Code of ethics

Unlike other professions, for example medicine, law or architecture, graphic design does not have a singular code of ethics to govern the actions of its participants.

A code of ethics would relate to employers, employees and fellow professionals, as outlined by Oliver Bothwell (n.d.) and would help to improve integrity within the profession.

Why a code would help

Primarily a code would intend to evoke a sense of responsibility within the graphic designer. The responsibility of the graphic designer is intrinsically linked to the ethics of design. One common joke amongst designers; “bad graphic designer never killed anyone” (Newark, 2002, p.6) demonstrates the lack of understanding of graphic design’s power.

As demonstrated through the case studies, anomalies lie in what graphic designers are willing to produce and what is beneficial to consumers, clients and society.

Existing codes

A code of ethics, applicable and enforceable to all, is not present in graphic design. Several codes for graphic design are in existence, however not widely distributed or enforced. Similarly codes for other professional bodies (for example Advertising Standards Association -ASA- and Press Complaints Committee – PCC) influence the field of graphic design, yet a graphic designer is not singularly answerable to them.

Official codes

Official codes are defined here as those provided by professional associations. In general they cover ethical issues relating to multiple areas, however the focus of this website remains with the graphic designer’s moral responsibility, towards society and the public.

The greatest problem with code(s) of ethics in enforcing ethical practices is that it is unnecessary to belong to an accredited body to practice graphic design. Furthermore, as the codes only apply to members of the association, first it must seem favourable to join for the designer to subject themselves to the code.

Within his dissertation, Bothwell (n.d.) discusses the difference between architects joining the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and graphic designers of no professional body.

As architects are required to fulfil RIBA qualifications in order to register with the Architects Registration Board (ARB) most then continue to become chartered with the RIBA. While Bothwell questions if there is stigma associated to failing to join the RIBA, it should also be considered that as the term ‘architect’ is legally protected there is a higher perceived level of professionalism, which can be endorsed by association with the RIBA (RIBA, 2011).

American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA)

Designers following the AIGA Standards of Professional Practice ( are identified in the designer directory. The code covers the designer’s responsibility to clients, to other designers, fees, publicity, authorship, responsibility to the public, society and the environment. Paul Nini (2004) discusses the code provided by the AIGA alongside other available resource, and the integration into practice.

Being the oldest professional body for graphic design the code developed by the AIGA holds significant place in developing a code for the UK, and worldwide (AIGA, 2013).

Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA)

Similar to the AIGA, the AGDA is the Australia professional design body, founded in 1988 (AGDA, 2013). Their code of ethics is intended to provide “internationally accepted standards of professional ethics and conduct” (AGDA, 2013a).

Most importantly the code again outlines the designer’s responsibility their clients, the community and other designers.

Chartered Society of Designers (CSD)

The Chartered Society of Designers is the professional body for designers available to those practising in the UK, while being the largest body worldwide (CSD, 2009). Designers accredited through CSD are required to follow the CSD Code of conduct.

The code primarily concerns itself with the ethical conduct of business, and not the moral ethics associated with design, however as it is the only UK option it is considered for comparison.

Unofficial codes

Professionals and students alike have attempted to draft their own codes, assumedly in the belief they would become commonplace.

David Berman

David Berman, upon selling his successful design agency in 2000, pursued a path of sustainability and solution through graphic design (Berman, 2009).

“Why must we take responsibility? Because we can” (David Berman, 2009, p.100)

In his text “Do Good: How Designers can change the World” (2009, p.146) Berman presents the “Do Good Pledge”, a small ethical code intended to establish ethical activism within the designer.

The Do Good Pledge

  • Immediacy: The time to commit is now.
  • Ethics: I will be true to my profession
  • Principles: I will be true to myself
  • Effort: I will spend at least 10% of my professional time helping repair the world

The Do Good Pledge offers a simple opportunity to designers, one able to be moulded to the requirements and constrictions of the individual. Willing designers can even take the pledge online:

The wide ranging code initiates the designer into ethically focused design.

Ethics for the Starving Designer

Ethics for the Starving Designer begun as a student project undertaken by David Goh (2012) in August 2011. Goh identified the importance of an ethical code, taking responsibility and acting in an appropriate and ethical manner. Furthermore within his thesis Goh discusses the impossibility of forming an all-encompassing rigid code, and instead developed a petition aiming to provide a flexible framework, adaptive dependent on resources and the availability of work.

Ethics for the Starving Designer does not present the definitive code of ethics for graphic design, and accepts the realities of the current economy and that mistakes are made.

The pledge and code offered by Ethics for the Starving Designer is the widest reaching, incorporating literature from David Berman, Lucienne Roberts and Milton Glaser, key figures in the development of ethical design.

The Design Activist’s Handbook – Noah Scalin and Michelle Taute

The design activist’s handbook does not strictly fall into the category of ethical codes, as the title suggests it is instead a handbook for operating in a socially conscientious manner. The handbook discusses and provides options for those working in business environment as well as the independent designer.
Within the book itself checklists provide the designer with quantifiable measures to assess their ethics.

  • A Personal Checklist for Working with a Brand by Daniel Green, Green Bay, WI
  • First, the brand must do no harm. Personal responsibility by the user has to be factored in here to a reasonable degree.
  • The brand must be honest. If branding is about creating a relationship with the customer, dishonesty will ultimately betray and ruin that relationship.
  • The brand keeps its promises. A brand is often defined as a promise, so if the promise is broken, so is the brand.
  • The brand must never exploit–people or places–either in its production, its promotion, or its use.
  • The brand must take responsibility. Mistakes or blunders do happen. Does the brand own up?
  • Final litmus test: How eager would I be to wear the brand on my clothes when among friends and family?

While these are admirable qualities to search for in a brand, it feels a little impossible to achieve. As discussed in the case studies, major brands are responsible for exploitation, manipulation and other immoral actions. However, in an economy of limited opportunity, should the designer pass up the opportunity to work with all brands which ‘fail’ the checklist. Furthermore, as discussed in the background research, if one designer does not accept a commission, another potentially worse will.

“No one understands the powerful mechanism behind these manipulations better than design professionals, and we have the creativity and persuasiveness to make a positive change. We must act, be heard… and sometimes simply say no by designing a better yes” (Berman, D., 2009, pp.147-149).

 Success / failure of existing codes

One of the greatest problems with codes of ethics, is as they are not legally enforceable. A code of ethics provides a framework for the ethical designer to follow, therefore the challenge is making designers aware of the importance of ethical design. In all cases, the designer must first be aware of their responsibility and influence in their profession, before considering following a code of ethics. As a result, it seems hard to believe a code of ethics would ever affect truly unethical designers.

Until the profession of graphic design within the UK (and indeed worldwide) finds a single credible body to follow and allows it to regulate, as with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), it is impossible to rely on a code of ethics to govern the practice of designers.

Go to next section: Education of ethics

AGDA, 2013. About AGDA. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13th April 2013].

AGDA, 2013a. Code of Ethics. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13th April 2013].

AIGA, 2013. About AIGA. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13th April 2013].

Berman, D., 2009. Do Good: How Graphic Designers can change the World. San Francisco: Peachpit Press.

Bothwell, O., n.d. Would graphic design benefit from a code of practice? BA. London College of Communication.

CSD, 2009. The authoritative body for professional practice. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13th April 2013].

Goh, D., 2012. Process. [online] Ethics for the Starving Designer. Available at: [Accessed 13th April 2013].

Newark, Q., 2002. What is graphic design? Switzerland: RotoVision SA.

Nini, P., 2004. In search of ethics in graphic design. [online] AIGA, 16th August. Available at: [Accessed 13th April 2013].

RIBA, 2011. Becoming an architect. [online] Royal Institute of British Architects. Available at: [Accessed 13th April 2013].


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