In his book Graphic Design As Communication, Barnard defines graphic design as one of the “signifying systems” through which “the beliefs and values (ideologies) of groups of people… are communicated” (Barnard 2005: 68). Graphic design also - according to Jobling and Crowley – must convey an idea through words and image in order for it to qualify as graphic design (Barnard 2005: 11). These findings suggest that graphic design always carries with it an idea it wants to convey, in addition to this it is also used to communicate beliefs and values to groups of people within cultures. Considering the amount of influence it has on contemporary culture, it stands to reason then that there should be an extensive amount of ethical guidelines imposed onto it. And yet this is not the case. This essay will look at the extent to which graphic design supposedly has an impact on culture and the consequences that a lack of ethical consideration has on said culture with regards to the way women perceive themselves.
This investigation will first further define the term ethics and its relevance to the formation of popular culture, then it will expand on the definition of graphic design as already stated above, especially with regards to advertising and its depiction of women. It will delve into product design; exploring how the forms made in this field influence the way women in popular culture perceive themselves. Subsequent to this, examples will be given of the outcomes achieved when both product and graphic design collaborate with mass media to create the artefacts we come into contact with regularly in our daily lives. It will also look at how this has contributed to third wave feminism. And finally, the effects of un/ethical design on the way women are perceived in popular culture will be examined through a case study.
Any ethical considerations within design, however, cannot be discussed until a definition of the term “ethics” is given. The 2007 Oxford Paperback Dictionary defines it as, “a set of principles concerning right and wrong and how people should behave” (2007: 312). In his book Do Good Design, David Berman passionately implores the reader to uphold these principles as he believes they are now more important than ever before if designers are to “repair the world”: “Designers have far more power than they realize: their creativity fuels the most efficient (and most destructive) tools of deception in human history…The same design that fuels mass overconsumption also holds the power to repair the world” (2009:2). Berman tries to instill design with a purpose so that it can be a catalyst for change. However, those principles never operate in isolation from society, as noted by Louis Alvin Day: “Ethical decisions are always made within a specific context, which includes the political, social and cultural climate” (2000: 5).
The debate surrounding ethics and its role in design can become very convoluted, because how does one make ethical decisions about the messages they send into culture when that very same culture is what influences their ethical decisions? This dialogue between the two is addressed by Barnard, who posits that graphic design and its products will always mirror the cultural values and ethics of the society it is found in. He backs this up by making an example of 1970’s British advertising; which he says had very stereotypical views on women, which can be attributed to the fact that the culture of the time was so sexist (Barnard 2005: 58). Should this be the modern day norm as well though? Day argues that ethics are just as important as ever, and that those that decide to disregard those ethics are personally responsible for the consequences: “All communicators become moral agents when they confront the ethical dilemmas of their professions and must bear full responsibility for their actions” (2000: 5).
And it has been said that the advertising industry has a lot to answer for. Stephen Baker offers analysis on the objectification of women in advertising in his book Visual Persuasion (1961). He tackles the question of why anyone would want to use sex in advertising at all and says that the answer is quite simple; in that there are few appeals in advertising that equal the force of sex (1961: 101). He also challenges the notion that there is anything wrong with the portrayal of sex within advertising and says, “There is of course nothing wrong with putting an emphasis on sex; it helps to propagate the nation”, and states that emphasizing sex also, “makes the world a better place to live” (1961: 41). It might be easy to dismiss these statements as ramblings from an age where ethics were od considerable less importance, that is until one looks further and finds similar viewpoints from contemporary society as well from women in the form of third wave feminists. In a study entitled Sexual Objectification of Women John Dahlberg and Amanda Zimmerman (2008:72), give a definition of third wave feminism: “Third wave feminists now stress a new feminism; one that is not stiff and old-fashioned, but bold, fun and in line with popular culture. This feminism embraces sexuality. It views sex as power… [it] embodies a kind of “girlish offensive”, a “sassy don’t mess with me adolescent spirit” that tells females they can be strong and powerful, they can be anything they want to be, and they can look hot doing it.”
