Is there room for ethics in design?

In 2008, when Tom Tapper co-founded his agency Nice and Serious, he and his partner Ben Meaker had a simple method for judging which clients were OK to work with – they’d simply ask themselves if they’d be embarrassed telling their friends about it in the pub.

“It was a very simple question, but a lot sat behind that,” he remembers. “Is there something in your gut that says this isn’t really right? Or is there a mismatch between what they’re saying and what they’re In 2008, when Tom Tapper co-founded his agency Nice and Serious, he and his partner Ben Meaker had a simple method for judging which clients were OK to work with – they’d simply ask themselves if they’d be embarrassed telling their friends about it in the pub.

“It was a very simple question, but a lot sat behind that,” he remembers. “Is there something in your gut that says this isn’t really right? Or is there a mismatch between what they’re saying and what they’re really doing?”

It’s an ethical debate that doesn’t always offer a straightforward outcome. While many people might give a blanket refusal to oil and gas companies, weapons manufacturers or tobacco brands, there are plenty of other ­businesses that fall into a moral grey zone. Perhaps their history includes some dubious labour practices, or maybe their supply chain is unsustainable. Possibly they’re a company with a less than spotless record that’s trying to make improvements to the ‘bad’ parts of their business.

For Tapper – who trained as an environmental scientist and studied science communications before starting Nice and Serious – the pub question only worked for so long. As the ­agency grew, and the founders committed to the idea of working only with ‘good’ companies, Tapper had a difficult wake-up call. In 2016, Nice and Serious took on a corporate social responsibility brief from a large ­international brand which, on the surface, seemed like a good project. Once they’d gotten into it, however, Tapper says it became clear it was little more than a piece of window dressing.

“Our team just called us out on it,” he tells CR. “They were like, guys, we’ve left big advertising agencies to join you, often taking a bit of a pay cut to work on the briefs we work on, and now we’re ultimately indirectly trying to flog fizzy drinks for a brand by making them look good. That’s almost worse than not doing anything in the first place. And it was a fair criticism.

“There’s a huge amount of pressure on agency owners to bring in work that pays salaries and all that stuff, and I think it’s very easy to have that ­optimism bias you just have by wanting to get work in the door,” Tapper continues. “I think that criticism probably was a bit hard to stomach at the time, but it was a fair point and we went back to the drawing board.”

Top: Design for a happy world tool by Lisa Nemetz; Above: Useless is a digital directory of London’s zero-waste shops and sustainable alternatives to household items, created by Nice and Serious
really doing?”

It’s an ethical debate that doesn’t always offer a straightforward outcome. While many people might give a blanket refusal to oil and gas companies, weapons manufacturers or tobacco brands, there are plenty of other ­businesses that fall into a moral grey zone. Perhaps their history includes some dubious labour practices, or maybe their supply chain is unsustainable. Possibly they’re a company with a less than spotless record that’s trying to make improvements to the ‘bad’ parts of their business.

For Tapper – who trained as an environmental scientist and studied science communications before starting Nice and Serious – the pub question only worked for so long. As the ­agency grew, and the founders committed to the idea of working only with ‘good’ companies, Tapper had a difficult wake-up call. In 2016, Nice and Serious took on a corporate social responsibility brief from a large ­international brand which, on the surface, seemed like a good project. Once they’d gotten into it, however, Tapper says it became clear it was little more than a piece of window dressing.

“Our team just called us out on it,” he tells CR. “They were like, guys, we’ve left big advertising agencies to join you, often taking a bit of a pay cut to work on the briefs we work on, and now we’re ultimately indirectly trying to flog fizzy drinks for a brand by making them look good. That’s almost worse than not doing anything in the first place. And it was a fair criticism.

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