The Designer and Globalization

Is it right that designers should question working for multinational companies? Or are these issues not the designer’s concern?

Can designers play a part in changing the image of global companies or go further and change the way global companies function?

Globalization is bringing economic and social communities closer together. Designers, like all professionals, have a responsibility to both their local and global communities, as well as to their own professions codes and standards. They have a key role in creating a multinational company’s image, but little influence in its functioning. The strongest influence Designers can have on multinational companies is as consumers, and as consumers in an affluent country like Australia, have a responsibility to ensure the products they use, do not profit from abuse or exploitation.

Abuse, exploitation of poverty, human rights and environmental resources are all effects of the globalization of world trade. But ultimately, globalism is a positive and beneficial force. It enables an isolated island like Australia, and a historically isolated nation like China greater contact with different cultures and ideas.

Globalism is a world “characterized by networks of connections that span multi-continental distances.” Globalization “refers to the increase or decline in the degree of globalism. It focuses on the forces, dynamism or speed of these changes”(Nye 2002)

There are four aspects of globalism – economic (iPhones produced in China using Australian resources sold in France by an American company), military (September 11 attacks planned in Afghanistan, environmental (The Black Death, SARS, global warming) and social (music, philosophy, facebook, twitter, youtube).

Economic globalism led to the exploitation of the Middle East oil fields by Western companies. With the spread of social globalization (through facebook, youtube and twitter), these countries are experiencing peaceful protests and calls for greater government accountability and Western style democracy.

Examples of non-globalist countries include Qing Dynasty China (“There is nothing we lack”), pre Meiji restoration Japan, Tibet (before its “peaceful liberation”), China during the Cultural Revolution, Taliban Afghanistan and North Korea.

The two Koreas perfectly illustrate the positive influence of globalism. By the end of the Korean War in 1953, both nations were equally poor, third world dictatorships. North Korea chose isolation through “Juche” (Self-reliance, or self dependence). South Korea industrialized using its cheap labour workforce to attract international companies. By 1987 the South Korean dictatorship was overthrown through a combination of factors influenced by globalism – improved economic, educational and even the Olympics affected cultural developments. Looking at the CIA’s factbook, South Korea has a GDP per capita of US$30,200 (45th in the world) to North Korea’s US$1,800 (195th)(C.I.A. 2011)

Among the negatives of globalism is the vulnerability of developing nations to exploitation. Western nations have moved away from production, and freed themselves from the costs of worker salaries and pensions, machine purchasing and maintenance, and the need to adhere to Western workplace laws, regulations and conditions.

These costs are now the responsibility of their contractors – operating in Free Trade Zones (or Export Production Zones) in developing countries like China, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. These EPZ’s compete amongst themselves to offer the cheapest costs and labour.

“Working days are long – fourteen hours in Sri Lanka, twelve in Indonesia, sixteen in Southern China, twelve in the Philippines”.(Klein 2000)

Working conditions can be appalling – overcrowded dormitories, poor ventilation, extreme temperatures and fire hazards. Unpaid overtime (or penalties for not working overtime) is common, as are pay deductions, fees and penalties. With these EPZ’s paying minimal to no tax, there is little money for the communities for utilities and services such as water, roadworks, power supply and sanitation.

The competition amongst these EPZ’s allow corporations to take advantage of tax-free holiday periods, relocating or simply renaming the company once the tax-free period is over.

The lack of accountability and transparency in these zones allow any profits or taxes to be siphoned away through corruption. There will always be cheaper countries. As Chinese workers strike for better wages, Vietnam and Sri Lanka become cheaper. These companies will just move on, leaving nothing.

What should a designer do about this? According to the Australian Graphic Design Association’s code of ethics, a members responsibilities to the community are:

2.1 The environment
A Member shall work in a manner so that as little harm (direct or indirect) as possible is caused to the natural environment.

2.2 Conflict of interest
A Member shall not knowingly accept a position or commission in which a personal interest conflicts with professional obligation and duty.