“Housewife, decorative element, and depenedent on men (Ferguson, kreshel &Tinkham 1990), housewife, concerned with physical attractiveness, sex object… neutral (Lysonski 1983); alluring objects of sexual gratification (Mayne 2000) and erotic suggestive stimulate” (Zimmerman & Dahlberg 2008: 72).
These are the roles that women have been portraying in advertising since the 1960s (Zimmerman & Dahlberg 2008: 71). If design helps construct the values within cultures, then what has been the extent of the impact of designers working in the realm of advertising? The use of women to sell products in advertising is an all too familiar technique, and an arguably cliché one at that (Berman 2009: 73).
However, as stated before, the ethical merits of something cannot be looked at in isolation from its context (Day 2000:5), so consider this advertisement (figure 1). Is it unethical? The first question one might ask is: “where are the jeans?” (Berman 2009: 77). But who is to say that a brand has to sell a product in every advertisement? In The Philosophy of Branding, Thom Braun acknowledges the intangible aspect of a brand and states that, “Brands stand for something… what they stand for often goes much further than superficial product or services” (2008: 20) and further expands on this idea in an example where he says that the physical attributes of a fizzy drink in a red tin can and the thoughts he has about Coca-Cola as a brand are two entirely separate things (2008:20). In the same way, the Guess advertisement could be said to be a promotion of the personality of the brand, and the women in the advert are not obscenely addressed, so then is it not ethically acceptable?
If the role of women in the advert as decorative elements can be disregarded, then the answer would be yes. In an essay, This Is Not A Library, Steven Heller notes that news shops in New York may not have flashing lights announcing “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS”, but the salacious covers of their weekly magazines say it all for them (2002: 21), the same could be said of this advert.
Later on in that same article however, Heller himself admits that his opinion might be a bit prudish (2002: 21). According to an essay by Anna Gough-Yates; “The ethics of young women’s magazines have frequently been understood as having a moral dimension which can ‘improve’, or possibly ‘corrupt’ young people who have not yet permanently established a world view and style of living”. However, she points out: “Only certain styles of living are ‘approved’, and these assume that heterosexuality, marriage, and family are inherently unchallengeable within human relationships… Magazine production [and the print ads which complement them], on the other hand, concerns itself less with what should be than with what is” (2000: 226). This echoes Louis Alvin Day’s statement that ethical considerations can never be made outside of the values and beliefs of that’s society’s climate (2000: 5). And therefore by those standards, the Guess Jeans advert is a totally acceptable one by today’s ethical standards.
However, consider figure 2. This print ad, ran full page in Life Magazine more than 50 years ago (Berman 2009: 73), but does the fact that it was a societal norm for the men of that day to beat their wives make the ad acceptable?
Advertising is an industry which is no stranger to being criticized for its stereotypical portrayals of women, however, there are other fields of design, such as product design, which arguably stereotype femininity to a much greater degree and perhaps to a much more detrimental effect. How ethical are the designers who are responsible for the objects society comes into contact with on a daily basis? What is alarming though is the fact that the encounters with designed objects are so accepted, that they have, in essence, become “invisible”, as pointed out by Pat Kirkham and Judy Attfield in the introduction to The Gendered Object (1996: 1). It is because of this ‘invisibility’ that it has become so easy for society to become oblivious to the notions of femininity and masculinity that are often thrust open the conceptual and design processes of these objects (Kirkham& Attfield: 1996: 1). Almost as if to affirm the belief that object design has a great impact on our cultural landscape, Kirkham and Attfield state, “Objects are highly, though differentially, affective and amongst the strongest bearers of meaning in our society” (1996: 1).
