David Airey is an independent graphic designer working with companies of all sizes since 2005.

How ethical are your design practices?

design ethics

Do you work with a client whose product or values you don’t agree with? If, for example, you’re , would you accept Marlboro as a client?

Lee Newham of Designed by Good People offered some thoughts:

“If I was financially secure, and if I felt strongly about it, no, I wouldn’t take the client. If I wasn’t busy and needed the money, I would think about it… within reason.

“I don’t think the design of a cigarette pack encourages people to smoke. It only encourages people who already smoke to buy different brands. Over 50% of the front of cigarette packaging says this product will kill you. If someone doesn’t get that message, quite frankly, they’re beyond help.

“Alcohol causes many more problems than cigarettes, and I’ve designed lots of alcohol packaging. Where do you draw the line?”

Where indeed? When starting out as a graphic designer, is it necessary to put ethics to one side in order to build a portfolio?

Here’s an example: I believe in how the fashion industry twists reality and contributes toward eating disorders in many young women, but if I was approached by a fashion model to launch a portfolio site, I don’t think I’d have many sleepless nights. Am I hypocritical?

If, at the beginning of design self-employment, you feel bad for working with a cause you don’t support, you can always balance the scales by providing a service to local non-profits and giving a little back to the community.

How much do ethics affect your design practices?

If you didn’t believe in what a client was offering, would you simply rule out a working relationship? Would you think about it first or does it all depend on your current income? How responsible is your graphic design?

Update 1: 10 January 2010
Don’t shoot the messenger, on davidthedesigner.com

Update 2: 26 April 2011
“The Coca-Cola Conspiracy” and ethical design

Update: 3: 14 May 2012
Ethics in design (and who you won’t work with)

My second book on Amazon

Related posts

42 appreciated comments about “How ethical are your design practices?”

  1. I have a very recent example. In my freelance world, I have been working closely with a design/production company, helping them out. I had done a good number of jobs for them. We built up a great relationship. Then I was asked to do a job, a media guide, that contained an ad for some “adult” store, which I could not be associated with.

    I politely told them that I would be unable to take this job for these specific reasons, and a laid it out. I also stated that I would like to continue to work with them, but that I could not have my name associated with that sort of thing (not in those exact words; that’s just more the gist of it).

    They told me that was not a problem. They still want to work with me. They clarified that they rarely have these sorts of ads in their jobs, but there are some. They then sent me other work. Now, this is a little different case because this “client” of mine is another design company that has a lot of work coming in, so I am not in fear of losing the income. But there is a relationship there. And that is actually the only time in all the designing I’ve done where my ethics were challenged to some level.

  2. Interesting question. I don’t believe one should ever put their ethics to one side. Why have them in the first place? Are they still ethics if you ignore them for financial gain? When I moved to Chicago several years ago, I was approached for a possible position at Leo Burnett (not as a designer of course, as an account manager type person), but the only catch was that it would be working with a cigarette manufacturer. It was rather tempting to say the least, as I really needed a job, but I would have been much too uncomfortable to even consider it.

    It’s not that I don’t understand when people get in a hard spot and really need the work. That can be extremely stressful and difficult. It would be the easy road to put ethics aside. But, the easy road is not always the right one.

  3. This is a good question and I completly agree with Randa Clay. We have to look it at a wider angle. This is a question about Character, pesonality and about Life. Its simple, no one can walk on the wrong path and become good.

    Ethics does not exist or are not created for our convenience to use it or not. As a human, once we put ethics aside for our gain we will always have the temptation to fall back. Sure we will have another justification for that. The list goes on…

    I repeat Randa’s statement… “the easy road is not always the right one.”!

  4. At the beginning of my web design career I was approached to design an adult website, and I of course, refused. I desperately needed work and money, but I’ll never ever design porno sites.
    So I guess it all depends on what the client project is all about. I’d never build a site that goes against my principles, say sites that promote violence or support wars.

  5. Eddie, the fact that you built a great relationship with that client helped your cause, which says good things about you.

    Randa, good to get your take. There are some jobs I won’t accept, no matter what my finances. In your position with Leo Burnett, for example, I don’t think I could work with a cigarette manufacturer either.

