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Ethics and Aesthetics in Design

Design studios can no longer weight the ethics’ issue when accepting a project and disregarding it when it comes to unpaid internships. It’s time to stop being hypocritical and start fighting for the value of our business.

I had a Drawing Teacher in college whose motto was “Ethics and aesthetics cannot be without one another”.

His defence was that, in any creative job, we could not separate our values from our work; Every line we drew was connected to our beliefs; every notion of beauty we had was deeply rooted on our ideals and the way we saw the world. He used to give this speech almost every lesson, and those ‘rambles’ of his were my favourite part of class.

Although I never did become great at drawing, those words have stuck with me ever since.

Sectors with more unpaid internships

It’s fair to say that the issue about design ethics has never been this strong. On a daily basis, we have to tell an acquaintance that we can’t give them the “friendly discount”, explain to a client why we charge that price when his cousin’s friend also has Photoshop, while disregarding an e-mail asking to work “for exposure”.

Although one could say we are facing a devaluation in our business, it can also be said designers are rising against it and taking a stand. We are fighting spec work (here, here,and here), crowdsourcing (here, here), free work (here and here) and even plagiarism has become a matter of worldwide discussion (here).

We take pride on our Design Business and Ethics, authored by AIGA and largely supported by numerous designers. Several other associations also took the pledge to help define better standards and practices, such as D&DA and ADC. Some designers even argue that there should be a certification for graphic designers, in order to uphold the profession’s value.

Suffice to say that our ethics do dictate our aesthetics.

As designers, we have the power to change the world, and we are free to do it following our morals. If a vegetarian designer refuses to work for a butcher, you find that acceptable. If the Republican Party asks you to design a website but you are a Democrat and refuse to do so, people will relate to that. We (should) design for the world we believe in.

Only 4 out of 10 interns get monetary compensation

It may seem that we are already accomplishing so much, but even with all this awareness, we continuously disregard one of the most urgent matters — breaking into the industry. Currently, and under the weight of the recession, any student will undoubtedly face an unpaid internship.

The job ‘intern’, repeatedly incessantly in almost every design job board, has become such a widespread practice, that it’s nearly impossible not to know anyone who hasn’t done it. Lured with promises of ‘potentially integrating the company afterwards’, ‘expanding your portfolio’ and ‘will look good on your CV’, interns are expected to fully integrate the team and work 8-9 hours a day (often more!), without having any status at work or a paycheck at the end of the month.

“If we don’t act fairly with our own progeny, how can we be respected in the business world?”, Steven Heller (source)

It is mandatory to contradict the belief that companies are doing a favour to young designers when hiring them. Work is work, and in an industry that has been so keen on fighting free work, it’s absurd that we endure this. The work interns do is work the company is charging the client for, so for that same reason it can be considered exploitation.

It’s simple business — if a company has the need to hire someone for their skills, they should have the means to pay for it. If they don’t have enough funds, then there’s no reason to hire.

You also have the other most common argument when it comes to internships — ‘for someone starting out, the most valuable thing to get is learning experience and not money’. To some extent that is true; experience really is the most important thing when starting out. But so is getting recognition; to allow someone to profit from the work you did, for free, isn’t that allowing a devaluation of the design industry?

How can we demand fair practice and respect from clients, when we can’t even respect those who are working for us? How can studios stand against spec work and yet, find it acceptable to hire someone to work for free? Isn’t that hypocritical?

Number of internships taken before landing a paid job

Even more so, is thinking that the weight of this issue’s problem rests exclusively on the interns’ shoulders. This argument should not revolve around those who choose to accept unpaid internships, but rather about those who hire them.

On the other hand, we can’t expect companies to take charge on this fight — when faced with the opportunity of free labour, most will take it up. Whether it’s under the false pretence of providing a valuable learning experience, or under the excuse of the harsh economy, the only difference lies on the boss’ morales.

Around 7 out of 10 students has done at least one unpaid internship

So what can be done? What’s the solution?

Because we can’t rely on either parties (companies or students), the awareness of this problem should be carried by design organisations, some already cited above.

It’s not about writing a statement anymore. Is about taking one.

In 2010, AIGA Philadelphia took action by bringing to an end unpaid internships in its job board and starting the AIGA Philadelphia Paid Internship Pledge. Few ads for unpaid internships can still be found in other AIGA pages, though.

Dick Powell, chairman of D&AD, has also claimed that “In my view, and in D&AD’s view, there are no circumstances where working unpaid in any capacity is acceptable on any level”.

To wrap it up — it’s not enough to write a statement anymore. It is mandatory to lead by example. How can one do that?

Well, we can start by rewarding the companies with the best ethics’ practice and ‘punishing’ the ones known for exploitation.

Type of internships that lead to a (paid) job

The Design world is a small one. Studios that run on interns are widely known, but seldom reported. Yet, during the awards season, there they are, getting recognition for their work, work done on the expenses of so many unpaid young talents.

If we reward a company for their work knowing how it was done, aren’t we implying that such practices are acceptable? Shouldn’t Design organisations, that pride themselves in supporting better business practices, have a bigger role? How can they (and we) make interns feel more confident on reporting such exploitation without being afraid of reprisals?

This article is not supposed to have the answers. Instead, my intent is to create a new argument that focuses on what institutions can do, instead of pointing fingers to either the companies or/and interns.