As graphic designers, we don’t often stop to consider the privileges we have in our work life–and what moral responsibilities they may come with. As an outdoor graphic designer, those privileges and powers are even more specific. This topic isn’t something I would’ve never even thought about until last year, but with the valuable help of many teachers, I’ve been able to put in the work and find out exactly what they are. So today, I’d like to take some and share them with you.
What Does Outdoor Graphic Design Have to Do With Morality?
You might argue that our work lives are totally separate from issues of world ethics. This simply isn’t true.
Our work does not occur in a vacuum. Everything we do in this life, from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep, affects those around us. From the people in our immediate vicinity to our communities at large, our actions, choices, and behavior will inevitably affect the lives of others in ways big and small.
Ethics and morality permeate every aspect of our lives. We don’t get to “leave it” at the proverbial professional door.
For those of us in positions of privilege, whether we’re graphic designers or something else, this means that we benefit from privileges at work that make our lives easier and our success more likely.
And that usually means someone or something else is left behind.
Those of us in the creative field also often “take” inspiration from cultures, land, and art that aren’t ours without ever analyzing how it might affect them, or considering paying them for what they’ve contributed to our work. In a different context, we’d call that stealing.
Fact is, we don’t live in an equal system where everybody benefits, no matter how much we want to believe we do. And since the powers-that-be are intent on keeping these power structures in place, it’s our individual responsibility to redistribute wealth back into these communities and ecosystems that don’t get a leg up.
Though this discussion could be expanded into thousands of words, especially when it comes to intersectionality, social justice, and equity, today I’m going to focus on my moral responsibilities as related to the outdoors and how I came to find them.**
An Example of Professional Ethics in Action
Here’s an example: as an outdoor graphic designer I am constantly using motifs relating to nature: trees, rivers, mountains, and animals. Without these things, my designs wouldn’t be half as beautiful. They wouldn’t be able to help my clients really connect with their customers the way they do now.
I need the outdoors for inspiration and creativity.
Therefore, outside of my work, I need to be actively doing everything in my power to protect and honor these precious natural resources and ecosystems.
That’s one of my responsibilities: to replenish what I’ve used from nature.
I’ve used hundreds of tree icons in logos for clients. So to give back–to make sure I am giving what I have received–I volunteer to plant trees with my local conservancy and reduce my paper product usage at home as much as I can. It’s that simple.
Nothing in this world is free. Everything is an exchange of energy. If we are constantly taking and taking without ever considering the cost–without ever giving back–there will always be consequences for our communities and the earth. Even if those of us with enough privilege will never witness or experience them, someone else will.
Here are a few more examples of responsibilities I know I have as an outdoor graphic designer.
1. Make Outdoor Spaces Equitable for All
The outdoors are for everyone. This may seem like a simple statement that everyone should agree with, but let’s look at the facts:
Studies show that close to 70% of the population who visits national parks are white, leaving BIPOC grossly underrepresented in the outdoors. This is partially due to...
Racist economic barriers, like redlining and racial wage gaps, are still creating active disparities in access to green spaces for people of color.
This isn’t even to mention the trickle-down consequences of race-based discrimination, such as less paid time off and vacation days to enjoy the outdoors in the first place.
Or how about the fact that indigenous peoples safeguard 25% of the world’s land and 80% of its biodiversity, despite making up less than 5% of the human population due to global displacement and genocide...and they’re still suffering the systemic consequences.
So, our “outdoor community” is currently polarized by two kinds of white folks. On one end of the spectrum, we have the white, upper-middle class “granola” crowd (think camelbacks, north face jackets, clif bars, and subaru outbacks) who publicly express support for these marginalized communities, but do very little to actively create and support equity in the outdoor spaces they occupy.
And on the other, we have hunting communities dominated by straight, cis, white males that explicitly harbor racist, sexist, and homphobic rhetoric–for example, my fiancé was harassed and told she was mentally ill on the Meateater’s instagram for displaying she/they pronouns on her profile, despite largely expressing support for the hunting community.
These folks actively make nature a dangerous, not to mention horrifying, place to be for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks.
Statistics don’t lie: the outdoors are not currently safe for everyone, despite the fact that we are all mammals and nature is our home. The outdoors are a birthright to every last person on earth, yet the only folks who feel safe in the woods are predominantly white, cisgender, straight, and male.
As an outdoor graphic designer and personal nature enthusiast (especially one that is a straight white cisgender male) I know it is my job to fix this.
I must actively advocate for marginalized folks in these outdoor communities, helping them safely take up space in the outdoors in whatever way I can.
I must donate time and money to BIPOC-lead organizations that spearhead the fight for outdoor equity (my favorite, maybe you’ve heard me talk about before, is Hunters of Color).
I must uplift marginalized folks in the outdoors and be quiet when they are speaking about their experiences.
