Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.


Are designers responsible for greenwashing, the deliberate, false branding of companies to appear more benevolent? Do we subscribe to a code of higher ethics, or are we truly commercial artists?

In the latest issue of Communication Arts (Advertising Annual 45), Ellen Shapiro has published a small and unassuming article entitled “Greenwashing!” My schizophrenic reading habits almost passed this one by, but thank goodness I started reading because it was by far the most rewarding piece I have seen in any design magazine for a long time.

“Greenwashing” is the term given to organizations or persons who deliberately conceal their true nature or reputation by clever branding and marketing. The author’s examples are unsettling because they involve companies we interact with every day: Nike, BP, Starbucks, Kraft and pretty much the entire automobile industry. She pointedly raises questions to designers, brand managers and other creatives who contribute to greenwashing:

Do we “brand” what a company is, or what it promises to become? Does our work in logo, packaging and advertising design sometimes make us guilty of helping conceal a client’s past record and true intentions?

Ms. Shapiro does not answer these questions, and readily admits they are “thorny” issues. She does go on to cite specific case studies, such as BP’s recent rebranding by Landor to create a more “green” appearance, yet the fundamental business of the company remains the same—drilling for oil. Another key example is Philip Morris changing its name to Altria and rebranding itself to de-emphasize its less politically correct (but still immensely profitable and controversial) tobacco business.

The question remains: are designers partly responsible? Do you as a designer serve yourself through monetary gain and a new portfolio piece, or do you serve a higher code of ethics? Does it even matter since there will always be another designer willing to take a project you might find ethically questionable?

And is that other designer wrong? After all, we do market ourselves as commercial artists, and almost any commercial endeavor requires some compromise for the bottom line.

Designers have to eat. We have overhead. I have several past projects I am not proud of, which were questionable at best in their representation of products. Do I feel bad about this? Yes. Did I need to pay my mortgage at the time? Yes. As I become more “successful,” I have become more discriminating in what projects I take on, and have turned down several well-paying jobs because I just didn’t feel right about the project. Unfortunately, this is not a luxury I always enjoyed—or one I expect anyone else to follow.

It would take a seismic paradigm shift in corporate thinking to even reduce greenwashing, much less eliminate it—but I think it starts with our industry. We create the public face of the greater machine. We design the tip of the iceberg while the bulk remains comfortably obfuscated from the public. We are responsible for the perception.

commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Wednesday January 5, 2005

I make my ethic decisions on my own time…. for the most part when I’m working, I’m in it to pay the bills, and that’s what dictates my choices at that time.

eddie wilson

wrote the following on Wednesday January 5, 2005

This is a topic does not get enough “blog time”. I feel that more individuals like ourselves should write on this topic, with specifc examples of how they handle themselves in these situation.

I am a graphic designer offering my services on a contract basis like yourself. I recently completed a project for a client that matched the origional project scope / goals to the letter; a good start. Once the project was finished, and the the client started to get more traffic, they wanted to put the entire site behind a user registration form; require users to sign up for a newsletter to access the site. The newsletter offered no incentive beyond product/company updates (which already exist within the site), and was a ploy simply to gain email addresses for a master spam list. The client was completely honest about their intent, yet ignorant to the negative aspects of such an idea.

Of course I was completely against this and explained, in many real life instances, how doing this would lead the project down the road to failure ex: “People dont like spam, plain and simple. When someone wants to call you to make a phone purchase of your product (because they just dont feel safe with online purchasing), they will have to register on your website, recieve an email with their login information, and then procede to log into the website simply to get your phone number…not a good idea in the least.”

Over the course of 1 1/2 months it got to the point where the client was definetly not going to change their mind. At that point I made the decision to fire the client.

Now this was a very high paying client. And even though, over the past 2 years, I have managed to build my business to the point where I have my “pay the bills” clients and I have my “porfolio piece” clients, it was still very hard to make the decision. In the end, after talking to quite a few other local professionals / agencies, I felt confident in my decision.

You have to look at it two ways. A: your are producing a project for a client with ill intent. If the project is a failure because the ill intent is exposed, then you are responsible for developing a project that failed = not a good business move. B: This client would, more than likely, refer you to other clients (a good thing) that would have similar ill intended projects (not a good thing).

Unfortunatly we all have to eat, 3 times a day in fact, and doing work like this is sometimes necessary. But you must be clear about why it is necessary. Is it necessary so that you can keep doing work like this? Or is it necessary so that you can pay the bills while you are looking for better clients who have better projects.

The work you do defines the work you get. Referrals are about 3/4 of my business, and I can safely assume this is almost the same for everyone in the industry. You have to market yourself through the work you do, and bad work does bad marketing for you if it has your name on it.


wrote the following on Wednesday January 5, 2005

Thanks for your thoughts on this. I am glad you stood your ground on something you thought was bad business—I think if more developers followed your lead there would be much less crap on the web today. Unfortunately, I too have had to simply say “no” to clients who wanted to do insanely dumb things with their website. I was able to convince most that users do not like being tricked or controlled, but a few clients just went out and hired a designer that was willing to drive traffic away.

Which is another point I probably should have brought up in the article. Smart clients pay designers / developers for their input and expertise—not just for their Photoshop license. When I start a project with a new client I try to gently inform them that I am in the driver seat and I generally know what I am talking about. Most eventually defer to my knowledge; a few rogues (whose pieces are not in my portfolio) think they know everything and act on that assumption. These are usually the ones with FrontPage.

Smells like a future blog entry.

eddie wilson

wrote the following on Sunday January 9, 2005

Well that would be an excellent article to write on, and one that I also plan to write on in the future. Young designers out on their own have to decide whether they are “a paintbrush” and the client is “the painter” or the other way around. And that should, as you put it, be clear to the client. The client knows what they expect of the designer. The designer has to make it his/her job to also know this and if it doesnt match up, then maybe its not the right client.

Of course it is a very hard thing to do, just like anything else when dealing with a new client. Designers want to impress, not offend; get contracts/not scare them away. But what young designers (and some of us older types ;-) ) have to recognize is that being honest about this up front will do two things; A: if its the right client then they will respect you for your confidence in your talents, just make sure you can back it up! B: if its the wrong client then yes, you have offended them, but you have also avoided a relationship that will be fraut with problems from day 1.

This can also, as I have seen personally many times, turn a bad client into a good client. By explaining that “I am the painter and the paintbrush, you supply the paints” many of my would-be-bad clients have turned a new leaf on how they see my services.

Now I have had to back it up with real-world past examples of successful projects, but if someone is going to give me money for my talents then I would not expect to have to do any less.

This problems is caused by one simple thing; client knows their product. Therefore some clients believe that this extends to all areas. This is simply not true. Does a CEO wire the office network and ensure data security? No, a CTO does. Does a CEO manage the books? No a CFO does. The same should be applied to marketing.

A client may know their product better than anyone else, but it is a designers responsibility to explain to the client that, while they would never tell the client about THEIR product, it might just be possible that they know what to do when it comes to marketing that product.

Of course if you can find a client who knows it all, pays well, and has simple but constant work they can also be an asset. No business makes its money off the showroom pieces. Nike may have some nice pro-sponsored shoes, but they more than likely make most of their revenue off their basic line of footwear. Young designers need to understand the same. Not ever bad client is a BAD client…if you can find one that can become a paycheck client, do it and do it first off! Cuz having a paycheck makes those portfolio clients alot easier to get.

OK. I will stop now :-) Feel so much better, like an invisible weight…