now they are seen as an attractive option for many clients.’ There is no doubt that this is a positive advancement, but I have a couple of concerns. The first being that if we don’t continue rigorous discussion and debate from academia into the industry then the transition from being a student to a professional may be problematic. When a student enters the industry, they may feel that they have to keep their views to themselves to protect the integrity of their job.My second concern is that design studios with an ethical focus may only be attractive to clients looking to improve their public image.

In his book Citizen Designer (2003) – written with Véronique Vienne – Heller questions the responsibility of designers when working for clients, ‘what is the responsibility of a designer when design is impeccable, but the client is tainted?’. I find this view of a client and designer relationship limiting. This would leave designers who have an ethical agenda to search high and low to find clients that share their views, therefore reducing opportunities for business. Designers and clients don’t have to distance themselves from each other – they can and should work collaboratively. I asked GMD tutor Siân Cook (2018) whether she thought the designer can be more than the neutral transmitter of the client’s message. ‘Yes. But often this needs to be in collaboration/partnership with a client. Every job you do, it is always worth asking yourself if there is any way as a designer that you can “add value” to a job’. There is plenty of evidence that a designer can have an impact socially and environmentally but there needs to be more discussion on how they can create this impact professionally.

Design education has taught me that the aim of design isn’t to make something look nice, it’s about problem solving and having a critical process. Although design is applied differently in the industry to education, we shouldn’t take what we have learnt for granted. The design community shouldn’t be afraid to question itself, in fact this is vital to its success.

With thanks to Benedita Souto and Marion Bisserier.

Scratching the Surface 52. Adrian Shaughnessy.
Available at:
Shaughnessy, A. How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul.
Heller, S. Should Designers Be Design Critics? Why Not?.
Available at:
Heller, S. Vienne, V. Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility

View Benedict’s design work at: