For some years now, I’ve held myself accountable to a similar code to this, and believe it is my responsibility to act ethically in all of my practices.
I have co-opted this specific wording from Mike Monteiro of Mule Design Studio. I believe and apply every word of this not only to my career as a professional designer, but to my personal life as well.
A designer is first and foremost a human being.
Before I am a designer, I am a human being. Like every other human being on the planet, I am part of the social contract. We share a planet. By choosing to be a designer I am choosing to impact the people who come in contact with my work, I can either help or hurt them with my actions. The effect of what I put into the fabric of society should always be a key consideration in my work. Every human being on this planet is obligated to do our best to leave this planet in better shape than we found it. Designers don’t get to opt out. When you do work that depends on a need for income disparity or class distinctions to succeed you are failing your job as a citizen, and therefore as a designer.
As a designer, I’m responsible for the work I put into the world.
Design is a discipline of action. I am responsible for what I put into the world. It has my name on it. And while it is certainly impossible to predict how any of my work may be used, it shouldn’t be a surprise when work that is meant to hurt someone fulfills its mission. I cannot be surprised when a gun I designed kills someone. I cannot be surprised when a database I designed to catalog immigrants gets those immigrants deported. When I knowingly produce work that is intended to harm, I am abdicating our responsibility. When I ignorantly produce work that harms others because I didn’t consider the full ramifications of that work, we are doubly guilty.
A designer values impact over form.
We need to fear the consequences of our work more than we love the cleverness of our ideas.
Design does not exist in a vacuum. Society is the biggest system we can impact and everything you do is a part of that system, good and bad. Ultimately we must judge the value of our work based on that impact, rather than any aesthetic considerations. An object that is designed to harm people cannot be said to be well-designed, no matter how aesthetically pleasing it might be, because to design it well is to design it to harm others. Nothing a totalitarian regime designs is well-designed because it has been designed by a totalitarian regime.
A designer owes the people who hire them not just their labor, but their counsel.
When I am hired to design something, I am hired for my expertise. My job is not just to produce that work but to evaluate the impact of that work. My job is to relay the impact of that work to my client or employer. And should that impact be negative, it is my job to relay that to my client along with a way, if possible, to eliminate the negative impact of the work. If it’s impossible to eliminate the negative impact of the work, it’s my job to stop it from seeing the light of day. In other words, I’m not hired to just dig a ditch, but to evaluate the economic, sociological, and ecological impact of that ditch. If the ditch fails those tests, it’s my job to destroy the shovels.
A designer uses their expertise in the service of others without being a servant. Saying no is a design skill. Asking why is a design skill. Rolling your eyes is not. Asking ourselves why we are making something is an infinitely better question than asking ourselves whether we can make it.
A designer welcomes criticism.
No code of ethics should protect your work from criticism, be it from clients, the public, or other designers. Instead, you should encourage criticism in order to create better work in the future. If your work is so fragile that it can’t withstand criticism it shouldn’t exist. The time to kick the tires on your work comes before those tires hit the road. And be open to that criticism coming from anywhere.
The role of criticism, when given appropriately, is to evaluate and improve work. Criticism is a gift. It makes good work better. It keeps bad work from seeing the light of day.
Criticism should be asked for and welcomed at every step of the design process. I can’t fix a cake once it’s been baked. But I can increase the chances your project is successful by getting feedback early and often. It’s my responsibility to ask for criticism.
A designer strives to know their audience.
Design is the intentional solution to a problem within a set of constraints. To know whether you are properly solving those problems you need to meet the people who are having them. And if you are part of a team, your team should strive to reflect those people. The more a team can reflect the audience it is solving for, the more thoroughly it can solve those problems. That team can come at a problem from different points-of-view, from different backgrounds, from different sets of needs and experiences. A team with a single point of view will never understand the constraints they need to design for as well as a team with multiple points of view. What about empathy? Empathy is a pretty word for exclusion. If you want to know how women would use something you’re designing get a woman on the team that’s designing it.
A designer does not believe in edge cases.
When you decide who you’re designing for, you’re making an implicit statement about who you’re not designing for. For years I referred to people who weren’t crucial to my products’ success as “edge cases”. I was marginalizing people. And I was making a decision that there were people in the world whose problems weren’t worth solving. These are the trans people who get caught on the edges of “real names” projects. These are the single moms who get caught on the edges of “both parents must sign” permission slips. These are the elderly immigrants who show up to vote and can’t get ballots in their native tongues. They are not edge cases. They are human beings, and I owe them my best work.
A designer is part of a professional community.
You are part of a professional community and the way you do your job and handle yourself professionally affects everyone in that community. Just as a rising tide affects all boats, taking a shit in the pool affects all swimmers. If you are dishonest with a client or employer, the designer behind you will pay the price. If you work for free, the designer behind you will be expected to do the same. If you do not hold your ground on doing bad work, the designer behind you will have to work twice as hard to make up for it.
While a designer has an ethical obligation to earn a living to the best of their abilities and opportunities, doing it at the expense of others who share the craft is a disservice to us all. Never throw another designer under the bus to advance your own agenda. This includes public redesigns of someone else’s work, spec work, unsolicited work, and plagiarism. A designer seeks to build the community, not divide it.
A designer welcomes a diverse and competitive field.
Throughout their entire career, a designer seeks to learn. That means confronting what they do not know. That means listening to other people’s experiences. That means welcoming and encouraging people who come from diverse backgrounds, diverse cultures. That means making space at the table for people who society has historically kept down. We must make space for traditionally marginalized voices to be heard in the profession. Diversity leads to better outcomes and solutions. Diversity leads to better design.
A designer keeps their ego in check, knows when to shut up and listen, is aware of their own biases and welcomes having them checked, and fights to make room for those who have been silenced.
A designer takes time for self-reflection.
No one wakes up one day designing to throw their ethics out the window. It happens slowly, one slippery slope at a time. It’s a series of small decisions that might even seem fine at the time, and before you know it you’re designing filtering UI for the Walmart online gun shop.
Take the time for self-reflection every few months. Evaluate the decisions you’ve made recently. Are you staying true to who you are? Or are you slowly moving your ethical goal posts a few yards at a time with each raise or stock option award?