Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 122, February 2014

The Purgatory of Design

The famous graphic designer Milton Glaser once created a design test he called “The Road to Hell” to question the ethics of designers. The test appeared to him when he was working on a design for the Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy and he came to think of its relevance for design today as an ethical mirror of design choices. Whereas hell is the punishment for those who wilfully commit to sin, and thus lasts forever, purgatory is an unpleasant purging of sins for those who produced evil deeds by ignorance. Purgatory is then the place where sinners can come to terms with their ignorance and atone their sins.

The work on Purgatory inspired Glaser to design the test as an abyss from a higher ethical standard all way down to the gates of Hell. Glaser’s test thus asks you, as a designer, if you would,
1. Design a package to look larger on the shelf?
2. Do an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?
3. Design a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it's been in business for a long time?
4. Design a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?
5. Design an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?
6. Design a package for a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?
7. Design a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer who employs child labor?
8. Design a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn't work?
9. Design an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?
10. Design a brochure piece for an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?
11. Design an ad for a product whose continued use might cause the user's death?

What Glaser’s test highlights is the sliding scale of interference or even distortion of ethics involved in a typical design practice such as graphic design. Design is a tool for persuasion, and thus pushes the user in a certain direction – and is this direction a good one?

We all know that all design is a form of manipulation of systems, energies and matter. In Glaser’s example, it is the manipulation of graphics, but also of attention, memory, labour, well-being and ultimately; life and death. Every design act does change or add to the existing order in some way, but we will need to ask, if there can be “good” design, there must surely also be some “evil” design.

Purgatory cartridge

So where does everyday design fit into this greyscale of purgatory design, where would we place our typical design instances? What about the design of cheap printers that require customers to buy expensive ink cartridges? Clothes that only fit ideal bodies? A web application that sells yet another addiction? A community garden that raises property prices so the local inhabitants have to resettle?

Designers are hired to create economic growth, in one way or another, and we do this by manipulating devices, media or services and tilt people’s behaviour towards the goals of our client. We may be goodhearted and design for the marginalized or poor, helping in design decisions, facilitating processes or cultivating agency in order to assist their own efforts to change their social conditions. However, it is often hard to work with victims of a grander system of exploitation and injustice without reproducing yet another relation of dependence or addiction. This may be one of the trickiest balances to keep in design: how to engage with people who suffer under a consumer culture of designed disempowerment without producing another layer of subjugation. Just as designers may produce dependence on more design, a “good” designer may produce more addiction to “facilitation” and “possibilities”. With social design we must be aware that we are still manipulating systems, yet this time the “material” is that of loyalty and social life itself.

If Glaser is right, we are in Purgatory right now, and we have the opportunity to critically examine our work before we set yet another stone of "good intentions" on the well-paved road to hell.

So, in what part of Purgatory is your office located?

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