ethics in graphic design


5 Mistakes Artist Make 

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Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines 


Chapter 2: Social Responsibility


Social responsibility is a field of ethics that is frequently in the news. All of the following case studies have featured in journals or magazines within the past thirty-six months.


This chapter is about two things: the relationship of design to its audience, and the designer’s relationship to his environment and the people within it. As Berger says

“We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” (Berger, 2008)

The point here is that it is important for designers to understand how their work can be interpreted or misinterpreted. Once an image is published, the creator loses control of how it will be viewed. This can result in an ambiguous message or meaning. Sometimes the artist can exploit this, deliberately. It can also be ethically controversial.


Benetton UnHate Campaign


Designers were encouraged by practitioners such as the late Tibor Kalman to apply their skills to promote public awareness of all kinds of social issues. He worked with Oliviero Toscani on some United Colors of Benetton advertising campaigns that appealed to the audience as individuals rather than as mass consumers with a

“shared vision of what is important, starting from a set of common values.” (Benetton Group, 2009)

Benetton’s campaigns have usually had one thing in common, the subversion of stereotypes. On their own website they claim to have furthered the interests of many charities, humanitarian groups and voluntary organisations. However, their campaigns have also been criticized for their shocking images and cynical use of emotive photography.

The most recent of Benetton’s campaigns is the UNHATE project depicting world leaders kissing on the lips (Fig. 8-13). The official line from Benetton is:

“These are symbolic images of reconciliation - with a touch of ironic hope and constructive provocation - to stimulate reflection on how politics, faith and ideas, even when they are divergent and mutually opposed, must still lead to dialogue and mediation.” (Benetton Group, 2009).


The images all feature the kiss, a universally accepted symbol of love, between religious and political adversaries. The campaign relies upon the audience being politically aware enough to know the power and status of the people depicted as well as what they stand for, socially and morally.


Rodin’s The Kiss (Fig. 14) statue caused similar controversy when the sculpture had to be removed from public view because of it’s ‘perceived eroticism’. It represents forbidden love and is seen as ‘one of the most iconic images of sexual love’ (Turner Contemporary, 2011). Images of the kiss have been used throughout history to represent love, unity and romance. However it is an image that is open to personal interpretation and personal experience. A forced act of kissing could be seen as dominant and aggressive.

MacAvery Kane sees the Benetton campaign goal as worthy,

“promoting closeness between peoples, faiths, cultures, and the peaceful understanding of each other’s motivations” (Benetton Group, 2009).

However, there was huge controversy around the launch and Benetton was forced to pull one of the images featuring the Pope. Whilst the company claims to have good intentions, they digitally manipulated events that never happened. This is a visual lie. David Berman, in his book Do Good Design, refers to visual lies as being more powerful than words.

“The imagery can be so subtle that people often don’t realize they are being manipulated” (Berman, 2009)

There is nothing subtle about the images in this case, so we can assume that the audience is meant to understand that they are false and question the reasons for that. The viewers’ disbelief poses the question: why is it easier to believe in hatred than in love?


Another controversial act is the use of famous faces to promote a product without their permission. There is no copyright on an individual and rights with regard to publication of an image vary from one country to another but there is usually some sort of protection in law against defamation or offensive use. In The Guardian, the Vatican complained that the photographs were an…

“…absolutely unacceptable use of the image of the Holy Father, manipulated and exploited in a publicity campaign with commercial ends. This shows a grave lack of respect for the Pope, an offence to the feelings of believers” (Butt, 2011)

Writing for The Guardian, Symon Hill, describing himself as a “queer Christian”, comments upon the Vatican’s outrage as…

“…confirming the popular stereotypical view of Christian anger.” (Hill, 2011)

He opines that the Christian church would be better directing their anger at those who exploit the poor and vulnerable, but fails to defend Benetton’s cynicism at cashing in on public outrage. As a religious bisexual, his comments on the image of two male religious leaders kissing and the homosexual connotations are interesting, considering the Catholic church condemns same-sex relationships as sexually deviant. The publicity generated by the controversy has been vast: if you google Benetton Unhate Campaign you get 2,090,000 results.


In America, the White House disapproves of using the President’s name or image for commercial purposes but Benetton have used Obama in two of the posters. The company consulted their lawyers over the consequences of any complaints, so they clearly anticipated a mixed reaction. It is unclear if Benetton are promoting tolerance or if they are unethically using photo manipulation and cynically exploiting the rights of the individuals depicted to further their own commercial ends. Or both.


The company has a long history of shock campaigns and most people in Western society will be used to seeing their brand of advertising. Whilst the White House and the Vatican have a case about the unapproved use of their figureheads, the impact in the West will be relatively small. However, the use of leaders from more sensitive countries such as Egypt and North and South Korea is a different matter.


Benetton has a history of shock advertising campaigns, led by Tibor Kalman. The latest UnHate campaign is evidence of the company’s ongoing commitment to use its voice to question the status quo. It does not shy away from controversy or risk, which often generates more publicity than it would otherwise enjoy. Benetton states it case and lives with the consequences.


This chapter has been about the controversy that can surround ethics. The banning of the advert featuring the Pope underlines the argument that ethical choices can be divisive.