FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Ethical Dimensions of Art and Design

By: TAI Professor Mark Allen

As someone who has studied both art and philosophy, people regularly ask me what, if anything, they have in common. While I think that there are many fascinating ways in which these two domains overlap, one similarity that I find particularly interesting is the intersection of ethics and aesthetics.

One way that ethics and aesthetics are similar is that they both deal with value. When we say that a painting or a deed is “good,” at least one of the things we mean is that the thing or action in question has value. When we say that a painting or a deed is “bad,” at least one of the things we mean is that it has little value, or even negative value insomuch that it diminishes our experience of life or the world around us. It’s why we use words like “beautiful” and “ugly” interchangeably to describe both artistic works and moral acts.

– That was a beautiful song. 

– That was a beautiful thing you did. 

– That sculpture is ugly. 

– That was a really ugly thing to say. 

In other words, murder is not merely wrong, there is something truly ugly about it. And when a painter puts the final brushstroke on the canvas, there is something distinctly right about it. So, there seems to be an aesthetic dimension to the moral life and an ethical dimension to the aesthetic.

Whether it be moral or artistic, things of value improve our lives in some way. But it is important to point out that many of the things we value most (like good art and good deeds) are worth pursuing for their own sake, regardless of any utilitarian benefit we get out of them. Sure, listening to certain types of music can lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety. Those who live a life of kindness and generosity often experience the rush of positive feelings and a general sense of well-being. Such benefits are real and welcome, but nonetheless secondary. Good music is valuable even if it doesn’t reduce our heart rate (sometimes it does just the opposite). Acts of kindness and generosity often go unnoticed and lead to self-sacrifice.

Another thing that the spheres of ethics and aesthetics share is the concept of wisdom. No one appreciates it when their difficult seasons or ethical dilemmas are met with oversimplified advice and platitudes from those who mean well, but lack the awareness and nuanced sensitivity that a situation calls for. so often life doesn’t seem to play by any rules, which is why—when things gets complicated—we seek out the counsel of the wise, not just the intelligent or talented. Nor those who have simply memorized a rigid code of conduct: Always do this. Never do that.

Of course, it’s important to start with the “unbreakable” rules that all people everywhere value: don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie. We instruct children to tell the truth, to be kind and to respect their elders. And yet, as they mature we explain that there may come a time when other rules come into play. When a stranger asks if a parent is home; when a bully is cruel to the weak or marginalized; when an adult behaves inappropriately toward a child. It such cases, it’s not time to be nice. But the proper responses in these situations are not somehow violations of the fundamental moral principles of truth, kindness and respect—quite the contrary, the fitting responses are based on and upheld by the most basic fundamentals.

Over the course of my career I’ve been able to witness these parallels play out in the classroom, particularly my design classes. [1] Pick up any good textbook on the topic and more than likely you’ll find a set of rules that, when followed, lead to good design. My go-to text for beginners is Timothy Samara’s Design Elements, which starts off with just such a section entitled, “Twenty Rules You Should Never Break.” Here Samara makes it clear that students of design should:

#4 Never use more than two typefaces. 

#8 Never fill up all the negative space in a layout. 

#18 Always make sure your composition is dynamic and full of motion.” [2]

I like Samara because he is great for beginners in that he gives clear-cut, easy-to-follow rules that help students avoid some of the most common pitfalls that the untrained or self-taught designer may struggle with. However, the complaint I frequently get after a few weeks is that Samara’s method is a very strict and narrow way to approach such an artful discipline. I mean, is the process of design really just a set of rules? A flowchart of do’s and don’ts?

In one sense, I think my students are right to complain—the book does start off in a rather rigid fashion. Always do this, never do that. But the other big reason I use this text is the way Samara ends the book with a chapter devoted to examples of how each and every one of his twenty rules can be broken. Of course, Samara saves this chapter for the end because he is a seasoned professional and an experienced educator. He knows that, until students master the fundamentals, they have not yet developed the aesthetic savvy needed to flex foundational principles like an experienced pro. The fact that Samara offers up twenty ways to break his twenty rules is not proof that aesthetic relativism is true; it only reveals that both skill and experience are needed in order to become a good designer.

