Professional Ethics in Graphic Design

Today in class we discussed professional ethics. These we divided into five broad categories, more or less following those outlined in AIGA’s Design Business & Ethics Guide. I recommend downloading and reading it (and, for that matter, supporting the organization that published it by becoming a member).

Here’s a basic overview of the five ethical areas a designer ought to concern him or herself with:

1. To the Client:

A. Treat all information as confidential
In the course of our work we have access to privileged information regarding a client’s business — their strategy, growth plans, new products, internal politics, sometime their very existence. Whether or not you sign an explicit NDA (non-disclosure agreement) hold all information in strict confidence. This means resisting to talk about that cool project you’re working on with friends, posting comps on dribble, or sharing horror stories with other designers. You should even be careful about the mood boards you create on Pinterest and your activity on Facebook. Checking into café and commenting “All this client research is gonna make me fat!” may seem harmless and funny, but if someone can connect the dots and decides they don’t want another restaurant in their neighborhood, your carelessness may have real consequences.

B. No conflict of interest
If you have personal relationships a financial interest in any business, service or product you recommend to a client, disclose it up front. It’s fine if your cousin is a great developer, just don’t obscure the fact that she’s your cousin when you recommend her to your client. Similarly, if you are working for two competing clients where your knowledge one’s business may be seen to benefit the other, you must resolve this potential conflict with your client(s). Many corporate clients (and some small businesses) will ask you to sign an agreement expressly forbidding working for other businesses with whom they directly compete.

C. Be explicit about markups
Many design firms and freelancers make part of their profit by marking up services such as printing or custom illustration. This is fine and normal, but you should always make your markup clear in your proposal. Generally, if you’re paying for the product or service and then billing your client for it, a reasonable markup is acceptable. If the client is paying that vendor directly, some view the inclusion of a markup as inappropriate or unethical, though it is not a hard and fast rule. If you promise a vendor your business in exchange for a fee or percentage of the billings, that amounts to a kickback and is certainly unethical and illegal.


2. To Other Designers:

A. Don’t accept projects if you know a client is working with another designer
Not everyone agrees on this, but if a potential client is working with another designer and wants see what you or firm might do as well, it’s usually best to decline. There is no rule or law that prevents a client from looking around—they have a right to work with whomever they choose—but just as in romance, its best to end one relationship before starting another one.

B. Don’t undercut the competition
When you compete on price, everyone loses. It’s not uncommon for clients (not good clients) to try to get a deal by telling you that your competitor was $x cheaper, and that if you can meet or beat that price they’d rather give the job to you. My response in this scenario has been (and always will be) to politely decline. There are countless reasons why winning work by being cheap is a bad idea, but the most compelling one is this: If I have to charge less than design firm A, then design firm B has to charge less than me, and design firm C has to charge less than them. The next time I come up against design firm C I have charge even less, and so on and so on. Competing on price makes it harder for everyone to make a living.

C. Be objective in criticizing other designer’s work
Sometimes you’ll inherit a client, project or identity that another design firm worked on. If asked your opinion (whether explicitly or by way of justifying which elements you changed vs. preserved) be fair and balanced in your critique. Don’t try to build yourself up by tearing others down. It’s kind of the golden rule.

D. Credit everyone
Be honest and generous about crediting work. Acknowledge the writers, photographers, illustrators, programmers, other designers, etc. Again, the golden rule.

C. Work only for a fee
Spec work? No. We argued a lot about this in class, so I’ll do a whole post on it. This doesn’t preclude you from doing pro bono projects for the issues and causes you believe in, but if a commercial enterprise intends to profit from your work, you should be fairly compensated. It’s that simple.


3. To the Public:

A. Do no harm
Pretty straightforward. Don’t make dangerous, toxic, irresponsible things.

B. Respect the dignity of all audiences
At a minimum this means avoiding racial, ethnic, social and sexual stereotypes. Hopefully it also means that you produce work that is smart, informed and literate.

C. Make no false claims
Don’t manipulate data (or the presentation of data) to suggest an untrue conclusion. Designers have tremendous power over how information is presented and consumed. Wield that power for good.


4. To Sustainability:

A. Fair labor practices
All of our contracts include the following clause in our terms and conditions, I suggest incorporating (and adhering to) something similar:

MINE is an adopter of The Designers Accord ( and has always been committed to sustainable and ecological practice. As part of our design and production services we research and specify the latest environmentally- friendly materials, inks and production facilities. We work exclusively with FSC-certified printers and paper manufacturers, and favor vendors who utilize alternative energy sources. Eco-audits are commissioned and reported for all print deliverables. Everyone involved in the project is fairly compensated according to U.S. domestic standards.

B. Reasonable environmental cost
It takes some effort to stay educated on the ecological impact of the design, production and distribution methods you specify. Work with vendors who share your sustainability values and ask lots of questions. If they know that their commitment to sustainability is a factor in your decision to work with them they’ll only be more committed.

5. To Yourself

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, you have an ethical responsibility to yourself. Every one of us has a different threshold when it comes to personal values and ethics. If you have religious, cultural, political or personal values that are at odds with the work you’re asked to do, it’s your choice whether to accept that work or not. If that;s the case, don’t grandstand. Explain your position objectively and see if a compromise can be reached. If you and your client or boss can’t come to terms, it may not be the right fit—your ethics are also your own consequences. Some people draw the line at tobacco, alcohol or casinos. Others obviously make their living at it. More often, line is much fuzzier—if its visible at all. Wherever you draw it, draw it politely. When you decline, decline respectfully.


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  • Alan Garfield

    Thank you for sharing this very good post. Loads of meaty info. I too teach Digital Design. But here’s my gripe. Not at you, mind you, but at the entire industry. We use ‘ethics’ too loosely. I would love for there to be a real design ethics. But what you have reviewed with your students (and I do too with mine) is pure business. Good business practice. Certainly needed as much as design tips for Photoshop or InDesign. But I read Classics back-in-the-day. And we just don’t talk about ethical behavior.