Are You An Ethical Designer?

Would you take on a client who’s business was ethically appalling to you? How far will you stretch the truth to help a client sell their products or services? When taking inspiration from another site for one you’re designing how much of that other site gets incorporated into your design and how close does your site come to copyright infringement?

Which has more weight in decisions? Your brain or your heart.s

Each of the above are ethical questions web designers face on a daily basis. Most don’t have an absolute right or wrong answer (the copyright question has a pretty clear answer) and your response will mainly come down to your own personal code of ethics.

Since ethics are such an important consideration in all decision making I thought it would be interesting to consider the topic here. This post will probably raise more questions than answer them though. As much as some wish it were so, the truth is there is no one single set of ethics that’s right for everyone. Morals and ethics almost always come down to personal choices and even the circumstances present when faced with an ethical decision.


What are Ethics?

From the dictionary at ethics are defined as

that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.

You don’t have to look any further than a political election to realize that it’s impossible to get us all to agree about what’s right and wrong. Ultimately each of us has our own code ethics by which we live. Making moral choices comes down to making personal choices about what you think is right and wrong. Only you can decide what is ethically right under any circumstance.

With some choices most, if not all, of us will agree on what is right and wrong. I’m sure you agree that it’s ethically wrong to kill another human being. What about in self-defense? In war? What if you were absolutely certain if you didn’t kill someone that someone was going to kill millions?

Maybe you think killing is immoral in all circumstances. Maybe you see it as ok if it’s done in self-defense or to prevent more killings. Maybe you’re opposed to war in general. The point is that as we add more and more context it can become harder to absolutely see right or wrong and harder to make ethical choices.

Life often presents situations where we need to make choices that put our ethics in conflict. Is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving child? Most would say it’s wrong to steal. Isn’t it also wrong to let your family starve when you could do something about it? Would it matter who you’re stealing the loaf of bread from?

Much of the time you have to weigh the different ethical choices in each situation and determine which takes precedence. Ethics aren’t easy.


What are Your Responsibilities as a Designer?

Designers are human beings and we face the same ethical dilemmas all human beings face. We also have our own set of ethical consideration specific to our industry as well as responsibilities to a variety of people.

Designers have responsibilities to:

A lot of people are impacted by what we do.

Let’s get back to the question that started this post. Would you take on a client who’s business your were morally opposed to? Say someone approached you to design an adult site. You might have no ethical issues with that or you might be completely against anything with a sexual theme. You might fall somewhere in between thinking some forms of adult content fine, while others push past the boundary of your morality.

Assuming it’s a job you wouldn’t take, would your decision change if money was tight or if you were just starting out and had no clients? Your personal ethics might clash with the responsibilities you feel to your business or those your business supports. If family is involved it’s harder to pass on a job you know will feed them, though at the same time you might not want your brand associated with an adult site, since it might turn away other clients down the line.

Social responsibility

Some other questions you might be faced with:

  • How far will you stretch the truth to help sell a client’s products/services?
  • Would you lie to help your client make more money?
  • If a red button gets people more to click on a product they don’t really want is it ethical to use one?
  • iI a client insists you add something to a design you think bad, would you tell them?
  • How hard would you fight for your ideas with a client who disagrees?
  • Will you ultimately defer to the client or refuse to add their suggestion to your design?
  • How much will you borrow and incorporate the ideas of another designer into your own work?
  • Would you try to communicate your own message to society in a design for a client’s site?

I’m sure you can think of many more potential ethical questions.

When ethics and responsibilities conflict how do you make a choice? I think most of us prioritize things from the personal out to society. We’ll decide in favor of ourselves and our families over another designer or a society filled with people we’ve never met. We’re likely to favor our clients, since we have relationships with them over our client’s customers who we don’t know.

I think the “from personal to society” priority is fairly common to all people, not just designer’s. We’re naturally biased towards those we care about more than those we don’t. That may not always be right, but it is human. Should we aspire to more.