Strawberry Shortcake doll
So what happens when the children of our society come into contact with those meanings of masculinity and femininity? One of the essays in The Gendered Object entitled Dolls written by Heather Hendershot addresses this issue. Toy designers, like graphic designers, do not operate outside the needs and wants of the present day culture. This can be seen in the way that designers created the hugely successful My Little Pony product line in 1982 as a reaction to market research that revealed that little girls fantasized about horses before falling asleep at night (Hendershot 1996: 94). The release of the Strawberry Shortcake dolls (figure 3) in 1980 also came as a reaction to the desires of the culture at the time. Although the physical features of the toy had a definite impact on the decision to purchase the toys, what really made it a successful product was the fact that the doll was strawberry scented (Hendershot 1996: 92). The strawberry scent was a success because strawberries are, “emblematic of a more wholesome… natural femininity, connoting a pre-sexual ‘sweetness’ and child-like innocence” (Hendershot 1996: 92). While it may be argued by some parents that such toys are inappropriate for little girls as they may propagate a stereotype of femininity, and are therefore justified in their decisions to opt for ‘gender-neutral’ pre-school toys, toy manufacturers are adamant that their products are driven by the desires of children, and that as soon as, “toddlers become more capable of making their own toy choices they quickly reject ‘gender-neutral’ toys and demand more gender-coded playthings, such as the Strawberry Shortcake doll” (Hendershot 1996: 94). So would it be fair to say the ethicalities behind the production of toys such as the Strawberry Shortcake doll are without fault? Consider that the toy came as a result of desires found within little girls, the dolls themselves are not scantily dressed, and could in fact be considered, by some, to be an embodiment of cuteness (which some may consider to be a laudable quality for young girls to aspire to), and seeing as there is nothing under handed about the scent of strawberries, one would have to agree and say yes.
But although a strawberry scented doll aimed at young girls may not be seen as under handed, it could definitely be seen as sinister. In the movie, Pepi, Luci and Bom, the idea of the ‘proper’ girl’s body is mocked by Pepi’s usage of a girls’ doll that menstruates (Hendershot 1996: 90). Consider the wide array of girls’ dolls that are available today; there are dolls that re-enact every aspect of female physiology from those that cry, eat, urinate and you can even find defecating ones, and all of these are accepted as commonplace, yet for some reason menstruating dolls for little girls are extremely rare (1996: 90). Why is it that a doll which excretes ‘faeces’ is seen as more acceptable than one that menstruates? Hendershot suggests that odour or scent may play a role in the banishment of menstruation as an ‘inappropriate’ bodily function amongst women, because it challenges conventions about how the female body should not only operate, but also smell (1996: 90).
These expectations about the female can even be seen to be represented in advertising in the way that women’s anti-perspirants and deodorants are marketed, their adverts rarely ever show women glowing, let alone sweating, and, “this representational silence reveals a great deal about societal expectations of the gendered body”, because according to societal norms, “[t]he proper female body is, above all… properly contained [and] properly scented” (1996: 91). And because such distorted views on how femininity can be defined are propagated from infancy, the ethical considerations that go into designing such toys is of paramount importance as they do help construct a perception of what the adult female body should be like (1996:91).
It could easily be argued that the idea of a female figure emanating fruity odours instead of her natural scent creates an unrealistic expectation for young girls. And this more than often tends to result in an odour paranoia later on after pre-pubescent life; this fear of a perfectly natural odour from their genitals is exploited by marketing campaigns to sell an array of deodorants, douches, anti-perspirants and scented tampons (Hendershot 1996: 93). All of this because gender-coding says that women should smell sweet. With so many issues surrounding how much dolls have the power to shape children’s perceptions of femininity, it is a wonder that girls still have any toys at all.
And yet, there are some women - specifically third wave feminists - who continue to play with toys even well into adulthood. “Against the backdrop of a ‘pornographication’ of mainstream media… [and] a more heavily sexualized culture” the third wave feminist was born (Attwood 2005: 392). For women born in the early 1980s and onwards sex in the media has been a constant companion (Zimmerman & Dahlberg 2008: 71). And although there possibly may be a host of other factors that have contributed to the emergence of the sexually explorative third wave feminist, the proliferation of sex in the media had to have played a major role. And arguably, the one object which encapsulates this new found perception of sexuality amongst women is the Rampant Rabbit vibrator (figure 4), or also just known as The Rabbit (Attwood 2005: 293). In her article entitled, Fashion and Passion: Marketing Sex to Women, Fiona Attwood places a heavy emphasis on the Rabbit as a sign of the sexual consumerism that has taken place amongst the working class of women in society. She tracks the changing significance of the rabbit from a symbol for sexual appetite and how it changed from that to the playboy bunny which signified “sexual pleasure, recreation and consumerism for men” to now, where it has become strongly linked to connotations of women’s pleasure within popular culture (2005: 293). The vibrator’s meteoric rise to the status that it has in society today was not an easy one, in fact it was very difficult; it was first used as a medical apparatus to treat mental illnesses in women, it then became a domestic appliance and now it is not just recreational tool (Attwood 2005: 397), but also a signifier of style and the values that the carrier holds.
