Design Ethics (With a Splash of Bourbon)

by Elizabeth Freeman on 02/18/2015 | 4 Minute Read

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A lot of attention has been drawn to the craft whiskey market recently and for good reason. If you don’t feel like reading a long article about whiskey production, the gist of this piece is that an enormous amount of “craft” whiskey marketed and sold in the US is actually distilled in a huge facility in southern Indiana. It’s something that a lot of folks in our industry (distributors, distillers themselves and branding / package design firms ) have been aware of, and quiet about for a while. And this wouldn’t matter, except that there are several egregious examples of falsified brand stories developed to sell this liquor. 

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There are companies that buy their product straight from MGP ( Midwest Grain Products, the large production plant ) and go on to develop elaborate back stories detailing heirloom recipes that have been artfully distilled in the remote hills of Bourbon Country by a stoic 95 year-old man, and so forth. It’s pretty shocking when you think about it. We’ve been following these stories closely as they touch on one of CODO’s most recurring internal conversations—to who are designers (and the companies that hire us) held accountable? A designer’s job is to make a product jump off of a shelf and into someone’s cart, home, and life. To differentiate it from every other option out there. To get people to act, to entertain them, to educate them—to tell a compelling story in a beautiful, smart way. But what if there is no story? What if you have to, at the very best, fib, and at the very worst, blatantly lie to sell something? Now comes the second big question, does this matter? Well, no—at least not in the grand scheme of how the world works. After all, we’re talking about luxury products and people with money to blow on luxury products. BUT, does that still make it ok for a design firm to lie to customers in order to sell a product? 

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I’m not sure if there’s a clear answer, but I’ll share CODO’s perspective. We believe a design firm, and any company for that matter, should never lie to sell something. If you can’t find anything compelling about the product, company or another aspect of this equation—even after considering positioning amongst competition, current market trends and so on—to communicate through design, then you have to ask yourself if the product even needs to exist. I know it’s a tall order for a design firm to stand in front of a potential client and tell them their product is terrible and that it should never see the light of day, but we believe there should be more self-policing within our industry. 

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Ok, back to whiskey. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with buying, bottling and selling whiskey like this (in fact, some of my favorite Bourbons come from MGP ), I just think design firms and clients alike, need to dig deeper to tell the spirit’s story. It shouldn’t have to be said, but as an industry, we need to not lose sight of ethics in our day to day work. To whom are we accountable? First and foremost, to ourselves.  

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By Isaac Arthur 

CODO Design

Isaac Arthur is a partner and designer at CODO Design, an Indianapolis branding & web design firm founded on the belief that we can create better design by including our clients in the creative process. 


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