Dysfunctional Codes of Ethics

The most conspicuous examples of design profession ethical codes are found in the large organizations. The most conspicuous of these in North America come from AIGA and GDC. It is important to note that these instruments are very much institutional codes of ethics. This is to say that one of the primary functions of these documents is to describe AIGA- or GDC-specific strictures as opposed to merely being professional strictures. This distinction is important and telling.

That said, there are yet grave problems with these instruments that stem from less-than-acute thinking and primary attention paid to activist motivations at the expense of professional motivations. As a result these codes of ethics lack integrity, as they are filled with indefinable terms, vacuous and unenforceable standards, contradictions, and immoral ideals.

From AIGA's Standards of Professional Practice:

2.1: Designers in pursuit of business opportunities should support fair and open competition.

One wonders what the definition of “support” would be as it is used here. One can only guess at whose definition of “fair” is implied and there is no definition of “open” hinted at, either. This is a mushy, ill-defined, unenforceable provision.

2.4: A professional designer shall be objective and balanced in criticizing another designer's work and shall not denigrate the work or reputation of a fellow designer.

The word “balanced” renders this provision inarticulate and unenforceable. In many cases, one would be obliged to make up positive things to include in a criticism to “balance” the negative components. Lying is not a professional trait.

6.1: A professional designer shall avoid projects that will result in harm to the public.

Define “harm.” Define “the public.” What some may consider harm, others may consider assistance. Does “the public” include all people? If not, what segment of all people is to be defined as “the public” in this provision? How does this provision work when something functions to harm one segment of “the public” while helping another segment?

7.1: A professional designer, while engaged in the practice or instruction of design, shall not knowingly do or fail to do anything that constitutes a deliberate or reckless disregard for the health and safety of the communities in which he or she lives and practices or the privacy of the individuals and businesses therein. A professional designer shall take a responsible role in the visual portrayal of people, the consumption of natural resources, and the protection of animals and the environment.

Define “responsible.” How should AIGA or any design professional know when someone is failing to “take a responsible role” in any of these matters? Despite the vaguely positive idea of being mindful of how one consumes natural resources and “protects animals,” (whatever that means) these issues have nothing at all to do with design professionalism. This otherwise-irrelevant provision (7.1) is an ill-conceived, indefinable, and unenforceable nod toward social activism. It is an attempt at emotionally guided ideals at the expense of actually definable ideals.

7.2: A professional designer is encouraged to contribute five percent of his or her time to projects in the public good—projects that serve society and improve the human experience.

“The public good” is wholly indefinable (despite the mushy attempt at defining it here). History and every discrete example of provisions for “the public good” show that such things may be preserved only at the expense of individual liberty. It should not be the purpose of a professional organization to work to impose tyranny upon the smallest of minorities: the individual. As to the meat of this provision, altruism is neither a professional trait nor a component of ethics. This provision is wholly concerned with social activism at the expense of rational integrity.

7.4: A professional designer shall not knowingly accept instructions from a client or employer that involve infringement of another person's or group's human rights or property rights without permission of such other person or group, or consciously act in any manner involving any such infringement.

Groups cannot have “human rights.” Rights are reserved only for individuals. Group rights can only result from the destruction of individual rights.

7.7: A professional designer shall strive to understand and support the principles of free speech, freedom of assembly, and access to an open marketplace of ideas and shall act accordingly.

This provision contradicts components of others in this list of supposed standards. Define “support.” According to whose definition might one be said to not “support” such things? Define “access to an open marketplace of ideas.” The addition of “and shall act accordingly” provides yet another dimension of indefinable, unenforceable quality to this wholly meaningless, contradictory provision.

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The Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct for Graphic Designers (.pdf) from the GDC is a far better instrument due to thoughtful wording and better-defined standards, yet it still suffers from some of the same issues of undefined terms and the dangerous premise of assuming that groups have rights.

I will refrain here from itemizing the (far fewer) errors in the GDC document. Perhaps armed with critical thinking and an ideal of integrity in mind you might enjoy going through it yourself to see if you can spot the problems.


In response to the lack of any workable and morally consistent ethical code for designers, I've created the Code of Professional Conduct. I encourage design professionals to read, consider, and then publicly proclaim their support and adherence to it.