Is there room for ethics in design?

The devil on the ad industry’s shoulder might still say that fast fashion and oil companies aren’t so bad, but some design studios are taking an ethical stand. But can ‘good’ clients and big business can ever live in harmony?

In 2008, when Tom Tapper co-founded his agency Nice and Serious, he and his partner Ben Meaker had a simple method for judging which clients were OK to work with – they’d simply ask themselves if they’d be embarrassed telling their friends about it in the pub.

“It was a very simple question, but a lot sat behind that,” he remembers. “Is there something in your gut that says this isn’t really right? Or is there a mismatch between what they’re saying and what they’re really doing?”

It’s an ethical debate that doesn’t always offer a straightforward outcome. While many people might give a blanket refusal to oil and gas companies, weapons manufacturers or tobacco brands, there are plenty of other ­businesses that fall into a moral grey zone. Perhaps their history includes some dubious labour practices, or maybe their supply chain is unsustainable. Possibly they’re a company with a less than spotless record that’s trying to make improvements to the ‘bad’ parts of their business.

For Tapper – who trained as an environmental scientist and studied science communications before starting Nice and Serious – the pub question only worked for so long. As the ­agency grew, and the founders committed to the idea of working only with ‘good’ companies, Tapper had a difficult wake-up call. In 2016, Nice and Serious took on a corporate social responsibility brief from a large ­international brand which, on the surface, seemed like a good project. Once they’d gotten into it, however, Tapper says it became clear it was little more than a piece of window dressing.

“Our team just called us out on it,” he tells CR. “They were like, guys, we’ve left big advertising agencies to join you, often taking a bit of a pay cut to work on the briefs we work on, and now we’re ultimately indirectly trying to flog fizzy drinks for a brand by making them look good. That’s almost worse than not doing anything in the first place. And it was a fair criticism.

“There’s a huge amount of pressure on agency owners to bring in work that pays salaries and all that stuff, and I think it’s very easy to have that ­optimism bias you just have by wanting to get work in the door,” Tapper continues. “I think that criticism probably was a bit hard to stomach at the time, but it was a fair point and we went back to the drawing board.”

Top: Design for a happy world tool by Lisa Nemetz; Above: Useless is a digital directory of London’s zero-waste shops and sustainable alternatives to household items, created by Nice and Serious

In answer to this, Nice and Serious launched The Moral Compass – an internal tool that lets every single brief that comes into the agency be anony­mously and democratically voted on by the entire team. It works on a simple mechanism that asks each team member to use a pair of sliding scales to show to what extent they agree or disagree with two statements: does this brand want to have a positive impact on the world? Will this project have a positive impact on the world? The team gets between three and seven days to vote, which Tapper says gives them time to do their own research. “It’s really hard to understand, as an agency owner, who is committed, unless you go through their strategies and the deep policy docs, which you don’t always have time to do,” he says. “The democratisation of that decision just means you’re ultimately getting lots of subjective opinions and trying to come to an objective outcome from that.”