    The fashion industry is less clear-cut. International profiles of wafer-thin models do a lot of physical and mental harm to those trying to emulate their looks. I’m against how the industry portrays skinny women as idyllic, neglecting beautiful women with curves. At the same time, does that mean I’m wrong to work with a catwalk agency or fashion designer?

    I guess it’s not so black-and-white, and depends in turn on the morals of the agency or fashion designer. I agree that the easy road isn’t always the right one. I’d say the difficult road is usually the right one.

    Prasanth, I think I’ve worded my post incorrectly. You’re right that ethics can’t just be used at your convenience. It says a lot about a person who doesn’t compromise. Perhaps a negative aspect about me, with my thoughts on the fashion industry.

    Vivien, maybe the case is that there’s so much work out there for web designers that you always have the choice not to compromise? Well, you always have a choice, but pressure levels differ. I’ve been fortunate enough that I was born into a good family, always food on the table, a roof over my head, so my ethics haven’t been called into question when there was no other option.

  6. I honestly can’t think of any situation where I’d turn down work in the name of ethics. Certainly the examples cited above (tobacco, fashion and adult) I’d happily cash in a big cheque for doing.

    That’s not to say I don’t have morals and ethics, there are plenty of things I disapprove of around the world – but smoking, fashion and sex are not any of those things.

    One of the things that I do feel quite strongly about is the environment. But each and every one of us are as guilty as the next so to take a stance against non-environmentally friendly clients would be business suicide – you’d accept no work.

  7. Interesting to see everyone’s stance on the issue.

    Although I’ve never been approached for, say, tobacco design work (I doubt I ever will!), I’ve done quite a lot of adult design work in the past. Its lucrative and I relished the challenge, as it’s a very competitive sector both aesthetically and with SEO. I enjoyed pushing myself to produce better results in that context.

    The only time I’ve turned down work on a moral/ethics basis, is for a redesign of a drug retailer. Although they were for legitimate, herbal drugs that are all above board and legal, its not something I’ve ever approved of, and I turned down the work without hesitation.

  8. What an excellent topic. I’m more into writing and I can tell you that I’d never take a product/service I don’t agree with. But ethics are a subjective matter. I had no idea that the line is so thin for designers too…

    Btw, I will start this week that debate I was talking about in one of your previous posts (stressWELL). I’ll keep you posted.

  9. Every Action has an Equal and Opposite reaction. I am not sure if anybody realises how much truth this is!

    Imagine, just because you did a GREAT attractive Ad work which shows a good moral to the society and it turned out to be a reason someone changed their life for the good. We might not know how this has changed someone. It could be the other way too if we did an ad for a cigarette or did an adult site!

    You must have done a great job but for someones good? Yes it may help the client get a lot of money but is that client going to help the poor with that money? No way! It will be spent for something bad again..just see how the line goes and we may be in that chain..when we try to see it as a whole a lot of money is spent for a bad cause!

    Let me go a little philosophical…even if we do good or wrong we get the money, happiness or peace if that money is for us!
    So why we go the wrong way? :)

    Its all about making this World a beautiful place to live and each of us are responsible for this and makes a BIG difference!

    I dont think there is a one word answer for this. It has to come from someone’s thought or heart! Just see if its really helping..

  10. To be a stickler, I need to point out that this is a question of morals or values, not ethics. Ethics encompass morals, but technically ethics are not morals. Ethics are the study of or a system of values, a way of categorizing or explaining how a person/group makes decisions (ethics are more philosophical and academic, where values are more concrete). It is a little confusing. Sorry, I had that ground into me in my ethics class…

    Anyway! I faced a situation a few months ago where I was asked to redesign a website for a church. I don’t want to start up a whole religious debate, but suffice to say I didn’t believe in the same things the church was promoting. I struggled with making a decision for a few days and ultimately decided not to do it. I couldn’t help that church promote things I didn’t agree with at a very core level. I know I made the right decision.

    I like what Prasanth said above, we have more to consider than pleasing the client or earning money. We also have to think about how it will affect our world and the people in it and whether it will be a positive contribution.

    I don’t think we have to deal with this question most of the time–if we’re designing ads or websites for watch companies or a restaurant–but sometimes there are hard decisions to make and it helps when we really know ourselves and our values.

    Hmm, can you see my Reformer personality coming out here?

