Defining your Design Ethics

“Design Ethics” is a term that I randomly came across while scrolling through my feed. I’ve interpreted it as: “taking your gut feeling about what is right and wrong and applying it to the design projects that you choose to work on” ...but that's just me. How did I come to this conclusion, you ask?

Well, my first realization of this Design Ethics concept was when I didn’t agree with the mission of one of my clients. Let’s just say that the business model was for people to be compensated for something I personally believe shouldn't be sold. I didn’t agree with it, but I ended up working on the project any way. It was a good experience in testing myself, and I started some good discussions with my friends on the topic of morals and personal morals in design.

I’ve worked in advertising agencies, and there's a recurring theme of hiding the imperfect parts of products: “We have to market it like this, not that!” An example project I was on was for a power/energy/protein bar that I was told to design social posts and market as a healthy protein bar, when in fact, after breaking down the amount of sugars and unnatural ingredients, it had the same nutritional value as a candy bar. I shouldn't be doing this, I would tell myself. But, to me, at that "recent grad" age, I was more excited to create real-world projects. I pushed away any feelings of discomfort.

Lesson learned: I don’t like what I did. I cheated on myself and went against my beliefs on what is right and what is wrong.

As a designer, you will be presented with projects that you do not want to do. But understand that this world isn't perfectly built for you; there might be times where you'll have to take on a project that you feel uncomfortable doing because of money issues or reputation or who knows. You must create your own boundaries on what design projects you are comfortable completing. I suggest that you sit down with your favorite pen and your black hardcover moleskine sketchbook to answer these few items:

To know what is right and wrong for you:

  • Set limits for yourself. What are a few project topics that you are not comfortable completing projects for because they go against your values?
  • Scenario: Your boss/creative director/manager asks for you to execute on an idea or theory that you do not believe in. How would you react? How would you professionally handle the situation?
  • If you're on the fence about a topic or a project, think about how you would feel after you were to complete it. If there are any negative and uneasy feelings, have a plan to pass or switch with someone, or to politely decline the project.
  • Please understand that you don’t have to be the "monkey" that takes orders and dances on command. Stand up for what you believe in…that’s what makes you, you!

Hope that helps!

On that same note, I did a little research on the Design Ethics topic and came across this post from Blogless where the author reference’s Milton Glaser’s The Road to Hell:

“In regard to professional ethics, acknowledging what it is we do is a beginning. It is clear that in the profession of graphic design the question of misrepresenting the truth arises almost immediately. So much of what we do can be seen as a distortion of the truth.”
–Milton Glaser

Glaser admits to fudging a few things so the outcome—the final product or company—will look better than it is. An example would be of designing a package so it will look bigger on the shelf, or designing t-shirts for a company that employs child labor.

It’s very interesting to think about, and I really challenge you to figure out your boundaries. Stay strong in what you do as a designer, and always stand up for yourself.