Throughout my lifeI’ve noticed that “creatives” have more of a tendency to give up personal benefit for the greater good. That’s hardly limited to creative people of course, but “creatives” seem to consider the greater good a little more than the average person.

Earlier I mentioned how our ethics are often malleable. The decisions we make sometimes change based on our current situation. I think that’s natural and part of being human, but I also think we’re better off when we’re more consistent in our ethical choices. If you find a project morally reprehensible you shouldn’t take on that project regardless of how badly you need the money.

Flow Chart Template

How Do You Make Ethical Decisions?

In the first draft of this post this section was focused on myself and some of the choices I might make in regards to some of the ethical questions mentioned throughout this post. That section didn’t feel right in the context of this post, though.

I’d rather leave things more open-ended at the moment. I don’t want to tell you what decisions you should make. I have plenty of thoughts on what we should do as designers, but here I just want to raise the questions and encourage you to think about ethics.

I’ll get back to some of my thoughts on what I think we should do in a future post.

While I have plenty of thoughts and ideas, I’m smart enough to know I don’t have all the answers in regards to ethics. Maybe that’s the point I’m trying to make. None of us has all those answers, since universal ethics don’t truly exist.

Looking back up at the list of people we’re responsible to I think they can be combined into 4 distinct groups

  • Personal
  • Professional
  • Design Community
  • Society

The first is all about you. No one can or should define your personal ethics. The last is also all about you and will arise from the personal. The one thing I would suggest is that we should all strive to make the world a better place, though better is something each of us has to define for ourselves.

Professional ethics relate to how we run our businesses and how we serve our clients their and customers. This too will come out of your personal ethics, but here I think we can come to some agreement. Words like integrity and honesty come to mind when thinking about how we treat our clients for example.

Similarly in our responsibilities to the design community we should be able to agree it’s wrong to steal another’s work and again words like integrity and professionalism come to mind when thinking about competition with other designers. I think there’s something else we should all do as designers, which is to protect the industry as a whole and help those not in the industry understand why design is important.

I’ll leave you with a couple more questions. What ethical dilemmas have you faced as a designer and how did you resolve the issue to make a choice?

Feel free to share some of your thoughts in the comments below, but even more just think about them on your own. Think about how you dealt with these issues in the moment and ask yourself if you would still make those same choices under different conditions.

Homer Simpson on ethics


This post isn’t meant to teach you what ethics are or tell you what ethical choices to make. You really need to decide for yourself what you find morally acceptable and what code of ethics to live by. Hopefully this post has made you think a little more about the choices you make as part of your job and how ethics come into play with many of those choices.

As designers we have responsibilities to a lot of people and often our choices have to put our responsibility to one over our responsibility to another. These aren’t easy choices to make at times and again only you can make these choices for yourself.

I think ethics become easier when we’ve put in time thinking about them before we’re confronted with having to choose. If I can get you to think about some of the issues you may face before you’re actually faced with having to make a decision I’ll consider this post a success.

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    • We definitely should be acting ethically as humans. I do think designers have a different set of ethics to consider though, the same as any profession would have their own special set of ethical issues to consider.

  1. Interesting post, I especially like the way you’re encouraging people to think about the way their work will impact other people indirectly.

    When we started our company one of the earliest problems we tackled were ethics and our responsibilities, we’ve found that this has in turn directed many of our business decisions and in lots of ways made them easier.

    Also I can live with myself knowing I do the best for other people and for myself.

    • Thanks Guy. You know thinking about the people we indirectly impact isn’t something that gets talked about all that often, but I think it’s something we should be considering. We impact a lot more people than we realize.

      Interesting that defining your ethics and responsibilities helped business decisions. It makes sense that they would.

  2. If we consider ourselves professionals, then we should be ethical in the way we practice our profession. People will respect you not for your profession but how you deal with them in your line of work.

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