The rising status of the Rabbit can also be attributed to its endorsement by media texts such as the programme Sex & The City, whose young cosmopolitan female protagonists are exactly the kind of women that the third wave feminists emulate in their day to day lives (Attwood 2005: 293). Sex paraphernalia such as the Rabbit, and others of its ilk are harbingers of an age whereby, unlike her predecessor, a woman is no longer expected to be unknowing and at the same time innocent in her sexuality, or “somewhat seductive, [and yet] not sleazy” (Hendershot 1996: 1992), she is free to be uninhibited of her sexual desires as sex becomes a recreational activity and is no longer significant as a form of reproduction or relationship (Attwood 2005: 397). Ethical decisions made in mediums such as the media, and products such as the Rabbit can be credited for the shift in societal values which has resulted in sex being linked to
“sophisticated femininity”, “image, style”, narcissism and pleasure, even auto-eroticism if need be (2005: 397).
And if the Rabbit signifies third wave feminism’s attempt at sexual autonomy for women, then the wave of porno-chic styling prominent in fashion adverts could be said to be its attempt at an autonomy in the representation of its women. Attwood acknowledges the recent trend towards texts in media (such as figure 5) which, “gain their charge precisely by the disturbance of boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable sexual style content”. But is this decision to do so ethically justifiable? These texts revel in blurring the boundaries between the pornographic and the mainstream (2005: 397). Steven Heller has also noticed the shift towards texts in media which walk a line between erotica and the socially acceptable and accounts that, “What began with the libidinous annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has burgeoned into a publishing genre” (2002: 21). Attwood states that pornography will always be hard for women to accept because of its demarcation as a male only genre which has received so much open criticism, however, if it can be reinterpreted to be made stylish, sophisticated and auto-erotic, then it is seen as a female declaration of “girl-power” and ownership over the female form (2005). Representations such as the one made in figure 5, Myers argues, are not offensive because, “where the porn body connotes openness and availability to men, the use of fashion codes works to resignify the female body as emblematic of self-possession, even when naked and on display” (Attwood 2005: 399).
But upon looking at figure 5 and trying to imagine it signifying the female taking ownership over its own body, the first question to pop into the viewer’s mind should be, “Have you ever met any females that look like that?” It would not (or at least should not) take anybody long to come to a logical series of questions such as; exactly what kind of existing woman in the real world is the one in figure 5 supposed to be representing? And if one is to use the characters portrayed in the Sex & The City seriesas the archetypal women for this new wave of feminism, then how realistic is the idea of a group of hotshot women friends who balance successful careers, envious sex-scapades and still have the time to get together and gossip about it several times a week? The questions posed here should not be taken as an attempt to be flippant, but rather, a natural critique of the foundations - which form this sub-culture of women who have been dubbed the third wave of feminists. In a sobering self-critique, Fiona Attwood acknowledges that the ideas around womens’ sexual pleasure and the styling of the female form as seen in porno-chic adverts may be successful in adding new dimensions to already existing constraints on women, which more often than not tends to result in - what Boynton calls - “the female body… depicted as a sexual discomfort rather than pleasure [and] instead of being a site of pleasure and self-possession, the body becomes merely a display item – to be shown in the best poses, lighting, and in the most flattering lingerie” (2005: 398). While prurience may very well be a vital step in establishing a sexual autonomy, it cannot be said with the same conviction that narcissism, ‘stylishness’ and consumerism of all things would be as essential to the cause.
