Graphic design is a relatively new addition to the world of art. With the boom of industry and technology, the need to advertise and sell the fruit of this boom has graphic art sky-rocketing alongside.

2 years ago

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Graphic design is a relatively new addition to the world of art. With the boom of industry and technology, the need to advertise and sell the fruit of this boom has graphic art sky-rocketing alongside. Yet graphic design is more unique than some may realize. One of its unique aspects is that you come into contact with it everyday – and it is everywhere – and yet you barely notice its presence. (This, alongside the fact that I'm a graphic design student, was my inspiration to pursue this study.) A second unique aspect is that it is not only pictures, but a combination of words and graphics that together make it a powerful art form. With the right marriage of the two, graphic design is one of the most powerful persuasive communicators known to society, but is this a good thing? The purpose of this report is to explore graphic design's power in persuading us to buy, think, and even interact differently and to question whether this is a good thing, or even ethical, considering that graphic design plays a major role in our decision-making process.


The information and discussion in this paper are from books I have read, my own personal thoughts, and from an over-all look at advertising in this society. Although I probably lean toward the negative side of advertising, I don't of course think graphic design to be a "bad thing."


As stated in the introduction, graphic design is relatively new in the world of art. Its humble beginnings sprang from the industrial boom seducing its audiences with ever-increasing creativity and use of technology, to where we are today: unable to discern fact from fiction. Even though it is comparatively new, its predecessors can be seen throughout history. Examples range from the Egyptian pyramids to the ornate fourteenth century type settings found in Bibles and other documents of the time. Through graphic design, people are warned about dangers, informed about the world, even introduced to new concepts. Graphic design is found in many areas and platforms. From magazines to posters, from CD covers to packaging, from TV to the internet-graphic design is seen everywhere.

One of the largest areas and biggest industries in the graphic design field is advertising. One main purpose of advertising is to take a product and make the intended audience want it, and hopefully, even the non-intended audience. Not all graphic design is advertising, but almost ninety-nine per cent of advertising is graphic design.

Another trait that separates graphic design from the rest of the art world is a question that has been asked for decades: "is graphic design an art, science, business, craft, or language?" (Heller & Ballance, 2001, p.3). Graphic design not only uses graphics to communicate, but text and many other areas of science (subliminal messaging) and business as well. Design is not as simple as slapping a photo next to a title; it is appealing to the left and right sides of a person's brain – to hopefully make a lasting impression. Great time, effort, and money is put into each advertising design with not the smallest detail left uncared for. Research is constantly carried out to discover the minutest details of the audience, down to their very psyche. Yet, graphic design in the early fifties was under great fire from critics who questioned whether it worked at all. But as I will discuss soon, it is very clear the effectiveness of graphic design.

A difference between graphic design and technical writing is that in technical writing, words are the main source of information, and occasionally supported by a graphic, but only under the strictest guidelines. In graphic design, the picture is the main concept, and the text merely supports the graphic. Key (1980) states that "The consumer block-reads the paragraphs at a glance, consciously accepting them as something meaningful. Nevertheless, should a consumer carefully read the copy, it is like money in the bank for the advertiser" (p.5). He also goes on to say "...the psychological trigger that justifies the expense for the art, reproduction, paper, and distribution – resides in the picture" (p.5). Graphic design takes the drab, somewhat lifeless points of information we call text and transforms it into a tangible idea we can identify with.

Progression in advertising has had as many faces as has the automobile. It is constantly growing and changing to fit the times (and the ever-fickle audience), but the driving force behind advertising is money, and this will never change. A designer will stop at nothing to entice you with a product. Humor, shock, sex – these scratch the surface of ways to creep into our senses and persuade us to buy. And don't think our subconscious doesn't catch on. Advertising in many cases has reduced the human into nothing more than a Pavlovian experiment. The second an image is flashed across the screen, we find ourselves frothing at the mouth wanting it, and more of it. Oh yes, advertising does work.

Subliminal messaging is not the only way to persuade people to purchase, though. Over time, advertising through magazines, television, music, and even the internet has painted a picture of how life "should" be (i.e. "pop culture"), and people have been scrambling to stay "cool" ever since. This culture has been reared from the money-hungry minds driving today's biggest industries – all to make a dollar. Advertising is a very powerful thing.

But is this ethical? Is it ethical to show only the most attractive women and say this is how every woman should look? Is it ethical to say the only way to have a good time is through beer? Is it ethical to make a second rate piece of trash look first class? Is it ethical to trick with subliminal imagery? Is it ethical to simply lie, or wield people's emotions in a direction from which the company will profit? What part does ethics play in all this?

