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In discussing ethics and design, there are at least three
different levels for us to consider. The first has to do with
professional behavior in daily business interactions. The next
level deals with specific professional expertise needed in such
areas as accessibility, usability, consumer safety and
environmental practices. This leads us to the third level, which is
about overall professional values-a broader framework of moral
principles and obligations in life.
In your design career, how do you define ethical conduct and
where do you turn for guidance? Ethical guidelines are published by
a number of design organizations in the United States and abroad.
As you read through these various codes, you will see that some
of them focus on specific ways to exhibit integrity and respect in
your daily business interactions with clients, suppliers, and other
designers, while others address much broader issues and present
fundamental ethical principles. Guidelines for daily business
interactions tend to include such things as:
These codes describe recommended behavior for association
members. Typically, however, adherence is voluntary. Such
guidelines can be helpful in avoiding misunderstandings and
disputes between designers and clients, and they can be very useful
in educating new designers who are just entering the profession.
AIGA also publishes guidelines for ethical practices related to the
purchase and use of fonts, software, illustrations and photography.
Pamphlets on these topics can be downloaded as PDF files:
Design Business and Ethics Series
Depending on your design discipline and the nature of your
client's business, you may need to be aware of additional
responsibilities and legal obligations in the following areas.
Universal design and accessibility
Places, products and services should be universally accessible
to people of all ages, abilities and physical conditions. You'll
want your creative work to reduce barriers and be welcoming to
everyone. Your designs should facilitate mobility, communication
and participation in civic life. In fact, some aspects of these
moral obligations to the public have been written into law in the
United States and other countries such as Japan and the United
For example, if you work in the United States and you design a
physical space, your project may be subject to the Americans with
Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which is a civil rights act that
affects private businesses as well as governmental organizations.
ADA requirements are of particular importance to industrial
designers, interior designers, and architects. These requirements
apply to new construction as well as to alterations.
If you are designing electronic products or digital services in
the United States, you must be aware of Section 508 of the
Workforce Investment Act of 1998. It's of particular importance to
user interface designers as well as software and hardware
developers. This law requires electronic and information technology
purchased by the U.S. government to be accessible for people with
disabilities. It sets accessibility and usability requirements for
any websites, video equipment, kiosks, computers, copiers, fax
machines and the like that may be procured by the government,
thereby affecting all such products in the American market.
Consumer product labeling
If you are involved in the design of certain consumer products
or packages, you and your client need to be aware of any applicable
labeling requirements. In the United States, a number of federal
and state laws have been enacted to protect consumers from
unknowingly purchasing products that might be unsafe or unsanitary.
Similar laws are in place in Canada, Japan and the European Union.
The laws cover a variety of product categories, including such
items as food, pharmaceuticals, textiles, bedding, furniture, and
toys. Specific formats vary, but the labeling requirements often
include identification of contents and country of origin, as well
as the inclusion of safety instructions and warnings. For example,
here are two websites with information about food product
Ecology and sustainability
With each passing year, issues related to ecology and
sustainability become more critical for the entire world. Designers
can make a big difference-not only through responsible choices
about materials and processes used in current projects, but by
staying well-informed and providing expert guidance to clients
about long-term plans and activities. Industrial designers in
particular are faced with a dual challenge-the need to constantly
re-create and improve products while avoiding the excesses of
planned obsolescence and throw-away culture. Innovative thinking
will help reduce consumption and waste, reduce the use of toxic
materials, encourage reuse and recycling, increase energy
efficiency, and encourage the development and use of renewable
energy sources. In many countries, ecological principles are being
written into law. Germany has taken the lead in establishing
requirements for manufacturers regarding the use of recycled
materials, the use of sustainable energy sources and the reduction
of waste. General reference information is available to designers
from a number of sources including several professional
associations. Here are some places to start:
Clearly, the universal design concerns and ecological
responsibilities mentioned above are part of a much broader system
of moral values and obligations-not just how we do our work, but
what it is that we are doing in the first place and the impact it
will have on the world. Although many designers agree on
professional behavior toward clients and peers, there is less
consensus about the obligations of designers toward society in
general and the role that we should play in finding solutions to
complex global problems. Here we move beyond objective instructions
on how to do something, and into subjective decisions about what is
right and good. It's possible to function as a skilled designer and
a successful businessperson without being a good global citizen.
