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Visual lies are deadly, according to David Berman, a Canadian graphic designer and author of Do Good Design: How Designers Can Change The World.

“A naked woman draped over a car -- that’s a visual lie,” says Berman. “I’ve created a sentence that says ‘buy my car, and you’ll have more sex.’ You can’t say that (in an ad), but you can present it as a visual sentence, and the law doesn’t mind that very much.”

Both in his book, and throughout his career, Berman aims to expose the ethical pitfalls endemic to the graphic design industry. A number of designers will refuse if asked to create a design using untruthful language, Berman stated. However, using visual elements linked together to form an impression in the mind may result in a distortion of the truth just the same.

Calling the eye “the largest diameter bandwidth pipe into the human brain,” Berman believes people are much more influenced by things that look real as opposed to symbology. “We also live in a society that codified law into words, not pictures. It’s easy to get around a law with the vagueness that pictures connote.”

These “visual lies” now populating untold numbers of websites denigrate not only women, but also the entire planet, according to Berman. The seductive appeals are made possible by talented graphic designers, who contribute to environmental denigration by encouraging overconsumption of dwindling resources, Berman said.

“Designers tend to underestimate how much power they have. They’re culpable,” he said. He estimates that within a decade, the majority of humanity will be able to publish information on the web. And that’s why “almost everyone needs to know something” about ethical web design, said Berman.

“There are the ads you accidentally hit [while browsing a website.] There are many layers of persuasion and coercion,” Berman said. “What a designer has responsibility for in [designing a website] gets broader. When you are dealing with pure print design, once the job is done, the designer’s involvement is over. The technology was cut-and-dried. If I know how ink goes on paper, I can do a better design,” he said.

“With metadata, so much is hidden. It softens the line where design ends and programming begins,” Berman said. “You can have a very deceptive strategy with 28 different things you can do to try and trick Google. How do you trick someone to see a poster?”

Another example of deceptive coding on websites involves the file names that are used for graphics. “Some people do it honestly, and some deceptively,” he said. “What a designer has responsibility for, as a web designer, gets broader. With symbols and codes, the ethics can be in convention.

“Spam, in all its forms, is the best example of manipulation on an international scale,” said Berman. “Ninety percent of e-mail, globally, is deceptive. There are all sorts of calls to action, banner ads to distract you from what you really came to do. There is no precedent for the amount of effort expended to trick people.”

Seductive advertisements using exploitative imagery have long populated public spaces in North America through signage. Now that signage has greater impact through deployment of digital signs. Unlike signage, web design is interactive. However, interactive web interface is now possible with traditional signage through Quick Response (QR) codes that can be scanned by cell phones through a wireless connection. The persuasive power of the web is absorbing traditional signs within its orbit of influence, through incorporating QR codes.

“The challenge with the web is the interactivity, because we can publish so much so inexpensively,” said Berman.

Berman believes design is so powerful that “it can be a matter of life and death.” As such, it should be regulated in respect to its social and environmental impact. “This proliferation of visual lies” is just as deadly as faulty construction, said Berman. “Anyone can design a website, but not anyone can design a shed or a structure. If it is over three stories tall, there isn’t a jurisdiction in North America that would allow you to build something that large without a permit.”

Berman advocates for “a rejoining of cause and relationship” by researching and documenting the impact visual design has upon human behavior. As an example of the large-scale impact that unanticipated effects of poor design can have, Berman cites the U.S. presidential election in 2000, in which the outcome hinged on the defective graphic design of the ballots in Florida.

Designers have power over how human beings are depicted, said Berman. Certain hairstyles, skin color and leg length have been defined as normal. “It’s the subtler things that marginalize a population. It’s about how human beings are portrayed, and how certain national resources are consumed.”

Berman observes that graphic designers’ choices are also shaping public perceptions over body image. He points to a now familiar image: a young woman in front of a laptop computer propped up on her elbows, and lying on her stomach -- an image used in many advertising campaigns. “It’s a classic shot used to sell computers. Do you ever see a guy in this pose? It would look crazy. They use this shot, because the angle gets in her whole body.”

Berman insists ethical design matters because designers have such a huge impact on society. “We're familiar with the powerful branding campaigns of the cola makers -- the cigarette makers -- the alcohol makers -- the cosmeticians -- I'm sorry -- the cosmetics manufacturers. They're all working hard to convince people that they need and need and need in order to belong. We're familiar with the issues of young women and body image issues because of the false picture we've given in our society of what women should look like.” Therefore, he urges designers to “take the time to understand how the mechanics of persuasion works.”

Berman said any designer can choose to look at ethics in designing websites. “I don’t want to be known as someone people would say, ‘Could he ever trick people well! What a branding strategist! What a brilliant guy!’” he stated. “I don’t want to have people say that about me. I want to be known for choosing to make a better world.”

“There’s a lot to be worried about -- a lot of fragility. There is urgency, but there has never been more hope. Using the same technology, we can do ourselves in, or we can choose to make things possibly better,” he added. “We can choose which ideas we’re going to share with people … are we going to share our style addiction, our trivia, or how to drink caffeinated sugar water? We have the power as designers to share that.

“First you need to know how to do good design, then you need to do good.”

Jan Fletcher, owner of Mindcatch Research, is a business writer in Spokane, Wash.

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