Ethical Issues in the Graphic Design Business

During our careers, whether as graphic designers, web designers, fashion designers or any other career, we will most likely have to learn about ethics in the workplace.  Ethics do not only play a role in our normal day-to-day activities, such as attending a wedding, tipping our waiters and receiving guests in our home, ethics also are a part of our business life.  There are several ethical issues that can arise in the workplace, no matter the type of work.  Ethical issues are subjects or events that could create questions about what is right and what is wrong.  Even though there are many ethical issues that could rise in all types of jobs, there are also ethical issues that could rise in jobs that are only related to design.

Ethical Issues in Graphic Design

A Graphic Designer, especially a Freelance Graphic Designer, encounters numerous of different people and companies that they will probably do design work for.  However, the graphic designer may or may not agree with what that particular company or individual stands for or wishes to advertise.  This raises a question of right or wrong, an ethical issue, for the designer.  Graphic designers should know from early on in their career who would they not design for and who would they design for, keeping in mind that what a graphic designer creates is a message for an audience.   For example, would you create campaign posters for a politician who approves of abortion; would you create a logo for a rock band that believes in and follows the devil’s teachings; would you create a package design for a company that sells cigarette shaped candy to children; or would you create a website for a pornographic site.  The decision will always be up to the graphic designer and will most likely depend on his or her own morals and belief system.  Ultimately, if a designer does not agree with it, then he or she should not take on the work.

There are several other ethical issues that arise in fields such as advertising.  Since most graphic design products fall under this category, graphic designers would most likely have to face those same ethical issues faced by advertisers and advertising agencies.  For example, a graphic designer could be offered to produce an ad, but then he or she could find out that the information in the ad was a product of false advertising.  False advertising means to promote a feature or characteristic in a product that is in fact not true.  In this case, the designer would also have the choice to produce the ad or simply walk away.

Another big ethical issue that a graphic designer could encounter is the issue of copyright and piracy.  Copyright is the legal right that the creator of a design (or any other work) is granted.  The creator or designer owns the rights to the design.  Just like writers have ‘writer’s block’, graphic designers sometimes also have phases in which they are not particularly creative.  This could lead to using someone else’s work and ‘revamping’ it to seem as though you created the whole thing.  This is an illegal practice called piracy.  Graphic Designers should definitely avoid doing this unless they give full credit to the copyright owner, ask for their permission, or use copyright free images.

Design & Culture

Graphic Designers are usually taught about the technical aspects of the career, the software, the design elements, the design principles, and so forth.  However, graphic design is not only about the creativity and ability to create a ‘pretty’ design.  Graphic design is also about the audience for which the design was created.  Many students, and even teachers, forget the audience.  By doing so, several cultural issues may rise.

Culture is defined as the collection of customs, social behavior, and ideas of a specific group of individuals.  Therefore, what might seem as a successful design here in the United States might seem offensive or even harmful in other countries.  For example, a design that includes a hand giving the “thumbs up” may be appropriate for an American audience, but this sign is considered a rude gesture in some Asian and Islamic countries. A recent animated footage which includes the 2012 Olympics had to be removed from the organization’s website because it was causing epileptic seizures to viewers who suffered from epilepsy.  We must always be careful not to insult offend or harm the viewers of our designs.


7 Responses to Ethical Issues in the Graphic Design Business

  1. Pingback: Interview – From idea to print: A career in Media and Graphic Design « Day in the life of a Busy Gal…

  2. David says:

    Awesome article! Very well written. I’m actually doing a project about ethics in design (it’s my undergraduate project) called “Ethics for the Starving Designer” – one of the key points I’m pursuing is how one can deal with ethics in a manner that is practical to the everyday designer. It’s an ongoing project that should end within the next 4-5 months. 🙂

    Do check it if you’re interested, the URL is . 🙂 I’d love to hear what you have to say!

  3. Pingback: Legal and Ethical Issues in Web Design « Kat Web Design

  4. Liz says:

    Making the Boston marathon bomber look like a rock star for the cover of Rolling Stone, for example, in order to sell product at the expense of gravely injured, still stunned, and even now dead neighbors – this is what unethical graphic design looks like.

    • mwolowicz says:


      Than you for visiting the blog, and thank you for your comment. You are right, that is a great example!


  5. Mustafa says:

    Great Article.

    As a Graphic Designer, the one ethical Issue I will not get involved in is manipulating models’ bodies in photos.

    In advertising, it’s supposed to be the product that’s being promoted, not the model’s body.

    There are countless cases when a girl is made to look “more attractive” even though she already is. So graphic designers are paid to make her breasts look bigger, her waist thinner, limbs longer, plastic-smooth skin etc.
    It’s the same with guys too such as enhanced muscles.

    The formula “sex sells” is overused and louder than ever.

    I am against this because it gives the false expectations of men and women, and it makes members of the audience feel inadequate about their own bodies. This is disastrous because people will strive to have an appearance that doesn’t exist.

    Sadly, there are many graphic designers who will accept money from any company with an immoral method of advertising.

  6. nabuduwa prisca says:

    its really nice infact I was told to talk about ethical issues In design and how they are solved can you please email me some of the solution the ones I have are few thanks

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