Post A: There Is No Ethical Design Under Capitalism

Design as a philosophy of creating solutions has a chance to be benevolent when combined with human-centric values. However, in our profit-centred world, design is used in the marketing realm to influence consumer decisions, sometimes in ways that are potentially harmful (Beverland, Gemser & Karpen 2017, p. 161). The role of design in promoting harmful products like tobacco in Indonesia, and skin whitening products in India, involves graphics that tap in to the collective subconscious of a culture, manipulating the perceived value between the products to bring about social success (Reynolds 1999, p. 85) (Shroff, Diedrichs & Craddock 2018, p. 1).

With tobacco advertising in Indonesia, the consumers buy in to an idealised lifestyle of masculine dominance. Advertisements will typically display images of stereotyped masculinity combined with a daring slogan that evokes a sense of autonomous power- “Be Bold”, “Go Ahead”, or in the example of Surya Pro- “Never Quit” (Reynolds 1999, p. 85-86).

Tobacco Company ‘Surya’ Advertisement (Grenville 2018)

Not only is this advertisement selling a highly harmful and addictive product, the ethical ramifications also lie in how it frames attempts at quitting as giving up- a very ‘unmanly’ trait.

Designing a readily consumed social narrative is comparable to the $US 450-535 million skin whitening industry in India, selling products which often contain damaging ingredients. A link between fair skin and success is perpetrated by advertisements digging into insecurities of darker women, wrought by caste dogmas and exacerbated by two centuries of colonialism (Shroff, Diedrichs & Craddock 2018, p. 2).

‘Fair and Lovely’ – India’s leading fairness cream (Chaudhari 2017)

The design of the advertisement portrays a confident woman staring out at her audience, bathed in sterile white and feminine pink to declare- this is what a successful and professional woman in India looks like. Referring to the product as a ‘treatment’ implies that dark skin is an abnormal condition that needs to be treated.

These multi-million dollar industries rely on reinforcing gender stereotypes through design to sell unethical products, but what about design as a tool for social activism?

In a 2014 feminist campaign by Elle UK Magazine and the Fawcett Society, celebrities such as Benedict Cumberbatch championed ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirts- a seemingly empowering use of design (Katebi n.d.).

Benedict Cumberbatch sporting a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt (ELLEUK Twitter 2014)

However, it was revealed that the Mauritius women manufacturing the t-shirts in sweatshops were exploited for a profit (Katebi n.d.). How could these shirts stand as a symbol of female empowerment, when the capitalist constructs they arose from were inherently disempowering?

This incident kindled the popularity of left-wing discourse across Tumblr and Twitter, with the phrase “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” (Weedwacker 2015).

Since design and consumption go hand in hand, perhaps there can be no ethical design under capitalism either.

Reference List

Beverland, M. B., Gemser, G & Karpen, O. I. 2017, ‘Design, consumption and marketing: outcomes, process, philosophy and future directions’, Journal of Marketing Management, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 159-172.

Katebi, H. n.d, ‘This is what a feminist looks like. The feminist shirt controversy‘, Conscious Magazine,  viewed 31 January 2019,  <>.

Reynolds, C. 1999, ‘Tobacco advertising in Indonesia: “the defining characteristics for success” ‘, Tobacco Control, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 85-88.

Shroff, H., Diedrichs, P. C. & Craddock, N. 2018, ‘Skin colour, cultural capital, and beauty products: An investigation of the use of skin fairness products in Mumbai, India’, Frontiers in Public Health, vol. 5, no. 365, pp. 1-9.

Weedwacker 2015, ‘Where does “there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism” come from?’, Reddit thread, 11 August, viewed 29 January 2019, <>.


Chaudhari, D. 2017, Fair and Lovely Advertisement, Feminism in India, viewed 30 January 2019, <>.

Grenville, S. 2018, Surya Pro Advertisement, Lowy Institute, viewed 30 January 2019,  <>.

ELLEUK Twitter 2014, Benedict Cumberbatch This Is What  A Feminist Looks Like, Conscious Magazine, viewed 31 January 2019, <>.

2 thoughts on “Post A: There Is No Ethical Design Under Capitalism

  1. It’s very disturbing the see the extent designers and industries go to in order to exploit cultural norms. Culture jamming can be so subtle but intrusive that it is almost undetectable unless seen from an outside perspective. It makes me questions and fear the manipulation in our own Australian culture, but it has increase may awareness as a designer. Perhaps you are right that there is no ethical design under capitalism. But perhaps these issues stem from human nature. Humans are vain, selfish and greedy and capitalism nourishes this. As a result, maybe the only way to tackle issues like tobacco and white washing is through a bottom up approach.

    1. If I had more than 400 words for this I would have loved to examine some examples of truly empowering design, however I’m unsure whether I’d be able to find anything. Creating anything costs money, and somewhere along the production line there needs to be a profit for that business/individual to stay afloat. The concept of profit is inherently exploitative to some extent, because it means someone along the way is not being paid the full worth of the product.

      Additional readings on capitalism and design:

      View at

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