What Are Design Ethics? (And Why Are They Important?)

Are you an ethical designer? Is that something you even think about when taking on projects? Design ethics come in many forms – from how you choose projects, to how you work with clients, to copyrights and legal protection.

These written and unwritten codes help shape the way graphic design professionals interact, communicate and do business. It’s something you probably do need to think about, because you know and understand the bigger rules. But any time you stop and ask “should I do this or that?” design ethics are part of the conversation.

What Are Design Ethics?

Design ethics are a tricky business. Ask five different people what it means and you are likely to get five different answers. Generally, that can be culled down into two basic ideas:

  • Design ethics establish behaviors and actions which are generally accepted in the profession.
  • Design ethics help raise the standard for visual work and representation.

When you put these two ideas together, you get what might be the best idea of design ethics:

Design ethics help raise the standard for visual work by establishing behaviors and actions that are acceptable in the professional community and for clients.

While the resources section includes plenty of examples of different ethical standards for designers, the four-point ethical standards from the Academy of Design Professionals is one that is worth striving for.

  1. Design professionals should strive to improve their professional and technical knowledge and skill.
  2. Design professionals should continually seek to raise the standards of aesthetic and functional excellence, design education, research, training, practice and professional excellence.
  3. Design professionals should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.
  4. Design professionals should promote the profession and contribute to the knowledge and capability of the design professions as a whole.

No matter your skill level or job title, these standards exemplify the essence of design ethics. It should be quite obvious why they are important. These types of ideals are easy to stand behind; it is the practice that can be a little trickier.

design ethics

For Freelancers, Employees and Professional Memberships

Design ethics impact professionals and students at every level. Depending on how you work, where you live and what organizations you are a member of, you might find yourself subject to multiple formal codes. But aside from those formal rules, design ethics are a little more personal.

Let’s assume for a minute that you would never break a law or violate copyright or plagiarize in any way. You always bill fairly and work honestly.

Ethics can go beyond these things. Consider these scenarios:

  • That might mean choosing between clients that are competitors if both come to you for business. Can you take both clients? Should you tell them that you are working with the other? (Many agencies have rules for this situation that freelancers do not.)
  • Do you bill a client for the full quote if you finish in half the expected time? What is the company policy? And how do you actually feel about it?
  • How thin is too thin when editing a client photo and they want to look better?
  • Will you do design work that goes against your moral standards or is to promote a cause or politics that you don’t agree with?
  • A great idea for a project comes to mind after hours, and after a glass or two of wine. Do you start working again or jot down the ideas for when you are back on work time?
  • Do you leave a professional organization for having standards that aren’t in line with yours?

None of the answers are clear and clean cut. Design ethics are more than what you feel in these situations, it is what you do. How you handle the conflict says a lot about the way you do business and what types of clients or firms you can comfortably work for.

And then there’s the flip side, you’ll do any work without feeling for a client. Design work often goes without named credit, but what if your name is associated with something you are less than proud of? Are you ok with that?

Why all the questions? Why is this important? How you think about and feel in these situations can impact your career.

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Business Considerations

If you find yourself to have many moral obligations that impact your ability to take on certain projects (or not), then a freelance career or in-house work for a company that you believe in might be the best option. If you are less picky about the type of work, agency life can be a good fit. Most designers fall somewhere in the middle, which is a flexible space where any of the options are viable.

Design ethics business considerations go beyond where the paycheck comes from. Ethics can help generate cash flow as well.

Think about the way you handle clients. Their expectations and your delivery is part of this ethical conversation. Did you deliver as promised? Is the bill on target with the estimate? Was all work completed on time in a way that made the client happy? If there were issues, did an open and honest conversation ensue?

Establishing good business practices should be part of your ethical code. It’s the trick to keeping repeat business and even staying in business for years to come. Clients like to know what you are about and what to expect.

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Do Work You Believe In

Ethics are a cloudy business. There are so many gray areas that you can’t always account for in advance. Many of these instances will be highly situational and you might act differently at different points in your career. Here’s the unicorn: do work you believe in.

When you like the work you are doing – whether it is for a nonprofit or a cool new craft beer label – you won’t have to ask so many questions.

Create open and honest dialog with clients so that you have a mutual trust. That way if they ask you to use a photo they don’t own “copy” an idea they like, you can talk about it reasonably and come to a better solution. If you have a personal code of ethics, these red flags will hit you immediately and you’ll be able to act accordingly.

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5 Ethics Resources

While we have just gotten into the idea of design ethics here, there are plenty of resources to help you form your own code or think about how ethics play a role in your business or design decisions. Many professional organizations have codes for members as well as individual businesses. As important as each of these documents are, you should have a personal code as well.


Ethics are important because they keep design clean and honest. That applies to general aesthetics and business issues.

You should strive to be as ethical as possible in all your dealings. It will help establish your position as a credible and professional designer. Clients will know what to expect and, in turn, your relationships will be smoother. Ethics can help you determine what clients to take and will help clients decide if they want to work with you.

Finally, remember it is acceptable to say no. Is a job worth feeling horrible over what you created? Weigh that consideration from the start. Not every piece you design will be portfolio-worthy, but you should not be ashamed of the client or final product either.

Image Source: Death to the Stock Photo.