When teaching through this text I always stress that Samara does not end his book by saying “Now, throw out all the rules I mentioned earlier and do whatever you want because, after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” If this were true we could choose type, color and style arbitrarily, despite the context or meaning of the work. By contrast, Samara provides detailed, illustrated examples of legitimate exceptions—not contradictions. It’s why the actual name of his final chapter is When and Why to Break Every Rule in this Book.”

Personally, I wish Samara had used a different word than “break” because it’s not as if he is teaching students to actually violate or contradict any fundamental rules of design here. He’s making an appeal to a higher (yet complementary) set of principles that can only be properly wielded with a great deal of knowledge and experience. The examples he gives are exceptions based on more advanced rules that don’t translate well into pithy lists, templates or 140 characters—methods that are the domain of master designers and artists. Perhaps there is a proper time and place for truisms and templates, but with complex themes and problems comes the need for artists who have more than just a set of skills, but in a very real sense demonstrate a certain kind of artistic wisdom.

Aristotle’s approach to ethics most closely embodies what I’m trying to demonstrate and is largely based on what is known as the Golden Mean—that is, finding a “middle” way between the extremes of deficiency and excess. For example, courage is a virtue with respect to how someone responds to danger—if taken to one extreme in excess, it becomes recklessness, while the deficient extreme manifests itself as cowardice. It is no accident that Aristotle uses art as a way to illustrate this concept in his Nicomachean Ethics:

“Hence people are accustomed to saying that there is nothing to take away from or add to works [of art] that are in a good state, on the grounds that the good state is destroyed by excess and deficiency but the mean preserves it; and the good craftsmen, as we say, perform their work by looking to this.” [3]

Aristotle says that we should always strive to be courageous (which might sound dogmatic). But he also says it’s important to take the particular person and situation into consideration (which might sound relativistic). But the beauty of his system is that the mean is not the exact middle, nor is it always found in the same place along the continuum between excess and deficiency. [4] Some situations call for the courageous person to act in a way that is closer to the reckless end of the spectrum, while in other situations what is courageous may seem like cowardice. For instance, a 6’4” military officer who wrestles an armed terrorist to the ground in order to save a train full of people vs. Rosa Parks who simply refused to give up her seat on a bus. Both people did the right thing—the equally courageous thing—but they did so in a way that was fitting for each context. [5]

In summary, when it comes to ethics, the well-lived life certainly comes with its fair share of rules—but it is the wise among us who are most skilled at navigating life’s complex seasons and dilemmas with earned experience and a familiarity with those moral principles of a higher but complementary order. Likewise, the fundamentals of art and design are inescapably important—in fact they form the only foundation from which more advanced skills and principles can be applied or even thought. The fact that such striking parallels show up across the seemingly unrelated disciplines of art and philosophy reveals something significant about the world and our shared experience of it—namely, that values like truth, goodness and beauty are perhaps aspects of reality itself and represent common goals toward which all humanity strives (whether we are conscious of it or not).

 

NOTES: 

[1] While I will focus here on parallels between philosophy and design, it should be noted that legendary advertising icon, Bill Bernbach, studied philosophy at NYU and remained an avid reader of philosophical works throughout his life. In fact, in a speech speech he gave to the 4A’s (the American Association of Advertising Agencies) in 1980, he specifically mentions Aristotle, St. Augustine and Bertrand Russell (among other thinkers) and relates their work to the task of advertising.

[2] Samara, Design Principles, pp. 10-23.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1106b 10-14.

[4] It is important to note here that the “middle” state that Aristotle advocates is not the exact middle or “average” between extremes, but rather a mean relative to the situation. With this feature, Aristotle’s ethics avoid the moderation fallacy (Ex: Jim isn’t paying attention and backs into Pam’s car. Even though it’s Jim’s fault, he offers to do what’s “fair” by meeting her in the middle and paying for half of the damages).

[5] Aristotle also points out that certain vices that are not on a continuum between extremes, so there is no mean. Ex: there is no “just right” amount of racism, cruelty or adultery.

Meet TAI Adjunct Professor Tom Edwards

Professor Tom Edwards is teaching capstone course ADV 4399 Advertising Campaigns for the Temerlin Advertising Institute this semester. Professor Edwards is the chief digital officer at Agency, Epsilon, where he oversees brand planning, research, data design, digital strategy, digital experience, social/CRM/email, innovation and media. He regularly publishes content and speaks on the future of marketing.

