Video Series (Part 5): Morality and Ethics in Design
October 14th, 2009 in Web Design Worldview
by: Matthew Griffin
This is the fifth and final part in the Mirificam Press Video Series. In part one and part two the definition of design was discussed. Then in part three we looked at the purpose of design. And in part four we considered the question, "What is good design?" Now, in this final session the subject of morality and ethics in design will be considered.
IV. Design and Morality
A. What Ethical Decisions Does a Designer Face?
1. Moral business decisions
When I first started seriously considering the morality of design, my mind immediately went to the subject of business ethics. How should I treat my clients? How can I conduct my accounting in an honest way? And I think this is because my understanding of morality is still essentially negative driven. And it's not just me, this tends to be the case for our culture in general. Morality to us is confined to general negative commands: don't lie, don't cheat, don't steal. But in this discussion I want to go deeper than business ethics. I'm going to talk about the morality of creative acts themselves. We talked already about separating technical merit from moral quality when we're analyzing design, but we tabled the moral side of that equation until now. When we approach the moral quality of a work of design or art, there are two primary categories at work: (IV-A-1_001_content)explicit content and implicit content.
2. Ethics of explicit content
We'll start by exploring the explicit side. Explicit content is content (IV-A-1_002_explicit a-f) that comes right out and explains in rational propositions. And it's usually represented by words or other concrete one-to-one type symbols. If you're a web designer, you're probably very well acquainted with this concept. You build layouts that house explicit content that a client or a copy writer provides. So explicit content is a much greater concern in the area of web design because our creative work more often tends to be the house for explicit content.
When it comes to explicit content there are very few designers, Christian or non, in our culture who don't have some kind of moral standard by which they determine what they will and won't design for. For example, most web designers would probably refuse to design a site for this group (IV-A-2_002_kkk), and if they would (if they were the type of person who would work for the klan), they would probably refuse to work on this site (IV-A-2_003_naacp). The point is that we all recognize that explicit content is so wrapped up and intertwined with the amoral shapes, colors, and lines in the design that we're forced to make a moral decision even though there's nothing moral or immoral about the layout we would use per se.
But that illustration we just considered introduces a dilemma into the mix: (IV-A-2_004_rod) How do we decide which content is good and which content is bad. What is the moral measuring rod for creative content? The fact that we all have a standard only proves that we're moral beings. And the fact that we all have different standards either proves that (IV-A-2_005_solutions) nothing is objectively moral or that we're all messed up. Since we're coming from a Christian worldview here we assume that the latter is true and we continue to press toward a higher standard—a standard that is found not deep within us, but outside ourselves. I'll just leave that where it is. Obviously many books have been written on this subject and I couldn't possibly do them justice here. But the point I want to drive home in the realm of explicit content is that you can't separate it from the design. Immoral content makes immoral design. For now, though, I'll move on to implicit content.
3. Ethics of implicit content
Implicit content is even more tricky to deal with than explicit content. Implicit content includes the ideas and themes that are conveyed by a creative work through style, visual allusion, and context. (IV-A-3_001_prov 1-6) Here's an example of a website I designed for my church. There's plenty of explicit information in the site, but it's the subtle symbols, and associations—the choice of typography. We've all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. That's what we're talking about here. Implicit content is what makes creative work so fascinating and complex. It really makes art what it is. Through implicit content we can connect with themes and concepts in a concentrated form that makes them profound in a way that dry propositions just can't. In this painting by Frank Vetrianno (IV-A-3_007_vetrianno), for example, we are given an instantaneous peek into a world of values. The obscured faces, the contrast of the woman's red dress against the rest of the scene, the posture of the characters, all point us to the implicit content of the piece. It's obvious that something is being said; even without the use of words, something profound is being communicated from one human being to another. Now, I'm not suggesting a kind of gnostic communication here where ethereal truths are being transmitted from one spirit to another. That's an extremely common false view today even amongst Christians. It comes from a worldview that elevates the spiritual and degrades the physical or the concrete. It's a view that the early Christians fought hard against and won. But now we're seeing it pop up again. The classic Christian understanding of this subject is that implicit content expands and deepens the communication of truth because it is able to offer truth to be experienced by parts of our humanity that are not engaged by abstract propositions. We take this implicit content in, not through a sixth sense, but through our eyes, our touch, our ears, our taste. And the truth that is conveyed in these ways expands and deepens the abstract theoretical truth that we already have.
B. Separating morality from technical merit
1. Design communicates; there's no way around it
Now sometimes, as with the Vetrianno painting (IV-B-1_001_vetrianno), the implicit content is deliberate and directed. But for designers, many times, styles and visual devices are chosen without any consideration for what they communicate. In these cases it's true that the designer had no intention of communicating philosophical content with his or her work. But that doesn't mean that the work isn't still communicating. All of the styles and visual devices we employ were born out of some design movement or other from the past. And most of these movements have been highly philosophical. So when we make use of these styles uncritically we become the victims and the perpetrators of two horrendous crimes against our vocations:
1. (IV-B-1_002_crimes) By failing to recognize that our own medium is a worldview communicator, we essentially render ourselves ineffective in our ability to communicate our own worldview through our work.
2. (IV-B-1_003_crimes) We cut ourselves out of the beauty and complexity of our own vocation. Our growth in our craft is stunted; we can never get to the next level.
2. Good doesn't mean good
And that's why it's important to understand that good isn't always good. What I mean by that is: in the same way that a technically excellent piece of work is not necessarily morally excellent, a work that is morally excellent is not necessarily technically excellent. There are thousands of examples in our Christian creative culture. (IV-B-2_001_kitsch 1-) We've come to prize kitschy and ephemeral creative work as long as it has a good moral message. Understand, as I show some of these examples, I'm not suggesting that Christian culture will ever be able to completely rid itself of silly or mediocre art and design, but right now it's the rule rather than the exception. Also, there's a difference between the work of new artist or designer struggling to become better and a culture that applaud's mediocre work. The former is to be expected, the latter is unacceptable in the Christian worldview. We aren't leading culture the way we should be. As Christians we should be producing work that is both morally and technically excellent. Unfortunately, all these examples we're looking at now came up in the first two pages of a Google image search for "Christian Art".
3. Retreat from the discussion is not an option
And that brings me to my final point about morality. Morally upright creative work doesn't mean escapism. Morally upright work is not necessarily spot free. Ignoring the human condition doesn't bring glory to God. In fact, in God's own written revelation, the Bible, he deals with human depravity and sin extensively. And he doesn't deal in general terms; he gets specific. So we have to find that place in our creativity where we're being honest about reality but we're not doing it in a way that approves of sin or insights others to sin. And that's a much more difficult task than pure escapism or pure concession to cultural values. It requires study and depth and tedious analyzing. There are a few modern creatives that come to mind when we talk about this kind of cultural engagement: Flannery O'Connor, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton. And they seem to all be in the field of literature. It's time to produce some Flannery O'Connors of design and some C.S. Lewis of art. It's not easy to go this route but it's the way Christians should be characterized in our culture. When we take the route of escapism we are retreating from the public discussion and no voice of truth is left. And that's just not an option we've been given.
Thank you for watching the Mirificam Press video series on design. I look forward to seeing what God will do in our vocation in the coming years and I look forward to discussing more and developing these ideas with you on Mirificam Press.
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