I have safe access to the outdoors basically everywhere I go, which allows me the inspiration I need to design for outdoor companies. That alone is a privilege that comes with all the moral responsibilities I’ve mentioned about.
2. Give Back to Nature More Than I Take
As I mentioned before, most of the logos and brand identity items I design are inspired by nature. I work for mainly outdoors and nature-related companies, so this is a given. I started doing this because the outdoors is something I’m passionate about…it’s a gift to work in a niche and industry that I actually enjoy, especially because it comes so easily to me.
But as I also discussed before, everything in life and nature is give-and-take.
We’ve been conditioned from birth to be individualists–to look out for only ourselves, to “conquer”, “gain”, “own”, and “triumph”. To put our needs before the collective.
But this culture is depleting our resources and hurting our communities…simply because there is always a cost to selfishly taking whatever we want without paying it forward.
In regards to nature, the evidence of the harm we’ve caused with this attitude is overwhelming:
Earth’s biodiversity is suffering due to population growth and the unsustainable methods of harvesting natural resources
As of 2020, we’ve lost 800 million acres of forest since 1990 through deforestation
100,000 marine mammals die annually as a result of plastic pollution. (WWF, Center for Biological Diversity)
The earth is our home and our birthright. And if we’re alive, we’re taking from it.
As for my graphic design, I take from nature every day. My clients do, too–whether they’re selling outdoor apparel, fishing rods, or hunting gear. It’s so important that I am paying the energetic costs, sometimes both for me and my clients.
Lately, I’ve been composting all my organic waste, using my fiancé’s electric car to run errands for shorter distances, buying less plastic, planting pollinator-friendly flowers in the garden, and we always eat exclusively local meat or hunted game. This includes using every last part of everything I hunt, from head to tail.
This may surprise some of you, but we’re otherwise mostly vegetarian and since we’re both sensitive to dairy, teeter on the edge of veganism.
3. Education and Advocacy for the Outdoors
So many of us have learned to navigate complicated data management systems for work, are harboring encyclopedic knowledge about the participants of “90 Day Fiancé”, and can tell you exactly what kind of engine is under the hood of a 1949 Chevy Coupe.
But we couldn’t name what kind of tree is on our own front lawn, tell you which plants in our backyards are edible, or name the species of bird that has been nesting on our front porch for 3 years.
That’s because, culturally, we don’t find these details to be too important. Growing up, American education favors “life skills” that largely focus on operating within a capitalist system or raising a family. That typically includes turning to digital worlds like television and social media for entertainment, rather than outdoor time.
There’s more to be said here about the accessibility of outdoor education and how we view about land ownership, but I’ll digress. I can only hope that by being a place where people can turn to for resources and education, I’m doing my part. I hope that by constantly reminding people of the vastness, complexity, and beauty of the outdoors I can inspire them to come back to their roots of being barefoot in the dirt.
I know I have a moral responsibility to represent the outdoors accurately, educate where I can, and be an example of how to treat nature when I’m out hunting, mountain biking, hiking, and camping.
What Are You Morally Responsible For In Your Industry?
As I mentioned before, we do not perform our work in a vacuum. Everything we do every single day affects the world, and people, around us. So, how can you make sure that the actions you take at work reflect those responsibilities? And what responsibilities do you have, anyway?
Evaluate and accept how your privileges help or benefit you at work. Is it difficult to admit that, despite your very real struggles, you’ve benefited as a result of being white, straight, cis-gendered, middle or upper class, or able-bodied? Yes. But after acknowledging this, you’ll have a better idea of how you can help.
Use those privileges accordingly in the workplace or while running your business. Do you have a platform where people will listen? Relinquish it to BIPOC voices. Can you navigate a space safely where an LGBTQ+ person can not? Accompany them while you make space for them. Redistribute opportunities to marginalized folks. Learn where you have power and give it up to those who need it.
Learn where, or who, your industry is “taking” from, and give back. Know your sources, your history, and honor it all by repaying the energetic (or financial) costs.
At first, it might feel like a chore to begin integrating these practices into your work life. You may wonder why you are responsible, why you must put in all this work when other people don’t care. And honestly, despite acknowledging your privileges, you might just use them to decide this work isn’t worth it. People do this all of the time.
But I can tell you from experience that this work, and living up to my moral responsibilities, is way less labor than knowing deep down I am causing harm.
There is a serious cognitive dissonance that comes with looking at the world with all of its suffering–its inequality, its poverty, its war, its social unrest, its habitat loss–and shrugging my shoulders, saying to myself, “that’s somebody else’s problem”.
It’s our problem. And by acknowledging that and taking action, I can finally say with confidence that I’m doing the right thing.
**I am fully committed to continue writing about, studying, and advocating for these issues from an intersectional perspective. This conversation will expand in other blog posts regarding race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability in the future.