Professor Edwards was an adjunct faculty member of the virtual campus for Wayland Baptist University from 2003-2015. He also instructed Principles of Marketing, Advertising & Promotion, Global Marketing and Consumer Behavior. He has also guest lectured at University of Texas at Arlington, and prior to joining the TAI team he was a member of the SMU Digital Accelerator certification program faculty.

What made you want to become a professor?

I have spent the past 17 years in the marketing technology space. The rate of change associated with technology, its impact on consumer behavior and ultimately how we connect with consumers continues to outpace traditional academia’s ability to keep pace. I wanted to contribute and give back to the next generation of advertising professionals by bridging the gap theory and the practical application.

What is your background in the subject you teach?

I currently instruct the Advertising Campaigns course. Over my professional career I have worked on campaigns for hundreds of fortune 1000 brands (Citi, Starbucks, AT&T, GameStop, Activision, Hasbro, Frito-Lay to name a few) both domestic and international. My expertise is rooted in a deep understanding of technology, consumer behavior, data and intelligent systems such as artificial intelligence and the application of machine learning.

What has been your favorite memory from teaching for TAI so far?

The passion and creativity exhibited by the students and the staff and their willingness to roll up their sleeves and get to work, even when it’s in areas they may not be in their core area of focus.

What is your favorite part about being a professor?

I have instructed thousands of students over the past 15 years across a few universities and my favorite part is the open dialogue with the students. Getting to hear their perspectives and thoughts and to see their work evolve over the course of the semester are incredibly gratifying.

What made you want to go into advertising? How did you get where you are in your career?

I started my advertising career during the dot com days of the late 90’s. I had a passion for technology and all things digital. As graphical user interfaces and connectivity began to spread, so did the need to create engaging digital experiences.

The alignment of marketing and technology have been a key foundation for the advancement of my career. I have worked in interactive agencies, start-ups, enterprise software companies and large agency holding companies. Having the ability to decipher complex problems into simple solutions has been a key to career advancement. The other critical component to career growth has been my blog. 10 years and over 400 posts later, having a visible point of view and a repository for thought, industry commentary and speaking has been a valuable asset in my career development.

How have you seen the advertising industry change since you started?

 The biggest change over my career is the shift towards the empowered consumer. Prior to 2007 advertising had remained somewhat stable with broadcast at the center of the experience. In 2007 we saw that begin to shift with the introduction of the first iPhone. This sparked the shift towards mobility in advertising that is still prevalent.

Then we saw how technology enhances consumer empowerment through the creation of user created content, accessibility and amplification via social channels, the personification of brands and celebrity being redefined from Hollywood to influencers.

Moving forward we are now seeing the shift from content marketing to contextual and the rise of multimodal interfaces with the focus shifting from mobile and desktop to voice, vision and touch.

Moving forward, we will see the shift from consumer centric advertising to system based marketing as algorithms and virtual assistants will take on more responsibility for consumers and ultimately our definition of reality will evolve when we see the convergence of location data, computer vision, augmented reality and artificial intelligence where any space, physical or digital becomes a new canvas to connect with consumers.

What advice do you have for students who want to have a career in advertising?

I have 3 tips for students just starting their career:

1) Network – Begin building a professional network before you start your professional career. Attend industry events and network in-person, focus on your LinkedIn profile and engaging with content. Your professional network is one of your most valuable resources. It should require more nurturing and attention than personal social channels.

2) Sponsor & Mentor – It is key to seek a mentor, someone who works in the industry you are about to enter to help navigate key pitfalls and to “learn the ropes” from a seasoned individual. It is incredibly important to be open to feedback. It is also important to identify a sponsor within your organization. Someone who is either directly or indirectly in your chain of command. Someone who can provide positive internal earned media and groom you for advancement. You cannot always depend on an immediate supervisor to serve this role. Seek out highly respected and influential individuals within the organization, you will know who they are.

3) Original Thought – I cannot reiterate how important publishing content can be for a new grad. Having thoughts on industry commentary or showcasing your ability to connect trends that may not seem to link on the surface is an art that can lead to you being selected over someone else.

How do you incorporate aspects from your work into your teaching?

 I look to bring best in class examples and techniques, be it research, the latest on aligning psychographics and affinity to personas or the role of conversational experiences into digital strategies. The key is aligning experience and tools with the core areas of focus of the lesson or assignment.