2.3 Professional conduct
A Member shall not act in a manner that compromises the status of the design profession.

2.4 Design standards and support of AGDA
A Member shall encourage high standards of design and professional conduct, and support the aims of AGDA.(AGDA 2011)

There is nothing about a designer’s commitment to fair trade practices, use of child labour, or working for clients with poor human rights records. The AIGA in America’s “Design Business and Ethics” is a 76 page document focused more on protecting individual rights. It has six pages on the use of fonts, ten pages on copyright and twelve pages on sales tax. There is only one paragraph under the “The designer’s responsibility to clients” chapter that relates to ethics:

A professional designer who accepts instructions from a client or employer that involve violation of the designer’s ethical standards should be corrected by the designer, or the designer should refuse the assignment.(AIGA 2011)

Paul Nini, Associate Professor in the Department of Design at Ohio State University writes that a designer’s “most significant contribution to society would be to make sure that the communications we create are actually useful to those for whom they’re intended”(Nini 2004)

British Petroleum (BP) merged with Amoco in 1998 and stopped becoming an oil company and became an energy company. Landor Consulting designed a new logo and brand – “An Energy Company Going Beyond”. To emphasize this, they kept the organic green and gold of BP, removed the patriotic colours of Amoco, and shield of the old BP logo and replaced it with the new “Helios”, or “sunflower” logo.

The sunflower is “a very positive, organic symbol. The sun is a clean source of energy for almost every form of life.”(Holland 2006) Despite having this positive and nature invoking logo, BP’s branding amongst oil companies as positive and environmentally conscious was irrevocably damaged after the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill of 2010. Designers have an important role in the image of global companies, but have no influence in their practice.

So what should a designer do? Few designers would be in the enviable position to choose the clients they work for. Principled stances in the workplace rarely lead to long term job contracts, security or promotion. The AGDA’s code of ethics’ responsibilities to the community are appropriate rules to follow, but they need to be updated to include a global responsibility.

A good example could be Apple and their suppliers (notably Foxconn). Some suppliers have been exposed as using child labour, unpaid overtime, and in Foxconn’s case, a history of harsh working environments, and a work environment where eleven employees suicided in one year. The company’s solution was to install suicide prevention nets and enforce “Treasure your life” parades by the workers.(Balfour and Culpan 2010) The design industry has been a long and loyal consumer of Apple products. If the AGDA had a global responsibility in their code of ethics, they would be obliged, and in a position to express members concerns.

It’s a designer’s role as a consumer where they can use their influence and abilities. According to Michael E Porter’s “Five Forces: A Model For Industry Analysis”, the five forces that influence an industries behavior are supplier power, barriers to entry, threat of substitutes, rivalry and buyer power.(Porter 2008) The consumer, through their brand identity, bargaining leverage and volumes of purchases, have the ability to influence company behavior. There is no mention of an employee or client’s ability to wield similar influence.

Corporations are more likely to listen to its consumers than to its employees, so designers should use these powers as a consumer.

Globalism is a movement whose history can be traced back to the Silk Road. As can be seen in Egypt, Tunisia and the Middle East, it’s not only material, but ideals that are connected. Governments who restrict or deny this historically become totalitarian systems with stagnate economies and lower living standards. Globalism’s ability to exploit, entrap and abuse are rampant, but its ability to connect ideas through the collect mind will eventually overcome these abuses. Designers as individuals have little influence over our clients, let alone multinational corporations. But as a collective of globally aware consumers, combined under an association like the AGDA, Designers could use there purchasing power to influence multinational corporations and become themselves good global citizens.


AGDA (2011). “Code of Ethics.” Retrieved April 15, 2011, from

AIGA (2011). Design Business and Ethics. pp. 33

Balfour, F. and T. Culpan (2010). “A look inside Foxconn – Where I-Phones are made.” Retrieved April 15, 2010, from

C.I.A. (2011). “The World Factbook.” Retrieved April 15, 2011, from

Holland, D. (2006). Branding for nonprofits: developing identity with integrity, pp77 Allworth Press.

Klein, N. (2000). No Logo, Flamingo.

Nini, P. (2004). “In Search of Ethics in Graphic Design.” Retrieved April 15, 2011, from

Nye, J. (2002). “Globalism Versus Globalization.” Retrieved April 15, 2011, from

Porter, M. (2008). The Five Competitive Forces that Shape Strategy, p.86-104 Harvard Business Review.