Does graphic design require a certain moral flexibility?

Ars moriendi, ca. 1460, Engraving by Master E.S.

In Thank You For Smoking the main character, Nick Naylor, a spokesman for a tobacco company, tells his son, “My job requires a certain… moral flexibility.” While every profession must deal with ethics in its particular field, graphic designers are trained to “make things look good.” The very nature of their core mission inherently lends itself to a certain “moral flexibility.” Anthony Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Supernumerary Fellow at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, England thinks that asking graphic designers not to persuade is like asking fishermen not to fish—it’s what they are trained to do.

Historically, graphic design has been an agent of moral and ethical thought. From the Code of Hammurabi to illuminated manuscripts to the broadsheets used to spread the word of Martin Luther, graphic design has been used to visually communicate beliefs and ideas—to inform, inspire, and delight. During the Middle Ages campaigns like Ars moriendi were designed specifically to influence the behavior of individuals, in this case urging those on their deathbed from the bubonic plague to leave their money to the church. Soviet propaganda produced after the Russian revolution practically rewrote Soviet history. More recently the Obama branding campaign has been deemed one of the most successful branding campaigns for a political candidate.

What do you think? Does graphic design require a moral flexibility?

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