What is one interesting fact about you?

 I was named by Ad Age as a 2017 Marketing Technology Trailblazer.

Follow Professor Edwards on Twitter @BlackFin360 to stay up to date on the latest areas of study.

Meet TAI Adjunct Professor & SMU Alumna Elena Andro

Professor Elena Andro is an SMU alumna who is now teaching ADV 2342 Strategic Brand Management 1 for the Temerlin Advertising Institue. Professor Andro has been Manager of Communications for Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) for nine years and has experience on both the agency and client side.

What made you want to become a professor?

First, I love SMU and my craft. Being able to return to campus was amazing and to impact tomorrow’s advertising professionals was a perfect way to give back to the university that gave me my start in advertising and marketing. Second, my mother was a university professor in Mexico so I was familiar with what it took to teach from watching her prepare and run her courses. Third, I’d guest lectured for SMU’s MBA program about the importance of public relations in marketing campaigns. This allowed me to “test the water” and I found that I really enjoyed teaching. Lastly, I’ve been a mentor many times at various organizations, and was often involved in the Dallas Advertising League’s Student Tour program. Also, advising people on their career path is something that comes naturally to me. My view is you spend so much time at work, you should really enjoy what you do.

What is your background in the subject you teach?

My career has always had branding as its cornerstone. I began my career in an ad agency my senior year. Professor Chip Besio brought me into his agency to assist with some clients and I loved being in the middle of exciting projects. I then interned at the McKone & Company agency three days a week my last semester, and then went to work for them my first three years out of college. I then worked client side for many years. Then I had my own agency for six years where I had the pleasure of working with Quaker State, Nissan, Sprint and Capital One. For five years I was a bank marketing executive for both Capital One and Wachovia. Then I joined Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

What has been your favorite memory teaching for TAI so far?

Since most students take notes on their laptops, it is easy to wonder if they are engaged in the lecture. My favorite memories are when students would raise their hand to add something that they’d spontaneously researched on their laptop about the topic being discussed. Now that is engagement! It’s very exciting to see that happening.

What is your favorite part about being a professor?

I love the creative brainstorming and ideation that happens organically in class when you are talking about real, to-the-moment branding situations – such as all the brands impacted by the shooting in Vegas. It is also very valuable for me to have the time with the students that represent a very attractive customer segment for the brands I work with.

What made you want to go into advertising? How did you get where you are in your career?

Advertising seems to have been in my blood. My siblings and I started businesses when we were in elementary school and developing the “pitch” and “product” were fun for me. What really helped my career was interning at agencies my junior and senior year. I cannot stress how important it is for students to get real, hands-on experience as it makes your school work better and you stand out from other graduates once you have your diploma.

My career also benefitted from the fact that I was game to do advertising for product categories that other students did not find interesting. For example, my first ad agency specialized in building products – paint, faucets, laminates, etc. It may sound a bit drab, but we were working with magazines such as Interiors, Architectural Record and Remodeling. It was a lot like fashion, with awesome photo shoots, rock star architects, trips to New York and such.

Another strong recommendation I have for TAI students is to get involved in the American Advertising Federation’s Ad2 club. To this day I still treasure and benefit from the connections I made when I was a student and on the Board of this organization. I later became the president of the Dallas Ad League (now AAF Dallas) which again proved invaluable in my career.

How have you seen the advertising industry change since you started?

Media is so hyper fragmented now! You used to be able to do great campaigns that targeted large segments with a relatively small number of creative executions. Now you cannot. And budgets have not kept up with the exponential number of executions needed to reach similarly-sized audience groups.

How do you incorporate aspects from your work into your teaching?

Students don’t often think about government agencies doing branding. So, it is eye opening for them to consider how DART must compete with the private vehicle and now Uber/Lyft for their share of “transportation occasions.” And because I’ve worked in a variety of industries (at ad agencies) and corporations (as a marketing executive), I’ve got many case studies from my own experience from which to draw from. It is also helpful that my career has been almost solely in Dallas as I’ve got contacts to draw from to bring in guest lecturers who can provide another “voice” from our advertising industry.

What is one interesting fact about you?

I have a Bearded Dragon lizard that likes to ride around in an RC truck, insists on organic grape tomatoes, loves to swim and sleep on top of my cats. I also married my SMU beau five year ago after reconnecting via social media.