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The Column icon The Column: Issue 32

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

Ethics and Creativity
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

There are times when creative professionals may be asked to work in an area that is in conflict with their conscience, when the work we do may in some way directly or indirectly support activities or businesses we would otherwise choose not to be associated with. I've devoted this column to a scenario that touches on some of the issues surrounding this ethical dimension of offering creative services, and the actions that might be contemplated.

Note that all characters and companies appearing in the following section are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, or companies present or past, is purely coincidental.

The Dilemma

Joe is employed by "EyeProvide", a graphic design company that has received news they have won a major new commission to design a series of promotional materials. This is of particular importance to EyeProvide as although they produce high quality designs for their clients, the company has serious cash flow problems that are jeopardising the future of the deign studio which employs a staff of 20. With this important commission EyeProvide can not only continue to keep their studio afloat, but also gain new commissions as the commissioning business is a major company with many subsidiaries and associated opportunities.

The boss at EyeProvide calls a meeting at the end of the day to tell the staff the good news:

"...They're are a multi-million dollar enterprise. We're all going to be working on this just as soon as we've completed work on the Big Bank campaign which shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks."

Joe's excited and relieved. Everyone at EyeProvide knew that if something didn't turn up the company would have been in real trouble. She asks:

"That's great, what's the brief?"

"We've a two year contract to design all promotional print and web materials for Quantum AeroSpace. We're getting started straight away. When you've completed the design for the Big Bank Loan Poster I want you working alongside as the lead designer..."

The boss smiles and there's a spontaneous round of applause for Joe from everyone attending the meeting. Joe's a popular member of the team and the news that she'll be leading the design team on the project is a major step forward in her career.

That night, after Joe gets back from celebrating with her friends from the office, she sits with the laptop in front of the TV, connects to the Internet, and starts casually researching some background information about Quantum AeroSpace. The company produces gas turbine engines used in aviation. After further investigation Joe discovers Quantum Leap AeroSpace supply their engines to both the commercial sector and the military. She reaches for the TV remote and switches it off. She thinks:

"Perhaps they just supply engines for the UN... I doubt it."

Joe's hunch is right, Quantum AeroSpace sells to whoever will buy. The next day Joe met with her boss.

"I was up last night researching Quantum AeroSpace and, well, I don't want to say this but, I'm not happy working on this project."

The boss looks puzzled:

"What do you mean?"

"I'm not happy with Quantum AeroSpace and their connection with the arms trade."

"The arms trade? But... OK, they sell engines, I guess some of those engines are used in contexts we'd rather not choose, but they don't produce weapons. They're a business seeking commercial opportunities. Like us."

The boss can see Joe's uncomfortable.

"Look. You're working on that Big Bank poster right? Do you know how much money that bank makes from their dealings with the military?"


"Does that bother you?"

Joe pauses. Her boss continues.

"Those shoes you have on. Do you know whether the makers of those shoes also produce army boots?"

Joe answers.

"That's the point, I don't know. Perhaps I should know but I don't know for sure. With Quantum AeroSpace it's different. I'd be knowingly promoting their business, part of which supports the arms trade."

The boss nods in an understanding way.

"Well look. How about I try to make sure you don't work on the parts of the project you're uncomfortable with. You can lead on the technical brochures. That should be fine. Right?"

Joe knows in her heart that's not so fine. After a further pause her boss continues.

"You see, I haven't a problem working with Quantum AeroSpace. I live in a country that imposes restrictions on trade that ensures our company won't be associated with anything beyond the bounds of what is considered by the Government of the day as acceptable. If Quantum AeroSpace manufactured arms I would be more sympathetic to your viewpoint, but as it is, I don't see this any differently than working on the Big Bank campaign. My conscience is clear"

The boss looks Joe in the eyes.

"If you can't work on this project, then you'll have to bring me a proposal of what you're going to do over the next two years as all our resources will be dedicated to Quantum AeroSpace, and as you know, beyond that we're looking to benefit from the work we can get from their associated companies. You also have to ask yourself whether you're happy with that. Think it over."

The boss smiles.

"My hands are tied".

Joe's Options

What Joe does is dependant on how strongly she feels about working for a company whose products are used by the military. She is concerned with what is morally good, bad, right or wrong. By defining her personal ethics she is trying to make clear what is of importance to her and how she lives. She may aim at happiness for herself or for others, virtue, or be focused only on the creation of beautiful designs. Joe is trying to work out for herself what she ought to do.

You the reader can complete Joe's narrative. How imaginatively you solve the problem will no doubt reflect your own values and perspective. If I was to complete the story I might seek to uncover a solution that either kept Joe at Quantum AeroSpace yet in a new capacity that was agreeable to her conscience and also progressed EyeProvide's business, or she might go it alone on what would be a long and challenging road.

The Story's End

Our ethical concerns seem rooted in the fact we are social animals. In social life we need to restrain our behaviour for the better good of the group. Our ethical dimension has however become far more than this. What makes us noble and of interest is not our technological mastery, our ability to compete in a commercial setting, or our formidable creative skills. What is of most value is how we live and behave with others and the world around us. Without considering how we live our lives and act based on the conclusions we reach, we are little more than microbes in search of food and self gratification...


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also a Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company producing award winning backup solutions.

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