You Can’t Design for Monsters Without Becoming a Monster

Designers must turn down work that supports evil, and the industry must stand behind them

Detainees at a facility in McAllen, Texas. U.S. Customs and Border Protection

On the fourth of July, a tweet from immigrant legal services nonprofit RAICES set Design Twitter off like fireworks. It included a behind-the-scenes tour of a border facility released by the Department of Homeland Security and the information that brand consultancy Ogilvy has a $12 million contract with Customs & Border Protection (CBP). CBP is the government agency making headlines for their inhumane treatment of immigrants at the southern U.S. border.

It’s unlikely Ogilvy is responsible for this particular piece of PRpaganda (this recruitment video posted July 2 is a likelier suspect). The operator of concentration camps isn’t listed on their website among the brands they “make matter.” But the contract with CBP is public knowledge thanks to searchable databases of government contracts.

The WPP-owned agency is not the only creative consultancy that’s done work for CBP in recent years, although they are the best known. They’re joined by a scattered handful of small design shops, along with Deloitte, which offers design and marketing services through Deloitte Digital (though Deloitte’s multi-million-dollar collaboration with CBP appears to be through its engineering and management consulting arms).

Designers and other communications professionals are working for people who keep children in cages. And although the $12 million Ogilvy contract was signed on September 24, 2018, we have not since seen any protests from Ogilvy employees — of whom LinkedIn counts over 11,000 — the way we have from employees of Google, Microsoft, or Wayfair. Why? Is not doing work for clients that operate concentration camps too much to ask of design’s old guard?

Designers and other communications professionals are working for people who keep children in cages.

Designers, copywriters, publicists, and video editors at Ogilvy may be personally horrified by the conditions in these camps. They may be unhappy about the account but have stayed silent because they don’t see a direct connection between their work and those human rights violations. Maybe they are using the client’s sheer size and the scope of its activities to distance their creative work for recruitment from what those newly recruited officers will be doing.

Brunhilde Pomsel was just typing.

Designers, developers, and the businesses that employ them are having long overdue conversations about ethics in our respective industries. There isn’t a consensus on what our ethical responsibilities are, and there is plenty of nuance to debate.

How many degrees of separation from an ethical objection does the work need to be before it’s acceptable? Should employees at Landor, Superunion, and other WPP-owned companies also be expected to protest this contract? Is working for other government agencies okay?

Is there work where the positive impact outweighs the damage done by working with CBP? We wouldn’t expect doctors to refuse to care for detainees or companies to refuse to provide food or hygiene supplies (whenever CBP decides they want to provide either in adequate amounts). There are jobs that are more harmful not to do, even when the context in which they’re done is unconscionable. Is there ever a time when design, development, or communications rises to this mandate, even though Ogilvy’s work to recruit new CBP officers clearly doesn’t?

These are all valid questions, but here’s the thing: Even along a wide gradient of shades of gray, eventually you’ll reach black or white.

Is not doing work for clients that operate concentration camps too much to ask of design’s old guard?

When your client separates families seeking asylum and cages them in overcrowded, unsafe, and dehumanizing detention facilities, you have reached one of those points of clarity. There should be no question that it is your ethical responsibility to turn that work down. And if you’re an individual contributor at an agency whose leadership decides to take that client, that is another such point of clarity.

Ogilvy’s employees must stand up against their company’s decision to do this work. They should talk to their managers and HR reps. They should talk to each other. They should organize the way Google employees organized against their company’s handling of sexual harassment, Microsoft employees organized against their employer’s contract with the U.S. Army, and Wayfair employees recently did over the $200,000 of furniture the company sold to the agency Ogilvy has a $12 million contract with.

Here, designers’ responsibility is clear, even if it is not easy. Being able to leave or lose your job in a principled stand is, in a very real sense, a privilege. The financial incentive of complacency and complicity is strong, but it must be weighed against the value of your conscience and the respect of your peers.

Ogilvy employees must act, and we have to join them. First in encouraging them to speak out and amplifying their voices. Then in making changes in our industry that empower designers to do the right thing from the start and without hesitation.

That CBP is working with Ogilvy isn’t a fluke, it’s by design. These global conglomerations of consultancies insulate parent and sibling brands from ethical backlash while, at the same time, creating overhead and growth demands that make turning away unethical clients almost impossible. An agency that can’t afford not to work for concentration camp operators should not exist at its current scale.

Because for many agencies the choice between losing that big contract and losing their design team is a toss-up. In design and communications agencies like Ogilvy, high turnover is the norm. And designers who feel expendable are naturally more afraid to stand up to unethical business requirements.

That’s why it’s not enough to just organize within our respective companies. We must come together as a profession. When all self-respecting and respected designers refuse to do this work, the companies vying for top talent will have to stop taking it.

We have to value a spine in a designer as much as we do a shiny portfolio.

But to expect designers to take that stand industry-wide, the industry itself has to have their back. Designers have to know their job application won’t be disqualified by a short stint at a company they had to leave over ethical objections. They have to know they can speak out without damaging their professional reputation, and that they will have support in dealing with any repercussions. (A professional association like the AIGA, but with teeth, or a designer’s union would be transformative.) We have to value a spine in a designer as much as we do a shiny portfolio.

There is no world in which designers work more ethically and our industry’s professional standards, hiring practices, and business models remain unchanged.

If we, as an industry that claims deep empathy, an understanding of complex systems, and a commitment to human-centered work, cannot draw the line at denying people adequate food, sanitation, or medical care; at forcing children to take care of other children; at letting them die of neglect behind bars, who are we to make those claims in the first place? When we say, “Design can change the world,” shouldn’t “for the better” be implicit?

If you would like to encourage Ogilvy to do the right thing, you can do so via Twitter, the contact information on their website, tweeting at their US CEO Lou Aversano, or by reaching out to their other clients to see how they feel about being associated with this kind of company.

If you would like to do something about the injustices being committed by CBP, you can donate to RAICES and contact your reps.

Modus

Helping designers thrive.

John Warren Hanawalt

Written by

Designer with a heart of gold and mouth like a sailor. Cares about how the work we do impacts others. Also talks fitness and feelings. www.hanawa.lt

Modus

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

John Warren Hanawalt

Written by

Designer with a heart of gold and mouth like a sailor. Cares about how the work we do impacts others. Also talks fitness and feelings. www.hanawa.lt

Modus

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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