ETHICS FOR THE STARVING DESIGNER is a live, social project promoting the dialogue on ethics and responsibility within student and professional visual communicators in Singapore.

Interview #7 - Lim Guo Wen

*This will be the last interview I’ll be publishing. :)

I had the honour to interview Lim Guo Wen, a lecturer from LASALLE College of the Arts (Also the same place where I’m studying right now!) One of the few things that I’m truly appreciative about LASALLE is that just about all of the lecturers here are also practicing professionals – which is something really important when you realize how fast the industry has been rapidly progressing over the past few years.

Hi Mr Lim, really glad you could spare the time. What subjects do you teach and how long have you been teaching?

The main bulk of my classes are on “Design Research Methods” - A module with the intention of introducing structured thought to design students through the reflexive study of one’s process starting from discovering and understanding of issues and concepts through research to the articulation of significant and relevant applications through written and oral methods.

In short, the module teaches the student to articulate what he/she means. As simple as that may sound, it’s can sometimes be quite foreign to many creatives.

The other module would be the Portfolio studio for the Undergraduates of Image Communication Level 3.

What does ethics and responsibility in design mean to you? Do you think that responsibility is prominently present in the industry today?

It’s an understanding that all Visual Communication Designers (as the name would imply) are in the service of human communication, and that EVERY message communicated whether intended or not is amplified exponentially in weight and effect the moment it leaves our hands. To trivialize the power of such an endeavor is simply an act of denial or worse still, ignorance. 

However, if asked to list the laws of ethics, for those who’s grounds tethers between perceived “common decency” and the ambiguous “free will”, I would be none the wiser, nor any more qualified in defining the line for which the masses should not cross than if I was talking about the latest in stem cells research. 

Ethics is tough to identify, especially when trying to define it from one’s own perspective, hence I do feel it’s a tad challenging to say yes or no to it’s presence. 

Responsibility on the other hand infers an element of accountability, to be responsible is to be held accountable. That, I can safely say is sorely lacking in the design industry in general. Of course that does imply that we leave the designers to the mercies of the fickle public, one moment it’s okay, the next it’s not okay.

That does open up a whole can of worms in a way, one that I feel will be addressed sooner or later. 

Do you discuss ethics and responsibility with your students? Is it a formal module?

We do, not as a formal module however but more as a premise or topic that constantly underpins most agenda in briefs. What we try to inculcate isn’t a guideline of what’s right and wrong because we would be hard-pressed to justify such intentions to the varying cultures present in the classes.

What we try to do is to introduce the discourses that can be found in both the development of various movements and the issues concerning them. The students will make up their own mind from there.

I firmly believe that everyone is trying their best to lead a life they can be proud of, as naive as that may sound. The real enemy to me really is ignorance, solve that and we would have taken a big step.

Do you think that ethics should be part of the grading process in design institutes?

No. Like I mentioned, it’s extremely tough both conceptually and politically to define ethics. Philosophy and religion have both tried enlightening us on it but have never found a consensus amongst themselves. As educators, taking the role of preachers is inherently unethical (ironic aye?), my 2 cents.

What we can do however, is to point out when and how to approach such issues, the decision of crossing the “line” lies with the student, the student will be tasked to make an informed decision which invariably makes him/her accountable. Like I mentioned, ignorance is the real enemy.

There is a common exercise given to students in advertising, where they are challenged to sell something that they are told to be useless or redundant to their target audience. (e.g. selling water to Eskimos, selling a product you know to have no features.) Do you think that it is ethical to help businesses to sell these objects? What are your thoughts about using these exercises for educational purposes?

The marketed purpose of most institutions is to prepare you for the industry, some take it a step further and prepare you for life however ambiguous that may sound. It is no secret that the world of advertising dirties themselves with selling products of excess. And honestly speaking, the ethics in concern here are quite relative in nature. If I were to look at it from my perspective, it would naturally feel wrong, however, if we would to look at it at a much bigger context, it would invariably dilute that conviction.

Capitalism is a broken system that requires quite a lot from us to function, and at the moment, it’s all we have. A lesser evil, if compared to socialism… etc., depending on your perspective of course. And I am sure you know this, but in order for us to continue supporting 7 billion people, consumerism and meritocracy is a necessary function of such a system. As a result, making a decision based on a narrow perspective even with the best of intention can have a rather ambiguous sense of ethics.

There is often discussion about cosmetic and fashion ads that propel a culture of unrealistic beauty. What are your thoughts about this?

I think it has always been our prerogative to chase beauty whatever the specific culture predetermines that beauty to be, be it a Grecian goddess or a woman with the waist of a 6 year old. I am quite certain that such objectification of women will not cease anytime soon and will continue to evolve with time. My only peeve with it is when women forsake health to try and attain such beauty.

To what extent do you think ethics in design and advertising can be defined? Do you think it’s something subjective that everyone has to settle for themselves, or there can be some sort of a rulebook?

Like I mentioned earlier, ethics as a concept is hard to define, and should not be defined by the tertiary educator. But I do feel it’s very much necessary to introduce the discourses of such issues to the students and let them make up their own minds from there. In short, to hold discussions about it is crucial, but to define it is problematic at best.

If there was one thing, a guideline or even a rule, you could tell a design student about design responsibility, what would it be?

Always question the intentions and the consequences of your actions, it it feels right, you are probably doing okay, if it feels easier but slightly wrong, that’s where you will know your character is being tested.

The person dearest to you is diagnosed with lung cancer, and despite your best efforts you are unable to raise the money needed for his or her treatment. A tobacco company approaches you, offering to pay for the person’s treatment, but in return requests your work on their campaign to get new smokers. What would be your answer and why?

What a loaded question, David! Honestly speaking, I would go to hell for the person I love. That should tell you what I would do.

Alright, that’s all for my interview, thank you so much for your time. I wish you all the best, good luck in your endeavours!

  1. starvingforethics posted this

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