On Being an Ethical Designer

I started my own business because I wanted to do good work for good people. This was a notable contrast to my role at an ad agency where I had little to no control over which assignments came my way. I hated having to work for brands that didn’t align with my values—things like big pharma, packaged junk food and headache-inducing air fresheners weren’t products that I wanted to promote.

I thought that if I could just work for brands that are contributing positively to people and the planet, then I could become the ethical designer that I aspired to be. Surely working independently would empower me to pick and choose my clients more carefully, and my scruples about advertising would give way to a warm sense of self-satisfaction that I was doing more good than harm.

Now that I’m five plus years into running my business, I’ve learned that being an ethical designer is about much more than my or my clients’ front-facing mission statements. You don’t have to be selling organic, gluten-free, secret-to-a-healthy-life elixirs to be doing good. In fact, you don’t have to be selling anything all that special or unique to add value to the world.

When clients and designers come together, how we treat each other in the process of attaining our goals is at least as important as the end result. In some cases, it’s more important.

Good brands need to maintain integrity in all aspects of their business. While that shouldn’t sound radical to anyone, it’s not always easy to treat others the way we want to be treated ourselves. The stress of timelines, the challenge of communicating abstract ideas and personality clashes can all test our best intentions. Even in tough times, it’s important to maintain a base level of respect.

Here are some general guidelines that define what being an ethical designer means to me.

Communicate honestly and fairly
Good communication is the foundation of any positive relationship. I try to invest the time I need to make sure my clients feel heard. If someone asks for too much, I articulate my boundaries rather than ignoring the tension. I avoid ghosting on people because it doesn’t take that much time to send a brief, polite email.

Pay people what they deserve
When I quote projects, I think through the value that I can bring, how long something will take and, of course, the client’s budget. This means that there’s not much wiggle room, and I’m rarely able to offer discounts without reducing the scope of the work.

When I hire developers, copywriters and others, I pay them what they ask for. If a client has a set budget, I share that information up front. Also, I do research to make sure someone is really right for the job before I ask for a quote. I understand the desire to comparison shop, but these are people, not speakers on Amazon, and I don’t want to waste their time or mine.

We all want the best person for the job, not just whoever offers the lowest price. Experience, reliability and good communication all add tremendous value to a project, and I’m happy to pay more for these qualities.

Don’t undercut other designers
It’s true that there are some—not many, but some—crappy designers out there. And there’s a small chance you might come across one of them. And I try to keep this in mind whenever I meet a client who comes to me because they’re unhappy with a previous designer’s work and want an improvement. But this is often a red flag. Was it really the designer’s fault for not “getting it right,” or was the client unable to commit to a direction and provide constructive feedback? While I accept that the former could be true, the latter tends to be true more often.

I never agree to jump into a project that another designer is working on, simply because I wouldn’t like it if someone did that to me. This would undermine the agreement that a fellow designer made with their client. It would also encourage the bad behavior of not trusting the creative process and treating professionals like they’re disposable.

Give people a consistently high quality product
I try to add value to each project by proposing unique and well-crafted design solutions. Occasionally, low budgets, time crunches and disengaged clients tempt me to take short cuts with the work that I deliver. This might mean rehashing an old idea or sourcing a stock image instead of trying to create something original. I always regret these maneuvers because it feels lazy and potentially mediocre.

Instead of cutting corners, I identify the factors in the early stages of a project that might force me to compromise on quality. I prefer turning down the job instead of making a false promise. This is crucial for maintaining my reputation, but more important, it’s respectful to my clients who rightfully expect thoughtful, custom work.

Encourage efficiency and transparency
I believe in providing a straightforward, clearly defined service. I don’t believe in hours of strategy sessions, long pitch decks or millions of mood boards. Although defining your goals and position is important, I try to avoid getting lost in time-sucking abstractions. I’d rather get straight to work, and I’ve found this simple process works best: we talk about what you envision, I develop concepts around that vision and then we refine until we’re both happy. Experimenting in the context of real design deliverables tends to produce results that clients can actually use.

I hope that my transparency inspires clients to offer similarly honest products and services to their customers, because we all need more value and less fluff.

Share what you’ve learned
If you haven’t guessed by now, I love helping people do better work. Sometimes this means sharing a resource or a contact. Other times, this means giving advice to newer designers. It also means modeling the kind of behavior I want to see in others, being generous with my energy and trusting that this effort will make the spheres we operate in more decent.