Ethics and Social Responsibility
By Shel Perkins September 1, 2006
Ethics and Social Responsibility
By Shel Perkins September 1, 2006
Ethics and Social Responsibility
By Shel Perkins September 1, 2006

Editor's note: Links were updated in this article in May 2011, but please add a comment if you find one that doesn't work or you have additional recommendations.

 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.

Professional behavior

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. For example:

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:

  • Showing respect toward other designers in fair and open competition
  • Being honest in describing your professional experience and competencies
  • Avoiding any type of conflict of interest
  • Acquainting yourself with each client's business and providing honest and impartial advice
  • Maintaining the confidentiality of all client information
  • Eliminating any form of hidden compensation or kickback
  • Maintaining commitment to the development of innovative work of the highest quality
  • Rejecting all forms of plagiarism
  • Making proper acknowledgment of authorship when others have collaborated with you in creating a design

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

Professional expertise

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 Kingdom.

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 labels:

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:

Professional values

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 way?

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 developing countries.

The designer's role

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.

For further reading

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:

  • Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility
    Forty essays about the role of designers in social and political change; edited by Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne; published in 2003 by Watson-Guptill.
  • Design Issues: How Graphic Design Informs Society
    A collection of articles on many different topics; edited by DK Holland; co-published in 2002 by Communication Arts and Allworth Press.
  • Looking Closer 4: Critical Writings on Graphic Design
    Essays on a wide range of issues related to social responsibility and design ethics; edited by Michael Bierut, William Drenttel and Steven Heller; published in 2002 by Allworth Press.

Tags social responsibility sustainability