The notion of responsible design is not a new one – but as times change, so do the specific scope of what constitutes responsible design.
Back in 1945, a responsible designer may have stood up and said “no” to the task of designing nuclear weapons that would end up demolishing entire cities in Japan.
In the the 21st Century, a responsible designer may say “no” to creating a piece of clothing that resembles black face and has the ability to offend and hurt millions of people across the world.
As designers, we have a huge responsibility for what we create, and release into the world.
We have a responsibility to say “no” to certain briefs and to remain informed about social issues, allow us to show empathy toward certain demographics when the time arrises.
We have this responsibility, not only towards ourselves, but towards the millions of people who consume what we create, and towards our clients who deserve to be protected from the backlash of harmful & offensive design.
The Coolest Monkey In The Jungle
Let’s take, for example, the incident where H&M loaded this extremely thoughtless and insensitive photo onto one of their online stores.
This single image offended millions of black people all over the world, and rightfully so. It caused immeasurable reputational damage to H&M and I am willing to bet that the agency involved no longer does any work for H&M.
I am willing to give H&M the benefit of the doubt when I say that they probably did not upload this photo with malicious intent – what did happen, however, was a massive oversight in responsibility on the part of the designers and creatives involved in the campaign.
As a white person, I do not find this image offensive at all. Having said that, I completely understand why it caused so much outrage and why millions of historically marginalised people found it offensive and hurtful.
A lack of empathy from the design team caused hurt & psychological damage to millions of people. A lack of insight and social awareness, caused huge financial and reputational damages to the client.
The designers did not exercise responsible design and they paid a very heavy and public price for it.
Jack Parow’s Twitter Fail
If we look closer to home, we also find many examples where designers failed in their duty to design responsibly. Take this Tweet from Jack Parow, for example.
Jack apologised profusely for the homophobia displayed in this tweet and shifted blame to his social media team who posted the photo without his consent.
Regardless of who’s to blame here, ultimately it comes down to yet another oversight on the part of a designer – this should never have been created to be put out into the world.
The word “moffie”, just like the word “monkey”, has been used for centuries to marginalise and offend certain groups in our society.
As with the H&M incident, it is important to disregard your own feelings towards a word or phrase, but instead, it becomes essential to put yourself into the shoes of other people to consider how they may feel about a certain message that is being displayed.
The Offence Is Not Ours To Take
As designers, we cannot use what we find offensive, or not, as a measuring stick for what is responsible design or not – we need to look at the world out there, and consider the feeling and opinions of others.
I have gay friends who do not find it offensive to be called a “moffie”, they even refer to themselves by that term from time to time. That does not, however, give me leeway to go around and call the entire gay community by that name, or to use the term in offensive social media posts on behalf of a client.
The mother of the boy involved in the H&M fiasco, reportedly said that she saw nothing wrong with the campaign as she does not consider the term ‘monkey’ as offensive – a lot of people used her views to brush off the negative impact this campaign had on others.
Just because one person finds it acceptable, does not make it less offensive to others.
As designers, we need to ask ourselves – is this creation that I am releasing into the world going to cause harm to others? And as clients, you need to ensure that your designers and ad agency is one that practices foresight and responsible design practices.
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