“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks”, says Jeff Hammerbacher, the researcher who laid the foundation for facebook’s precision advertising model. A similar sentiment is found in the 2001 artwork “Designers, stay away from corporations that want you to lie for them”, by British designer Jonathan Barnbrook and one of the signators of the First Things First Manifesto 2000 - a call for designers’ problem-solving skills to be put to worthwhile use.
It’s easy to take Hammerbacher and Barnbrook’s statements and start an argument for the need for good in design and the evils of consumerism. However, the comments and the manifesto itself are not the result of some kind of moral decay creeping into the design profession but of a disproportionate distribution of creative power.
Instead of taking side in the value/value-free design argument from a moral perspective, we can look at it from an economic one. At all times, no matter what we do, we work with limited resources. Be it money, time, inspiration or brain-power, we simply can’t invest them in everything. Our individual choices will distribute these resources in a way that will cause only certain products, campaigns, companies and ideas to grow and produce a certain kind of value.
There is nothing wrong with selling dog biscuits or designer clothes. It’s not that big corporations with tempting advertising budgets are evil, they are simply not as important, and the value they create is not as needed. In the context of the “unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises that demand our attention”, their products and services can't be a priority. And our creative resources should be allocated accordingly.
Design students should not only be taught how to perfect their “problem-solving skills” but also how and why to invest them in the highest value added projects. This added value may appear in the form of stronger communities, cleaner environment, life-changing technologies, healthier lifestyles, better education, a sense of purpose, and personal satisfaction. It is very important for designers to learn to take it into account when deciding where to allocate their personal creative capital. Because it is a limited resource.