Can you ever say “no”?…

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30/10/2013 by Sarah Ritchie

Can you say no?

How tightly would you cling to your beliefs and values if you were put under pressure? Would you hold true to yourself no matter what, or would you compromise if the stakes became too high?

The following is a blog post that I wrote for the Design Assembly website, 30 October 2013. I was ruminating on whether people of today will stand up for what they hold to be important, and whether opinions differ depending on age or seniority.

I wonder if we have become a society not only without strong voices, but – sadly – with a sorry lack of conviction?



Do you hold strong viewpoints or beliefs (ethical, political, ideological, religious, moral, etc.) that you would seek to preserve at the risk of losing work or a client (as a business owner) or even losing your job (as an employee)? Or would you compromise your convictions to keep the peace, keep your job or make money?

What would happen if you were vehemently against vivisection and you were asked to work on a design campaign for a cosmetics company you knew was actively involved in animal testing? What if you were a Jewish account manager who was asked to take on Hellers (bacon and ham) as a client?

This week some folks will revel in Halloween celebrations, and it reminds me of two occasions in my working life where I declined to work on a project: once as a graphic designer (as an employee), the other as a business owner. Both projects were for the promotion of Halloween events.

Halloween is one of a number of things on which I hold strong opinions. The festival is opposed to my religious convictions, therefore to take an active role in promoting Halloween is something I simply can’t and won’t do…but at what cost?

As a designer I was able to ask a colleague to work on the Halloween project instead of me. After the initial “Really? You’ve got to be kidding!”, the matter was soon forgotten.

Not so easy when – as a business owner – one of my very long term clients approached me to design an event poster for a community Halloween party. At that stage I could little afford to turn any business away, especially based on a standpoint that most people would probably think absurd. Again I scraped through, relatively unscathed, thanks to the relationship that I had built my client. However, not even a strong relationship can take the sting out of knowing that my valued client had to approach another design company to do the work I just turned down.

To spread the net of values-opinion a little wider, I approached a few of my design industry colleagues. I asked them the following questions:

1. Do you hold any strong viewpoints or beliefs (e.g. ethical, political, ideological, religious or moral)? Yes / No

2a. If no: does that mean you would work on any project (or for any client) no matter what or who it was for?

2b. If yes: if you were asked to do design work (or take on a design client) that challenged those viewpoints, what would you do?

3. Would you ever decline to work on a project (or with a client) even if there was a chance you could lose your job (client)?

Company Director

1. Yes.
2b. There’s a line that we won’t cross, but it’s not a rigid line, and you know when you cross the line.
3. We have turned clients down before (and recently), especially if their work is socially unacceptable or reprehensible. Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t be prepared to talk about on the 6 o’clock news!


Art Director

1. Yes.
2b. I’d say specifically that I can’t do the work. I would step aside and say I won’t be the person who does it.
3. It would depend on how much I wanted to stay in my job. I haven’t come across that kind of situation yet. Generally the companies that I have aligned myself with have been like-minded.


Graphic Designer

1. Yes.
2b. It depends on the project. I will voice my opinion if I have a problem with it, but I feel if I push too hard it will go against me in my job. I feel like I have little influence or sway in my position. It’s more a case of “here’s the job – just do it”.
3. I feel like I am easily replaceable, so it would depend on what it was. If it came down to it, I’d like to think I would say no to a project, even if it put my job at risk.


Senior Account Manager

1. No.
2a. Within reason. I wouldn’t be happy working with a tobacco client, and some other organisations out there. We all carry responsibility for the greater good – which is society as a whole.
3. No. It’s more important to eat than to carry strong ethics.


Account Executive

1. No.
2a. Yes, I’d work on any project.
3. No. I hold no such strong opinions, so therefore that situation wouldn’t arise.


What would you do? I’d be interested to know your job position, and how you would answer each of these questions!




Sarah Ritchie has been in the design, print and agency world for over 20 years. She started with a solid base in photolithography, then became a graphic designer (including running her own successful design business for 10 years), a design teacher, and now enjoys a wonderful life in client services.


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