ByJay Bigford
3 min read

Ethical design?

A constant source for discussion and learning here at Yoke is the direction and potential impact of our work, and how ethics may play a role in this? It took us 4 years of being in business to embrace the word ‘Ethical’ in our communications materials, and to be honest that was just for SEO purposes. A veritable minefield of meaning and intent awaits with no clear boundary on right and wrong. To aid us in this exploration and discussion we are inviting a series of guest authors to help us on this journey.

On that note please welcome our guest author, friend and designer Mor Bakal, who discusses the wider subject of ethics, and analyses a groundbreaking campaign for IKEA to muse – can a commercial campaign be ethical and social responsibility in a manner that feels heartfelt and authentic?

portrait of Mor standing in front of some trees


Mor: Two months ago I was contacted by a renowned design consultancy looking to recruit designers for their new London offices. I was flattered and thrilled by the new opportunity and couldn’t wait to become a part of a company that declares that ‘we focus on three major themes that define our future: future citizens, smarter living, and healthier lives’. Reading this statement I was positive that the design work they are producing would be responsible and ethical.

Claiming to ‘shape our future through design’, I was surprised to find out that the agency’s main clients were financial institutions and a large oil company. I wondered whether the design agency actually believes that banks and energy companies should be those who shape our future and if so — what kind of future would that be?

Taking a short while to think about their offer, I realised it wouldn’t adhere to my believes and ethical principles and so I decided not to take it. Refusing the offer instigated a series of important questions I had to ask myself:

  • What is ethical design?
  • Who is practicing it?
  • Can I make a living out of it?

‘Ethics’, google says, is the ‘moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity’. I realised I needed to define for myself what those moral principles are that govern my behaviour. The more I think about this subject the more I realise how complicated this topic is. I realised that ethical questions are usually loaded with contradictions and dilemmas that needs to be explored, discussed, and sometimes remain unanswered.

In his essay ‘Ethical Aesthetic—Questions for the Designer’ Marvin Bartel  lists a few important questions for designers:

  • How do we reconcile individuality and conformity?
  • How do we reconcile tradition and innovation?
  • How do we reconcile needs to consume with needs to conserve?
  • What is proper role of single use and multiple use space in our constructed environment?
  • Should we use materials honestly?
  • Can we leave a place better than we found it?
  • Who cares and how is caring learned?
  • How important is aesthetics compared to function?

Using these questions as food for thought, I wanted to embark on a journey exploring what is ethical design?

I decided to focus on a project called 25m2 of Syria, a real Syrian home replica inside IKEA’s flagship store in Norway. For this campaign, IKEA teamed up with Norwegian advertising agency POL and the Red Cross.

"The iconic IKEA-posters and price tags told the story of how people live. Lacking food, medicines and access to clean water. Caught in the crossfire of Syria’s civil war. But most importantly: On every little tag we let the public know just how they could help."

POL - creators of the IKEA campaign

My initial thoughts about the campaign were very positive — IKEA decided to use the store space to promote awareness and raise money to a crisis that is happening in a different part of the world. Rather than seeing it and reading about it in the media, visitors got a close, tangible look at a real war-zone home.

Spending some time thinking about it and sharing it with close friends, though, I began having second thoughts about the good intentions of the campaign. Does IKEA actually care about the life and wellbeing of the Syrian people or is it just using the crisis as a cynical publicity stunt? After all, IKEA hired a marketing company to produce this installation. The immense difference between the bare concrete Syrian home and the shiny IKEA displays feels almost uncomfortable, making the divide between ‘their’ world and ‘ours’ almost impossible to bridge.

The main 3 concerns the campaign brings to my mind are:

1. Normalisation of crisis– by placing a Syrian house in the middle of ‘clinical’ IKEA are we actually turning the war, pain and suffering into something normal? Something we shouldn’t be shocked by?

2. Harmful call to action — the main call to action of the installation is to donate money to the Red Cross. Donating money is very important, especially for organisation like the Red Cross however, I’m wondering whether we shouldn’t also be encouraged to take more proactive action? Understand why this crisis started in the first place? Who is in charge of resolving it? How can we make sure something similar doesn’t happen again?

3. Mass media item— I’m wondering whether the campaign and it’s coverage in the media encourages healthy conversation around the topic or whether it is just turning it into ‘another click bate’ in our feed?

To summarise, I think this campaign is very creative and it will be wrong to label it ‘unethical’ however, it is important to question campaigns coming from huge corporations. We must ask ourselves: what is their real purpose and motive, who is benefiting from it, and what is the social impact it has on the public?

About Mor: 

“My name is Mor, a London based multi-disciplinary designer. I’ve always been fascinated by design, psychology, philosophy and everything in between. I studied design at Goldsmiths, University of London where I had the chance to deeply explore all the topics I’m interested in.

Since graduating I’ve been working as a freelance designer on various projects for large and small companies. Throughout the years I gained experience working as an illustrator, UI and UX designer and researcher. In the past few months I have developed an increasing interest in ethics and the role of designers in the world of ever increasing waste, pollution, cruelty and greed. My aim is to raise important questions and spark a conversation around ethics and sustainability in modern times.

Apart from being a designer and a writer I’m a huge animal lover, a music addict and I’m dreaming of one day having my own farm and travelling the world in a van.”

You can find Mor on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

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