Markel (2001) describes ethics as ".. .the study of the principles of conduct that apply to an individual or group" (p. 22). This definition sounds simply like abiding by the Golden Rule, but the key to this definition is found in the last part of the sentence: "... apply to an individual or group." Right there, ethics is out the window. With an ever-changing society in which everyone wants special rights, wanting to be individuals, and supposedly trying to embrace all cultures and things, how on earth can we be ethical when ethics is relative to culture? This is a hurtle constantly in the way in graphic design. An appalling ad to one person is a good laugh to another. A sexually explicit ad in France may pass by barely noticed, but that same ad may drive an American to sue the TV station, ad agency, and anyone else caught in the way! An avant garde magazine cover in the 60's caused an uproar among the American middle class because of highly stylized bare breasts on the cover. Would someone even think twice about that now (Heller & Balance, p. 31)? These are issues a graphic designer must take into consideration. Is the design appropriate and effective to the audience?

An excellent example of a controversial (and most would agree, unethical) advertisement would be the Johnny Walker whisky ad that ran in all of the major magazines in 1977. It was simply a glass with ice cubes. That was it. For most people, it was mainly a page they skipped over, but for a recovering alcoholic, it was simply torture.

A look deeper into the ad showed some very disturbing images. Air brushed into the ice cubes were twelve images, all of which were depictions of an alcoholic's common hallucinations that are experienced while going through withdrawals. The ad was directly targeting the suffering, trying-to-recover alcoholic in hopes of making him or her drink again. With pictures ranging from a castrated penis to a dehydrating man, to a snake charmer, this ad did nothing but horrible damage to the target viewer. In many cases, Johnny Walker Whisky succeeded in their campaign, driving people back to drinking, and driving sales through the roof (Key, 1980). Is this ethical? While this true story is also a great example for the subliminal, I believe it is just as important for the ethical. In the general accepted ethical standards, this is not ethical by any stretch of the imagination, yet this kind of campaign is an on-going thing.

There is always an argument in favor of the somewhat unethical. I was recently involved in a conversation with a car salesman, and during our conversation I bluntly asked him how he could sit behind a desk and watch a customer sign their life and money away on a car they really can't afford. His answer was an interesting one: "They are out to buy a car. They are going to buy a car no matter what. It might as well be from me, or they'll go down the road and buy somewhere else." What a sad, but true sentiment.

Is the real factor here that we are going to succumb to temptation no matter what? Is advertising simply a contest to see which product the consumer will fall for first? Is it a match to grab the back-sliding alcoholic's attention before he gets to the next liquor ad? Are we, the audience, the true unethical ones? Obviously, if the approach didn't work, they wouldn't still be doing it, right?


Unfortunately, the laws against false advertising are sketchy at best, and loop-holes are simply too easy to find, so anything goes in the world of advertising. Is this ethical? I don't believe it is. In theory, a product should be represented by truth. If a company has a bad product, they should either improve it or not sell it. They should not lie to the consumer and trick them into buying. In truth, we know that eating nonfat margarine will not make us look like a supermodel. Ultimately, though, it is we the consumers who make the final decision. No one makes us buy what we buy, or do what we do; that is our choice. Graphic design can merely act as the devil on your shoulder to poke and prod you in the direction it wants you to go.

Nearly every art form has been the source of controversy at one point or another over time, and graphic design is no exception. With the continuing advances in technology, bad is sure to come with the good. All we can hope to do is hold to what we believe, ethical or not, and gauge our practices and lifestyles accordingly. As I stated in the introduction, graphic design is one of the most powerful communicators, but it is we the audience who hold the fate of this profession in our hands. What I have discussed merely scratches the surface in this area, but hopefully I have shown a darker side to advertising and maybe opened your eyes a little to the darker side of the industry, even maybe making you think twice about the things you are purchasing. Nothing in the world of design is by accident.


Key, W.B. (1980). The Clam Plate Orgy: And Other Subliminals the Media Use to Manipulate Your Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Heller, S., Balance, G. (Eds.). (2001). Graphic Design History. New York: Allworth Press.

Markel, M. (2001). Technical Communication (6th ed.). Boston: Bedford St. Martin's.

Christian J. Fergus is currently a Graphic Design student at CCC. The lighthouse art of this issue of Palabras is his.


Published 2 years ago


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