Criticism of third wave feminism, however, often forgets all too easily the benefits that it has brought along with it, such as a newfound curiosity and confidence to talk about sexual matters which would have previously been taboo. And it also solidified the fact that in fact, women do not need men, and are perfectly capable of functioning as self-reliant members of society. In what she interprets as a stunning bit of irony, Attwood makes reference to Amy Chinn who indicates, “although complaints against advertising of this kind frequently rely on the notion of an ‘anti-sexist’ protest, they are often directed with particular vehemence against images which draw on themes of women’s sexual
power, for example: those which can be read as expressive of lesbian desire, self-pleasuring or sexual power over men” (Attwood 2005: 398).
The real issue behind a representation such as that of figure 5, or any text that either claims to be or is labelled as being an expression of ‘women’s sexual power’ is that it is still trying to do so within the conventional patriarchal frameworks of what it means to be ‘sexually powerful’ (Attwood 2005: 401). It is not until women establish for themselves a non-patriarchal point-of-reference for what words such as ‘sex’, ‘power’ or ‘ownership’ mean that one will be able to say for certain that women have reached a state of autonomy (ibid). Until then, the legitimacy of these and every other representation that permeates through culture will continue to be an ethically complex one, because it will be questioned as either being a noble attempt or simply another instance of female pandering to a gender role already set out to them by a patriarchal society.
So what effect has design had and is it even necessary to consider ethics within the confines of design? Amanda Zimmerman and John Dahlberg conducted a study to, “measure the attitudes of young women to sexually objectified advertising” (Zimmerman & Dahlberg 2008: 71). The study was a combination of two previous studies which had taken place under the similar aims. It was administered to 94 undergraduates. In a part of one of the previous studies conducted in 2001, men and women were presented with two advertisements, one was mildly sexual whilst the other had a high sexual content. In the data collected it was reflected that the adverts with high sexual content were labelled as “sexual liberalism” (2008: 73). Zimmerman and Dahlberg report that, “contemporary females will be more likely to maintain an existing positive view of a brand… and… be inclined to purchase and use it regardless of any sexual portrayal of women in that brand’s advertising” (2008: 76).
“An explanation for this may be that the participants felt the advertisement was done tastefully. The results might have been more negative if they thought that sex had not been used in a tasteful manner.” (2008: 76)
The aim of this essay was to establish whether or not the discussion of ethics was a worthwhile one within the field of design. The definition of the term “ethics” was one that was clearly laid out, followed by a look into the worlds of advertising as well as product design in order to establish the significance of ethical considerations within these signifiers of culture. Ethical considerations behind toy designs as well as designing dolls for children, were clearly laid out. Third wave feminism was looked at in great detail and its roots were identified as stemming from the sexualized world created by the media that women in the 1980s were born into. And finally a case study was looked at as a means of assessing the impact that the (un) ethical decisions had on women and the way they perceive themselves. But most importantly: this study of the subject brings these issues to the fore thereby resulting in a call for action to start taking a stance and not just be mere spectators of the work they release into the cultural landscape.
Attwood, F. 2005. Fashion and Passion: Marketing Sex to Women. taken from Sexualities Vol. 8 London. SAGE Publications
Also available for download at: http://sexualities.sagepub.com/content/8/4/392.abstract
Baker, S. 1961. Visual Persuasion. New York. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.
Barnard, M. 2008. Graphic Design As Communication. London. Routledge
Berman, D. 2009. Do Good Design. California. AIGA Design Press
Berry, D.(ed.) 2000. Ethics and Media Culture. Oxford. Focal Press
Braun, T. 2008. The Philosophy Of Branding. London. Kogan Page
Day, L.A. 2000 Ethics in Media Communication third ed. Australia. Wadsworth
Heller, S. 2002. The Graphic Design Reader. Canada. Allworth Press
Kirkham, P. 1996. The Gendered Object. Manchester. Manchester University Press
Zimmerman, A. & Dahlberg, M. 2008. The Sexual Objectification of Women in
Advertising: A Contemporary Cultural Perspective. taken from Journal of Advertising Research [pdf] also available for download at: http://pure.au.dk/portal-asb-student/files/10594/8_-_sexual_objectification_of_women.pdf
The Guardian. 2000. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2000/sep/09/weekend.julieburchill