Business is cold and ruthless. It’s a dog eat dog world out there, so we’re told. As designers, we operate in a space that businesses of all types must occupy to succeed. To get going, to sustain, to grow.

This means that our skills are widely needed by organisations of all types. From boutique florists to global financial service companies – they all need a designer’s eye, a copywriter’s pen or a programmer’s logic.

Business ethics is a divisive subject, and companies are fundamentally amoral. The primary goal of a for-profit business is to drive value for shareholders, and this means putting things out into the world that can have both positive and negative consequences. These consequences don’t generally matter to the business (unless profit is affected.)

But as designers, profit is not often our primary goal. That’s not to say we’re above such things, or don’t want to make money, but I’m going to suggest the reason that you got into design was not to make bank.

Instead of being profit-led, let’s practice being values-led. As designers, that starts by reshaping the way we practice business, and by asking a few difficult questions…

1. Do my client’s beliefs align with my own?

We’re often told not to mix business with pleasure… but business with politics? Right off the bat it’s important to understand who you are working with and what they stand for. The designer’s relationship with a client is deep and ongoing, so if you can’t develop a rapport based on some common values, it might be difficult to sustain, and be bad for the both of you.

If you can’t develop a rapport with your client based on some common values, it might be difficult to sustain, and be bad for the both of you.

To work out where your client sits on social issues you can take a look at how their business operates in the wild. You can build up a reasonably accurate picture of a person by understanding how they do business, who they do business with, how they treat their employees and customers, and what products or services they offer.

2. How would this design affect me?

Perhaps the greatest strength of a designer is the ability to empathize with people who will ultimately end up using the thing they design. Good design is hard, even for the best of us, and it’s easy to fall back on old habits, or to cave to convention. This is not always the best way, so to truly make design that works for your intended audience you need to put yourself in their mindset (or design alongside them) as frequently as possible. Consider, also, that your user’s mindset is not fixed, and varies according to context and circumstance.

3. Does this work harm anyone?

This is a particularly tricky subject and you’re going to have to step back to look at the bigger social picture. Some years ago I was involved with a business who supplied short term, high interest loans. As a committed junior designer, I wasn’t fully aware of the context in which I was working. I didn’t know that I was operating within a set of parameters that didn’t take into consideration the wider picture. I was doing my job – as I was trained to do – nothing more or nothing less.

I was just doing my job – as I was trained to do – without considering the wider picture.

But short term loans have a checkered reputation, and the people taking them out aren’t necessarily the same people you see on the TV ads. The happy-go-lucky, middle-class types who just need a cash injection to fix their boiler or change the tyre on their car. They are more likely people experiencing significant financial uncertainties.

Few things are objectively good or bad; everything is made up from shades of grey. But if this same opportunity came along today, I know for sure I’d pass.

4. Can this work be misused or abused?

As we discussed in a previous article, the ill-fated Samaritans mental health app Radar was pulled very quickly after launch due to concerns about abuse. In reality, most things that people use can be intentionally misused. We can’t account for every eventuality. Social media can be used to bully and abuse, knives can be used to cause harm and vehicles can be used in acts of terrorism. We are not directly responsible for harm caused by people misusing the things we create, but it’s good practice to consider the range of applications of the work you produce.

We are not directly responsible for harm caused by people misusing the things we create, but it’s good practice to consider the range of applications of the work you produce.

When embarking on a new project designers can be upbeat and optimistic about the outcome. We think of the work we do in its best light, and we often conjure up a mental model of our ideal user. When planning a project it’s often a good idea to develop personas and user stories to help weed out the fringe cases and opportunities for abuse.

5. Does this work make a better world?

Admittedly this question is rather nebulous. And your answer certainly doesn’t need to be an explicit “yes”.

However, by stopping to ask this question at various points in your career, you help to develop a work ethic that discourages you from doing harm.

Like? Share!