On his Dear Design Student blog on Medium, Mike Monteiro, design director at Mule Design, author and speaker, discusses designers and their ethics. He addresses the relationship between doing good work and working for the good. He lays out the idea that ethics are something you can’t compromise on. You can’t design for a “crap” client one moment and then design for a noble cause the next. He makes a very good case for being consistent.
We need to be consistent in character, quality of work and type of work in order to have integrity. Lack of integrity is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is not a good for your brand.
Where ethics begin
Monteiro uses the example of those engineers and designers who developed Grayball (the software utilized by Uber to circumvent the law, as failing an ethics test because they knew their software would be used in deceptive practices. His point is that creatives need to be concerned with how our work will be used.
Montiero advises that ethics begin at home — right with the individual designer, illustrator or photographer. I agree with him. We have opportunities every day to choose between doing right or doing wrong. We decide to help or harm.
If a design project is meant to harm people, is it ethical to work on it? What responsibility does the creative professional have toward the end user? What responsibility does the he or she have to uphold the public good? Do we create for the highest good?
These are the questions Monteiro responds to: How does one do good work? Where does one find good work?
Form, function, and purpose
To a point, good design is more than proper function, ease of use and visual appeal. It’s about how the design benefits others. Who will it help? What are the outcomes? How are people empowered or enabled toward greatness by what you create? What is the creator responsible for, and to whom?
I have a lot of respect for Monteiro as an influencer and game-changer in the design profession. I agree almost whole-heartedly with him that design involves responsibility. For the last decade or so, design responsibility has referred to sustainability, environmentally-friendly materials, low impact structures, ergonomic layouts, easy to use interfaces. But now there’s a shift in the wind of what responsibility means.
In the article, Monteiro pushes into motives. If a designer knows that the project they are working on will be used for some clandestine activity, or for detrimental purposes, or to cause harm, should the designer accept the project? What is the responsibility of the creator toward the end user and the public at large?
We stand on common ground in asking these tough questions and being concerned about the answers.
So what about where I disagree with Monteiro? That lies in what ethics are, and whose ethics we are applying. Therein lies the point of tension.
Monteiro concludes his article by stating that this is no time to be neutral and that non-profits need our help.
Ethics are not all the same
A prospective client asked me to design a Stanford University diploma (true story). I inquired of him what department he was with at Stanford, because I was thinking that only Stanford has the authority to commission the design of a Stanford diploma, right?
But he was asking me to design a diploma with his name on it stating that he had earned a degree from Stanford . When I suggested to him that usually people acquire diplomas by completing a prescribed course of study, he accused me of being one of “those ethical people” and hung up (this was back in the day when hanging included slamming the hand-set onto the cradle with unmistakable force).In his ethics, it was okay to call me out of the blue (he was a referral) and ask me to knock-off a diploma. While he might have been more than happy to pay me a very large creative fee to design a bogus diploma, the diploma would have been a lie.
On another occasion I was approached by representatives of a large non-profit with a high budget for design work. Knowing that the activities of the organization were what I considered unethical, I declined. I didn’t even schedule an initial consultation with their representative. Despite their activities being lawful, I consider them immoral and inhumane. I didn’t tell the rep that, but simply said that I wasn’t able to take on the projects.
So, while the prospect of significantly increasing my income working with this organization was enticing, I could in no way accept the work because I did not agree with their mission and values. I would have not been acting with integrity if I accepted the client.
We independent creatives have the choice of who we work with and what projects to accept. Many of us decide whether or not to work on something based on what we’ll get out of it financially. But there is also a moral and ethical consideration to every project we take on. What is the end result of our creative efforts?
Monteiro states: Designing something without understanding the ramifications of what it does is as unethical as designing something you know to be harmful.
His point is that we need to know what we’re designing. We need to be awake and aware of how our work will impact and influence others.
As creatives in a service industry (design, illustration and photography are service professions) we need to think at a higher level, meaning we need to understand the bigger picture and the results of our creative efforts both good and bad, both now and in the future. We need to ask, “What is the outcome of doing this? What are the ramifications down the road?”
Monteiro states, You cannot afford to be neutral. Right now, more than ever you need to reach down deep into your core, find your ethical strength, and bring it to your day job with you every day.
What’s missing from Mike Monteiro’s argument, in my opinion, is a discussion of what to do when ethics collide. If I’m working with Mike, and our core values don’t line up and we clash in our ethical strengths, what then? If we each reach down deep into our ethical core, pull it out and take it with us to work every day, what happens when we don’t agree on what’s ethical?
Sometimes the most ethical thing you can do — the most stand-up action you can take — is to simply and quietly walk away. Walking away is not a neutral position. Remaining quiet can be the moral high ground for the sake of the people you’re working with. While one can make a case for always standing your ground in any situation, the better road to take is the one that seeks your highest good first, and then theirs. You have to take care of yourself first before you can serve others well. As a freelancer, you choose who you will serve. There’s no obligation to serve anyone whose values don’t align with yours.
There are times to take a stand, and there are times to walk away. To determine between the two takes some smarts and experience. It takes an accurate understanding of the value of the relationship to you and to the person you’re disagreeing with. It takes the ability to look down the road and understand where this thing will lead. Recognize the logical outcomes for everyone concerned. Is it possible to remain and work together to find compromise and common ground? Will this collision become an ongoing problem? Is it better to resign the project right away or to complete the project and then walk?
Decide ahead of time so you can keep your head in the moment
Creative freelancer, as part of your values, consider what you will do in situations where disagreement comes down to ethics and morals. It will happen at some point that you’ll deal with this, whether it’s a client, an associate, a teacher, a friend or family member. These are tough situations and often full of emotion. If you’re prepared, having given it some thought beforehand, you’ll be able to make a good decision in the midst of the debate, and respond with respect. How you respond will influence others.
Always act professionally and with integrity whether or not you agree with someone. Avoid disrespect, name-calling and ad hominem attacks. You may not agree with a person’s ethics, but where there may be common ground, work to find it and invite the other person into it. If you can’t agree together, your best choice may be to part company. Where you can agree, you can move forward together.
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