  11. Basically, if you don’t agree with what you have to design, it is very hard to create a perfect design to make more and more people to be in favour of what you are opposed. You cannot show the rest of the world the advantages of a particular thing if you really don’t find any advantage on it.

  12. This was a great post David. You asked the question were I would draw the line and I would draw the line where I saw fit. For most people it’s not black and white as you stated, I guess you just have to weigh the pros and cons in each case. I personally would never do the front of a cigarette box… and the same goes for alcohol.

  13. Great topic. It is something I have wrestled with and still do.

  14. Just last quarter I completed an assigment in my publishing & layout class where we had to design against our beliefs. I went far, far into it and designed for the Westboro Baptist Church, something I would never do in reality.

    I spoke of it here: http://www.serastrawbridge.com/?p=444

    I agree with the others, there’s definitely a point where I would draw the line.

  15. I wouldn’t put my ethics to the side for money – whats the sense of having them. Here’s what I do: I post on my site what I will and will not do. This eliminates those who would temp me to put my ethics aside in a time where I needed the money the most. I’m against gambling – I hate what its doing to my city (making addicts). So when I received an offer to do a large project for some local casinos – I turned them down. You gotta have ethics.

  16. Aaron, I agree that the environment is one topic we should be passionate about, but I know what you mean about it being business-suicide to reject all clients who aren’t as eco-friendly as they could be.

    Damien, it is interesting to read different perspectives. I thought there’d be some division, and it’s great to have varying viewpoints. With regards the herbal drugs, I don’t think I’d take a strong stance against it, but of course I only have a fraction of the story. I’m more against the tobacco industry than I am any herbal drugs, but then I smoked cigarettes for about six years.

    Mig, looking forward to the article, and you’re right, ethics (or morals, as Lauren pointed out) are subjective.

    Prasanth, I believe in karma, too. What goes around comes around, which helps me swallow some decisions I know aren’t right.

    Lauren, interesting story, thanks for sharing. I can imagine there are a few religious issues that I’d not feel happy representing. Oh, and thanks for being a stickler too. I had a feeling I shot this post out faster than I should’ve.

    Kersson, great observation. It’s all about sales, and you have to believe in your product to be successful.

    Sera, what did you think of the assignment you were set? Did your class see the benefit? I’ve not come across one like that before.

  17. It was an excellent, thought provoking post, David, and we all know what you meant. It was just a nit-picky little thing ;) This is a difficult topic! It’s sometimes tough to know exactly where to draw the line.

  18. My ethics and my word are EVERYTHING. I have suffered due to an ethics decision, but I have to live with myself. If you are willing to compromise your ethics what are you left with? Some may say if they were not finacially secure they would bend – that diminishes you as a professional.

    To me it is black and white – either you have or do not have ethics. A compromise is like “I only murdered him a little”.

  19. David,

    I enjoyed the assignment very much, as tough as it was. I found it most beneficial because it made me think and research. It was quite a stretch from doing the basic brochures and business cards (although I love those too.)

    I was shocked when the professor gave us the assignment, because I go to a very conservative school. I thought, what if someone outside our class sees what I’ve designed? They wouldn’t understand. I’m not sure if the rest of the class gained anything from it, because it was our final project so we didn’t have much time to critique each other’s work. But for me it was very personal. I know now that there will come a time when I may have to tell a client “no thanks.”

  20. As you may already be aware David, I have strong, and what may be termed ‘old fashioned’ morals. I think our loose modern ideals, and ‘do anything for a $’ attitude, is eating away at the very fabric and structure of a civilised society.

    As much as we all think the world is making progress in this 21st century, there are many more ways in which it’s falling apart. We think we’re more ‘intellectual’ now, than before. And yet, what is an intellect, if it doesn’t even know how to treat people? We think we’re more ‘advanced’, and yet what is ‘advanced’ about crawling home from the pub on a Friday night, or thinking it’s cool to take drugs?

    I say our ‘modern’ perspectives have been twisted, distorted, and then veneered with a thin layer of ‘ego’ to make us feel as if we’re better than past generations.

