Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Challenging the ethics of creative services

Read Time: 3 minutes

There are many realities. And truth is often elusive. Is your work about shaping perceptions to persuade? Or, are you creating something for others to see and understand  in a new way? Or, perhaps you’re creating simply for others to enjoy. Is the medium itself the message? Do you think about how what you create shapes the thoughts and feelings of others? What reality are you creating? I’d love to hear your thoughts. How have you have been shaped by the media you consume? Here’s my story…

Walking home from school on a drizzly day. Not heavy rain, just that cold wet that soaks through clothes and spirit with equal effect. I’m wet to the core, in spite of my heavy coat.

Then I remember that LIFE will be there. This is the day LIFE magazine arrives. LIFE, packed with the things, places and ideas I’m desperate to fill my life with. I transition out of my teen shuffle into a run.

I long for LIFE to take me away. Anxious that Mom will have stuff for me to do that will keep me from the pleasure. Desperate to see what will be on the cover. I love the grainy black-and-white news photos, and the heavy color of the ads.

Once I saw LOOK magazine, LIFE’s competitor, I wished Mom had subscribed to LOOK instead of LIFE. LOOK was way cooler. But LIFE was good enough, and I knew I was lucky my parents thought it was worth spending money on. They grew up in the Depression, wouldn’t shut up about it, and felt every penny was precious.

I searched for escape on every LIFE page. Escape to the person I wanted to be, and the world I wanted to live in. I compared what I saw in those pages to the world around me, carefully choosing what was cool and what to look down on or condemn as inferior. Always looking for what was beneath the status of cool, with my keen teen eye.

I didn’t dare to think I could be as cool as the images I aspired to. But those images, and the feelings they stirred inside me, provided a pattern, or a matrix, that I now envision as being like a giant jigsaw puzzle, with the pieces only slowly building to a whole. And the images on the pieces changed like a movie fade as each new issue of LIFE replaced the old.

I was selective in how I took it all in. No, I didn’t want to wear those baggy suits the politicians wore. Yes, I did want to inhabit those tall buildings. No, I didn’t want to be that guy with the plaid jacket and the shotgun, but yes, I would love to drive that hot rod with my collar up. Loved that bad attitude. But afraid to adopt it fully.

I alternated between wanting to look like one of those happy boys with a crew-cut and white tennies, and one of those sullen boys with long greasy hair and motorcycle boots.

Media shaped me. I picked my way through images and attitudes, and carefully selected the George Nelson wall furniture and the Eames chair without knowing that George, Charles and Ray created the things that would shape my life. That would shape who I would become, before I was conscience of becoming at all.

I wished my mother looked like the impossibly thin beauties in full flowing skirts on some days, and like Betty Crocker on others. I wished my dad drove a Ford or Chevy, and not the stupid Hillman he drove for its exceptional mileage. How could he possibly pass up the power of a V-8 for gas mileage?

So it went as I turned the pages, slurping down the cereal that was my after-school snack. Sifting and sorting images and meanings, to create my own reality of who I would be the next day or 10 years hence.

I had no awareness that LIFE was shaping my perception by twisting it with a fantasy created by the writers and image-makers who filled its pages. Yes, I knew girls weren’t shaped like Barbie, and that the cars in the ads weren’t really that long and low. I had enough understanding of the manipulation and persuasion to know that I wanted to go into the business of persuasion myself. But I wasn’t aware of how media was shaping my reality. My arrogance and sense of superiority kept me feeling in control.

How would I fit in? Media showed me how. What should I think? Media let me know. Should I support Nixon or Kennedy? Kennedy, of course. He was cool; Nixon wasn’t. Would the Pope run the country if Kennedy won? I didn’t care. Narrow tie or wide? Narrow. All the cool rockers wore narrow ties.

And off into adulthood I went, with my images from LIFE guiding every step as I filled in the matrix of my jigsaw puzzle. With faux Eames furniture, a mid-century home and a Thunderbird in the driveway, right out of the pattern in my mind. “If it looks right, it is right” ruled my choices. I thought, “If I look right, I’ll become the person I imagine,” and I’d slip right into the world I’d created in my mind.

It’s not real

So what’s the problem with all this? It took me years to sort it out. I hope you’re a quicker study than I was. What’s wrong? It’s a movie. It’s a movie I created in my head that plays on demand. It’s not real.

Where were the ethics and values in this media-dependent depiction of reality? Where was the kindness and empathy that are critical to shaping relationships with others? They weren’t there.

What’s the secret to happiness? Friends and long-term intimate relationships. LIFE, with its mix of news, editorial and advertising, was a distorted depiction of reality that emphasized male privilege, booze, cigarettes, cars, automatic washers and polyester suits. It was a recipe for an unhappy life with cirrhosis of the liver at the end. It wasn’t real. And neither was I.

Media twists us with its fantasy of reality. How has media shaped your reality? I’d love to hear.


  • Kelly Wise says:

    Wow, love this piece! Kids are out of the house and hubby and I are working to fall in love again. Doing the deep dive to figure out who we really are, now that all that work is done, and who do we want to be now. What is reality?

    • Ted says:

      Good question Kelly! I think love is the answer. What do you think?

    • Ted says:

      Kelly, after more thought, I want a future that is fair and compassionate. A future in which we help each other and as many others as possible. A future where we measure our success on our collective well being and on our ability to gain wisdom and cultivate insight how to be the best we can be for ourselves and others.

  • Ryan says:

    Hi Ted – this article struck a chord with me. So simple and articulated in such a nice way.

    I’ve spent my professional career trying to make the right thing for people to improve their lives. However, much of my work as a designer is only used to improve the aesthetics of a bad idea.

    We somehow feel that we can buy happiness in the right things, but it just doesn’t last. I think recognizing what makes you happy is part of the journey.

    Thank you,

    • Ted says:

      Thanks Ryan,

      The feeling of happiness is fleeting. And designed to be that way over the last million years or so.

      Yep, a journey. Recognizing what makes us happy or more fundamentally what makes us feel good about ourselves is not easy to do. In my experience choosing goals that give me long term feelings of pleasure has been one of my life’s most difficult processes.

      Don’t give up on the pleasure of creating things that make others happy. Perhaps you could focus on improving your ability to help your clients improve their ideas.


Join the conversation, leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *