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This could a very broad question, so bear with it. I was going through an article about Cleveland Indians and realized that the Logo for the team is racially insensitive.

What is the general view in the graphic design community about designing an icon which could be racially sensitive? Does this view apply to other sensitive areas like sexual orientation?

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You might find your answer here: How to balance dignity with a calculated risk of offensiveness / tastelessness? –  JohnB Apr 11 at 16:19
    
I don't think there is a 'general view' within the industry any different than the world outside the industry. One would hope that graphic designers are a bit more aware of cultural issues with iconography, of course, just due to the fact that they should have a deeper understanding of the history and symbology involved. –  DA01 Apr 11 at 16:27
    
Honestly, I do not find that logo all that offensive. –  Random O'Reilly Apr 11 at 16:34
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Whether something is offensive or not is about the audience, so the question is who your audience is, and what is their sensitivity. –  John Apr 11 at 19:05

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Design is a form of communication, and the same rules apply as for any other. If it would be fine to say something to someone's face, you're probably fine saying it in a design. If it wouldn't, be prepared for consequences if you say it behind their back, or write it on a billboard, or draw it into a logo or icon.

This is usually easier to judge for words than images - judging what an image "says" is more difficult and abstract. Context is hugely important. Here's a few questions to ask yourself:

  • If you are representing something, ask "in context, what could people see this as representing?" For example, one of the common objections to that Cleveland Indians logo comes from it being presented like a representation of "Indians", a whole group. If the same image was used for one character in a cartoon alongside other native american characters, it'd be treated quite differently: representing one character's characteristics, not a whole set of people.

    • If you do have to represent a whole group of people, first make sure it's a design for which you'd be happy to sit down with someone from that group and explain how your design represents them, their family and everyone else like them. Then, if possible, actually do so: test it, don't just guess, and if it seems to touch a raw nerve, find out why.
  • Images bring things to life: so ask yourself, "What range of things could I be bringing to life with this image?" For example, part of the context to the Cleveland Indians example is that there are almost no actual "Cleveland Indians" as Native Americans were forced out of their homes across Ohio, and many of the tribes native to the Cleveland area are now almost extinct, with their remaining relatives often now living in poverty miles away from their roots, disconnected from their history and culture.

    • This logo that aims to bring out a sense of fun and associate it with a sports brand, and does very vividly look "fun" - but because this history exists, for a lot of people it instead brings to life the idea that people being forced from their homes is something casual and frivolous to have fun with.

How to manage this as a designer? Mostly, things you should be doing anyway:

  • Do your research and know your subject matter. Don't discover raw nerves the hard way.
  • Know the context your work will be presented in, and take it into account.
  • Know your client and what is and isn't an acceptable level of risk for them.
  • Test what you produce as much as possible, and expect unexpected responses.

And also...

  • Remember that freedom of speech also includes a right to reply: and that it's positive replies to your designs that clients pay you for.
  • If you do take a risk, make sure your client is aware of the risk and is taking responsibility for the brief they've given you and for their decision to sign off what you produce.
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Superb answer, well thought through and articulated. In the end, it's all down to cultural context, current sensitivities and taking responsibility for what message one is sending out. –  Alan Gilbertson Apr 11 at 18:40

This is not a full answer, but usage of single-color (usually black on white) pictograms may workaround the problem where abstraction is allowed (icons etc...) Another approach (in less formal contexts) is to use blue or green heads/figures to bring an abstraction into skin color. Several companies in my country have such a figures/puppets as mascots or as main characters in advertising campaings (including websites or company materials).

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I appreciate the effort to answer this, however, I cannot accept this answer since any part of the logo could be offensive. Color is just one aspect of it. Excuse me if this sounds offensive but if I change the color to black, as you say, then a black indian logo is offensive to two races. Everyone may not see it this way as this my personal point of view. –  otterr Apr 11 at 18:25
    
@otterr - it's OK - from the beginning I did not expect you would accept my answer. I just gave it because I thought it might once become useful for some people who find this question and reading this answer they get yet another idea on possible solution of their problem. –  miroxlav Apr 11 at 18:31

I would suggest you read the post that JohnB links to

How to balance dignity with a calculated risk of offensiveness / tastelessness?

However; I cannot see what is so racially offensive about the logo. Because it is red? The grin? The feather?

People take offence, or try to bend over backwards not to offend, that they can find something wrong about everything.

By the same token, I should be offended at the logo of the Minnesota Vikings, as it is a wildly incorrect social, historical and visual representation of my Nordic origin.

And then you can never make a logo for a garden centre with a pansy in it. Pansy is a symbol of freethinkers, but also a slang word for homosexuals. There is no way out of this, really.

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This seems like more of a personal opinion about a logo than an experience-based answer about how to handle sensitivity issues in design. (also, just an fyi, most of the offence at that logo comes from the fact that there are almost no actual "Cleveland Indians" because Native Americans were forced out of their homes in Ohio and many tribes were nearly wiped out, and people feel this should be taken more seriously and treated sensitively. This isn't true of Nords in Minnesota - but that's a history question and this is a design site) –  user568458 Apr 11 at 17:16
    
Ah, I see. That underscores the thing that for something to be racially offensive, is is dependant on context, existing and extant culture, history and knowledge. Yes, it is of course subjective, so the post linked to might be a better formulated question with better answers. –  Random O'Reilly Apr 11 at 17:21
    
...and then maybe it is more historically insensitive than racial? –  Random O'Reilly Apr 11 at 17:23
    
@RandomO'Reilly: The post you linked is very informative and I agree on many things you and Alan Gilbertson mentioned there. I also agree with your point about Minnesota Vikings logo. I accept my narrow perspective, in the sense that, maybe I was looking for a more diplomatic answer. This answer specifically is more defensive that may not work in all scenarios like this one. –  otterr Apr 11 at 18:28
    
@user568458 certainly has a good point; so this is very much circumstantial and subjective views. Everything can be offensive, if you dig deep enough (as to the Viking logo, if you take it really far, the first groups of nordics living in Americas was wiped out by indians. Of course, no-one in scandinavia today is remotely offended). You could also turn it around, and say that the Indian logo might be a positive influence in our time). –  Random O'Reilly Apr 11 at 18:36

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