Occasionally there is a request to do graphic design work that you and I just shouldn’t do for various reasons. Do a search of the phase “Westboro Baptist Church signs” to see what I mean. That is – by definition – hate speech. Judging by the “quality” of the work featured I can tell that someone with some skill created those signs and if they aren’t members of that organization then the question I have to ask is – how does that person sleep at night?
This is a poignant question for me because I am a graphic designer and I lived in the same city where WBC is located – Topeka, Kansas. There were times when I was living there that I would have done almost anything to pay for my expensive habits like rent, food, fuel and repairs on “The Gray Beast” (Chevy Blazer) and other things like new hardware and software for my hobby that was evolving into a career.
Like I said, that I would have done almost anything… If I was asked almost 20 years ago to create signs for WBC, would I?
At some point while I was living there, I had two jobs; one job at a book warehouse and another job doing temporary work at print shop folding brochures and stuffing boxes. I did not just work there because I needed the money, but because I was new to the town and I needed to be with people. I needed some social interaction because just watching TV is enough for me. Never was, never will be. I thought working at this print shop would have been my perfect entry into the world of publishing and graphic design, and it was. I met many great people and learned a lot.
I was never asked to handle brochures, posters or other printed media for WBC while working for this local printer and I’m sure they never worked for WBC, either. What I do know is there was a conversation that if any of my fellow employees were ever asked to handle anything for that other organization we would walk out.
Nevertheless, what if I had been asked to use my talents to create the images and text for those signs in a moment in time that I really needed the money? And what if I was promised that nobody would ever know. Would I do it? It’s an ethical dilemma that all of us are going to have to face; working with people whose views contradict our own. There are people with ideology that’s so far outside the mainstream and are so controversial that their taint could easily spread and stick to you.
As a freelancer, you sometimes have to decline work if it’s socially unacceptable. Whether it’s a vicious attack against a specific group or mean spirited work targeted at a specific person or organization word will eventually get back to potential clients and they will associate you with the hate you helped to spread. You are who you associate with and work for – at the very least you are the work you do.
Oh, and people do find out – secrets have a way of getting out. If it’s libel – you could be named in a lawsuit from the victim seeking damages.
Regardless of whether you want to believe it or not, freelance graphic designers have to consider the social consequences of accepting work from controversial groups or individuals. The consequences of working with your local “Fred Phelps” now might be bagging groceries or picking up returnable bottles and cans along the side of the road later.