Creatives need to get political. And quick.

Instead of just doing and enjoying the work they get paid for, creatives should be aware of their potential societal impact and be more outspoken in their political choices.

Matt Saunders
13 June 2017
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Deep riches. Credit: Public domain.For as far back as I can recall, I have been making things. From Aardman-inspired clay model animations as a child, to music as a teenager and web apps as an adult; creating things has always been “my thing”.

Politics, on the other hand, was never really “my thing” until about seven years ago. In the UK, we had just elected a coalition government and as is usually the case around election time newspapers, TV, workplaces and bars were abuzz with political debate. Everyone was interested, myself included. 

At the same time I had recently begun a contract at a rather large, international betting company, working as part of their digital team to deliver creative online gambling solutions. I remember the first day clearly. I was shown around the sprawling open-plan office and introduced from afar to various different departments. One section struck me with some significance because it was described to me as “the team who call up people who’ve not gambled for a while, and try to get them to gamble again”.

I remember being a little shocked. Not because I’m naive enough to think that gambling companies don’t have sales teams, but to hear it so earnestly described in the open by a member of staff. 

My contract was three months and during that time I worked with some exceptionally talented people. In gambling, the good thing about working for the house is that the house always wins. And because of this they can pay big bucks. The gambling industry is highly competitive, so it is in the business’s interest to buy the best hardware and software, and hire talented people. This made for an environment which fostered a culture of creativity because it offered freedom to experiment, test and iterate.

So the designers and developers were happy, and the work being produced was of a great standard (much better than I had seen elsewhere, at the time). But it is at this point I have to ask: at what cost?

I like to think that my moral compass has always been on point, but like many people in business I’ve often pushed aside my personal feelings on such matters because the benefits of doing so vastly outweigh the alternative. Keep your head down, do the work you get paid for, and - as we’re told is so important - enjoy it.

But as creative designers - the powerhouse of modern commerce - how do we resolve our often liberal worldviews with our work, which can sometimes demands we stretch into areas outside that which we find personally, and politically comfortable?

The gamble

At the betting company I was on a good day rate and got to work with some great people on some innovative projects. But it was about devising software that made gambling more frictionless. This, in and of itself, is not bad because you get to learn new things about UX and performance that can be applied to other projects. The problem manifests when you stop to consider your product out in the wild, for real, and not just as a cool toy you built with the team.

The problem manifests when you stop to consider your product out in the wild, for real, and not just as a cool toy you built with the team.

I did not engage in, or was privy to, any particularly unethical practices (certainly no more so than any other big-money business). Lifecycle emails which tempted people back into the loop should they drop out. Free bets. That sort of thing. But as I have become more politically engaged and socially aware over the years, and frankly, have seen poverty with my own eyes, I have to question the meaning in this work. Is it worth it?

The answer for me has to be “no”. And this is a topic I’d like to see more energetically discussed with my fellow designers, writers, programmers and artists. There is often a fear of rocking the boat, or of feeling sanctimonious when discussing ethics in business. Ethics as a concept is nebulous, and each person has his or her own views on the matter, but irrespective of viewpoint we should at least be talking about it. 

We can do better

Thankfully, I am not alone in this thinking. There are a number of great resources, frameworks and groups which exist to promote ethics in design. Perhaps the most prolific is the AIGA, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, who “advance design as a professional craft, strategic advantage, and vital cultural force”, but smaller associations such as The Academy of Design Professionals and the Graphic Artists Guild impart similar advice. The magazine I edit covers a number of topics designed to get people thinking, and to hopefully spur on debate.

Together, creative designers, who hold such a powerful influence in the world, can help to shape it in more meaningful ways. Perhaps, even, in ways as meaningful as they originally set out to.


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