The Ethics of Design

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Ethics. We all have them, whether we are directly in tune with them or not. Naturally, our ethics translate into our work, sometimes before we even realize it. That’s why it’s important to maintain awareness of the ethics we exercise in communication design, whether we’re the designers or the client. If we don’t pay attention, our reputations will suffer more than we think.

For clients, although ethical issues are very subjective, there are a few that come up more often than others in the design industry on the client side. In this blog Robotregime, the author outlines a few of them.

Many have to do with the relationship between client and designer. Take RFPs. When sending out RFPs, it’s the client’s responsibility to be as clear and as honest as possible about timeline, precise needs, and budget. If the designers don’t have clarity, they can’t be honest about what they can provide you, based on time and budget. Honesty in RFPs is Step 1 for a successful and respectful relationship.

It’s also about remembering to listen to each other and influence each other in a respectful way. You don’t want to be manipulating your designers into performing what you want them to do even if they are advising against it. For example, something that both client and designer can often overlook are dark patterns. Dark Patterns are the sneaky aspects of websites that dupe people into agreeing to what they didn’t want or ask for in the first place. When you go to sign up for a service and options are automatically checked off for you, that’s a dark pattern. When options are worded confusingly or laid out counter-intuitively (for example, “Check this box if you don’t want to receive subscriptions”), that’s a dark pattern. Sometimes, clients do not realize how unethical these kinds of moves can be, and designers don’t either. However, implementing a dark pattern quickly turns an otherwise regular job into something with questionable moral undertones and a potential reputation-damaging situation.

For designers, being ethical starts with respecting your clients. It doesn’t matter if your client doesn’t even know what Drupal is, nor should anyone care if the client thinks that RBG is the way you say it. Designers are hired in the first place because they have skills that the client doesn’t – just like the client has skills that the designer usually doesn’t have. Also, as designers, it is your responsibility to keep communication at a high. Implementing a decision that you think is correct because your client “was unavailable to approve” will not fly, even if it’s the tiniest change or addition. You may know your craft better than your client, but your client knows what they want better than you do. And in this case, the “customer is always right” principle applies.

The following is relevant to both designers and clients. Before beginning a relationship, you should be clear that your morals and ethics align in regards to the project. If you’re a lumber company, yet the lead designer holds strong environmentalist beliefs, you may not be the best fit for each other. Much like if you’re a builder and your designer disagrees with the development you are implementing, you may need to look elsewhere. No moral belief is right or wrong; it just is, and sometimes, morals do not align between clients and designers. And that is okay.

The money that designers get from a client comes once, but the reputation you get from the work you do lasts forever. Since your name is forever attached, it’s generally not good business to continue to make ideas you disagree with. Is that something you are willing to endure in your career for one client?

In summary, be cautious of the kind of jobs you embark on. Everybody is different, with varying combinations of beliefs and morals, but if those beliefs do not match up, both client and designer are putting themselves at risk of a poor relationship, a lacklustre project, and damage to your respective reputations. Be ethical, and you’ll avoid making poor choices.