Here are just a few of the many interrelated social, economic and
political challenges that we face:
The expansion of consumer culture
Designers are involved in many different activities, but a
significant portion of our work promotes corporate commercialism.
When serving commerce, we need to be aware of the influence and
impact that our work has on the public. Marketing and advertising
shape consumer culture, including the self-image and personal
values of buyers. Our involvement in materialism and conspicuous
consumption may even extend to the creation of artificial needs and
the promotion of unnecessary products through advertising and
marketing messages that are manipulative or deceptive. These
concerns are also present in the political realm, where the latest
consumer marketing techniques are used to manufacture consent on
political issues and to sell candidates to voters. Two very
interesting commentaries are available online about the
relationship between commercialism and design.
The increasing power of corporations
Most leading design firms work for large corporate clients and
it's no secret that good design sometimes supports bad companies.
Private profit making is often at odds with public good. Designers
function as advisors to corporate clients and as advocates for the
end user. In this capacity, we can exert a positive influence on
clients and inspire responsibility. To do this, we must dig deeper,
ask questions, express doubts and propose alternatives. We must
actively work to resolve contradictions between business and
societal needs. On each commissioned project, we must ask
ourselves: Is the message truthful? Is the service beneficial? Is
the product useful, made well and produced in a sustainable
We also shape our careers through our choice of clients. Some
designers consciously shift their activities away from for-profit
clients and into the not-for-profit realm, into activism and
cause-related marketing. Many designers have taken the leap to
developing their own, non-commissioned projects. Design
entrepreneurs working at a small scale have more latitude to
explore new business models and practices.
The globalization of trade
Many designers work with multinational corporations-either as
outside consultants or as in-house employees. In most global
businesses, raw materials come from one part of the world,
manufacturing happens in another place, and final sales are made
somewhere else. Through their activities, multinationals spread
capitalism. They influence governments and have significant impact
on local cultures. Unfortunately, their activities can lead to
economic imbalances. Additional concerns include labor conditions,
human rights and environmental practices, particularly in
Design is a problem-solving process and the world today has so
many problems. Designers need to play a larger role-not just
responding, but initiating. We need to bring our personal beliefs
and professional activities into alignment. Through our work, we
have the opportunity and the responsibility to put our system of
basic values into action-to model the behavior that we want to see
in the world.
In tackling complex issues, we need to be aware of larger
contexts, and to reach out to other professionals. In many
instances, the scale of the challenge will move us beyond our
training. We need to partner with experts in many other
disciplines-economists, anthropologists, biologists, political
scientists, and sociologists, to name just a few. To these
collaborations we bring humanist roots, historical perspective,
cross-cultural awareness, critical thinking, project leadership and
a holistic approach.
We must also be actively involved in the political process to
reshape institutions and reset priorities. Design is a powerful
tool for shaping the world and how we live in it. Ethical design is
our way to contribute to the betterment of all and to ensure
abundance, diversity and health to future generations.
Many ongoing conversations are taking place within the design
community concerning ethics and social responsibility. As an
introduction, you may want to pick up one of these books:
Shel Perkins is a graphic designer, management consultant and educator with more than twenty years of experience in managing the operations of leading design firms in the U.S. and the U.K. He has served on the national boards of AIGA and the Association
of Professional Design Firms. He has been honored as an AIGA Fellow "in recognition of significant personal and professional contributions to raising the standards of excellence within the design community." The third edition of his best-selling book, Talent
Is Not Enough: Business Secrets For Designers, is available from New Riders.
The AIGA Design Business and Ethics series outlines the critical ethical and professional issues encountered by designers and their clients.
Section: Tools and Resources -
illustration, photography, contracts, copyright, legal issues
The Living Principles form a framework to provide designers and their clients with an understanding of the core facets of sustainability and enable them to take action.
Section: Why Design -
Living Principles for Design, sustainability
I’ve seen it dozens of
times. A design team meets after observing people use their design, and they’re
excited and energized by what they saw and heard during the sessions. They’re
all charged up about fixing the design. Everyone comes in with ideas, certain they
have the right solution to remedy users’ frustrations. Then what happens?
Section: Tools and Resources
Every design firm needs to have a comprehensive employee
handbook. Shel Perkins explains what yours should cover and why.
Section: Tools and Resources -
advice, human resources, studio management
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