  21. Great topic. Reminded me of an incident, that happened many years ago, when I was working for a British agency. We were thrilled to win the pitch of a big retail chain. The excitement was killed when the client asked us to split the media commission equally with them. The agency turned it down and naturally, the account went to the runner-up. The entire team was deeply disappointed as we had worked really hard and done a very good job to deliver the intended results. My MD said he would be spoiling the market and will eventually hurt the creative industry as a whole, if he accepted the deal

    Ed Roach said: “To me it is black and white – either you have or do not have ethics. A compromise is like “I only murdered him a little”. My MD had a slightly different twist: “Either you are pregnant or you are not. There’s no half-half.”

    Let your passion, integrity and belief guide you in any business approaches and it’s likely you’ll stay on the right track.

    (Off topic: Seen my tag on “entrepreneurship?)

  22. David, whatever provoked you post this debate shows you are driving hard to find the truth about life so do others! People like this make a BIG difference to the society for the good!

  23. I’ve just started on web designing and just done one client.
    I just want to say you really threw a great post and yes i simply rule out a working relationship with a client that against my ethics. because that what ethic is in the first place. Fortunately (or unfortunate?) i never had difficulties with my income that why i never compromise with my work ethics. I still had a long way to go in designing but your topic give me a great insight in what I’m going to prepare of in the future.

  24. Where do you draw the line? I think this is such an important question – and it definitely does not only confine to design. In business, in our relationships, where do you draw the line? Would you tell the truth if it may harm your interest? Would you follow the instructions that go against your beliefs?

  25. Lauren, it is sometimes tough. There are so many external factors that you have to look hard at yourself to discover where you really want to go.

    Sera, it turns out there have been many more times when I’ve told a client, “no thanks” for reasons other than ethics.

    Armen, I thought about you when I was writing this one. I know that ethics are high on your agenda, so thanks for joining the chat.

    Vivienne, I’ve not seen your tag yet, but will visit your site shortly.

    Thanks to all who took some time-out to read/comment.

  26. I’m currently in this situation. I’m doing work for an organization that really skirted the line of my personal ethics. I decided in the long run that it was a good opportunity for me and it may provide me work in the future that isn’t related to this specific organization since I’m being sub-contracted.

    I can definitively say there are several sectors I wouldn’t do work for:

    Any company that abuses animals in any way.
    Certain political parties
    Any company that takes a stance against equality (whether it be race, gender or sexual orientation)
    Any company that was responsible for further damaging the environment
    Some adult content (though I’d never display it in my portfolio, I think adult content is healthy… to a degree)

    I suppose ethically I’d turn down anything that may inhibit the growth of the planet or mankind.

  27. I was recently put into a very awkward situation; I had to fire a client. This was a first for me and I have been working with clients for 4 years, so I guess I was lucky. I was working on a very large redevelopment project and long story short, 80% into the project the client basically admits to doing something very shady and we find out we are a part of it which immediately raises the red flag. I’m actually writing a post about it for search-this.com so i don’t want to go into too many details here, but needless to say, there is a line and our line is anything that could potentially damage the reputation of our firm or its members.

  28. Hi Jen, your ethics are similar to mine. Thanks for dropping by.

    Sara, I think that after four years of working with clients, only firing your first one now is great going. I’ve only had to do it once so far, and I’ve been self-employed for 2 years. It wasn’t a great experience, and one I hope doesn’t come around too often.

  29. Hi
    Have found all of the comments posted here very interesting…we too have experienced the dilema. One particular client springs to mind, we were at the quoting stage of designing a website for them and it became apparent that they were intending to leave the company they were working for and steal all the data to set up their own business. What was even more insulting was that they wanted US to do the stealing for them!!! We quickly made it clear that we couldn’t be part of it and haven’t heard from them since. We are however, a fairly well established design company so I can understand why someone starting out may have been more tempted!
    Toni

  30. It’s all very well for me to say this, but my boss may not agree (LOL). I absolutely would not work for a company guilty of environmental damage, or any guilty of animal cruelty. I believe in sticking by my principles, so I would be willing to resign if my boss didn’t accept my refusal to work on that particular project.

    I agree with your comment above – once tarnished, your reputation is incredibly hard to build back up. News travels fast, but bad news travels even faster. I am keen to work on environmental projects – why would anyone take me seriously if I had a history of working for unethical organisations?

    I also stick to my principles when it comes to any additional freelance work I’ve done (I rejected one client because they insisted logo contests were a viable way to work, and one because he was a tattoo ‘artist’ with a shoddy reputation) and also any job I apply for. Anywhere with a dress code, or anyone who discriminates against tattoos or appearance is out – I do not believe you can insist on creativity from designers while insisting they all look the same.

    Everyone’s principles are different – as long as you stick to them, it’s all valid :-)

  31. Forgot to add:
    But each and every one of us are as guilty as the next so to take a stance against non-environmentally friendly clients would be business suicide – you’d accept no work

    I don’t agree – each of us is NOT as guilty as the next. If I wasn’t environmentally responsible, I’d be hypocritical to accuse clients of ill practice. Why should I go out of my way to reduce, re-use, recycle, source eco-friendly products and not have a car, then actually increase an environmentally damaging client’s profits with a good design?

  32. minxlj, when you say:

    “Everyone’s principles are different – as long as you stick to them, it’s all valid.”

    Fully agree. I don’t want to force my opinion on anyone, and there’s only so much reasoning you can do.

  33. Great feed of information here.

    I’ve been designing professionally for 4 years now and have turned down 2 projects in the tobacco industry (Herbal Cigs and a Hooka company) and 3 distilled alcohol projects. Most of you agree that tobacco is a no no. And if not for personal objection, you realize future clients would likely not want their work displayed alongside a tobacco product. For my own personal beliefs, alcohol falls in this same category. I personally live a sober life and can’t devote myself to a product I would not consume.

    The times in my life when I have crossed my own moral, ethical boundaries … I’ve paid for it with regret and self-loathing. To do that professionally would be a depressing existence. And I hope to never compromise to increase my income. The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.

    I completely disagree with the idea that young designers should build their portfolio’s doing work they may or may not agree with. Past work is bait for new work. Why would I display work I didn’t want to do again?

    Thanks David

  34. You’re very welcome, Stephen. I guess I’m fortunate that I’ve not been tested to point of saying no for ethical reasons. My clients are fairly ‘straight down the middle’ in that respect.

  35. As a third year student having to write an essay on this exact topic it is very encouraging to see that the field that I am about to enter in has a moral sense that is uncompromising. It is great!

    Knowing that it is inevitable that I someday will be faced with an ethical issue it is great knowing that I wouldn’t have been the first to say no to a client.

  36. Good luck with the essay, Mericia.

  37. A photographer had several main clients bought by his largest of all, and that client’s bureaucratic tendencies lead it to leave the photographer for a photography business who could give them more for less. as a result of his dedication to this large client, the photographer’s life was turned up-side down.

    What if you were the replacement photographer?

    your competition is a person too. Do your ends fall above the welfare of another, to the extent that they could fall into poverty?

    interested in any opinion, feel free to email me.

    M.

  38. I am researching the ethical considerations which should be considered when designing a website for products that might not be appropriate for young children, considering that young children may access the site. My specific product is adult diapers… Anyone have any insight?

  39. Since this article was posted my opinion has changed somewhat!

    Having worked for Fairtrade companies and smaller firms, I believe design has a chance to make a difference. We need to push clients to become more sustainable and more ethical. Only be being part of the process can we effect change. I work with clients that I believe in and devote studio time to help various campaigns and local businesses.

    Things have changed in 3 years. Global warming (which I have always seen as fact) is now regarded as a real danger to society and is being acted upon by business.

    By helping small businesses, by helping local firms, by helping ethical and sustainable businesses you are making a difference. For good.

  40. Hello everyone,
    Great to see all this feedback and especially thankful to David for starting this interesting topic. I’m currently studying graphic design and I’ve chosen ethical design as my dissertation topic. I’m in the process of collating information and would really appreciate some direction as where to find great inspiring works.
    I just finished reading David Berman’s Do Good Design and it was fascinating with a great insight into the topic, I highly recommend it. As part of my research I plan to interview certain local design agencies to question them on their ethical practice (if any), hopefully answering some questions I have regarding my dissertation.

    There is some great stuff posted here and I would love to hear from anyone that could help me further.

    Thanks to all,
    O.

  41. Hello Otto, I’ve just published a new post on ethics that might hold one or two useful resources. The comments are a worthy read. Good luck with your dissertation.

  42. Hey David, will be having a read of that shortly :)
    Thanks so much for the vast amount of fascinating information you share with everyone on your website. Great stuff! ;) O

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