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The Professional Designer's Work Ethic: 10 Commandments

Kevin Whipps April 16, 2024 · 9 min read

I’ve done a lot of reading about ethics and standards recently, and it got me thinking about how they apply to designers. We all come from different places, and along the way we form opinions on all sorts of things. We also make mistakes, sometimes taking jobs that may compromise our ethics a touch, just for the cash. I think instead we should form a system of beliefs and stick to them. Which is exactly what I did here. I put together 10 of the things that I believe should be a part of a designer’s work ethic. Ten. That’s a good number. Maybe we should call them the 10 Commandments of Ethical Designers? I don’t know, we can work on the title. But in the meantime, just read the list.

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I shall not steal.

I know, Good artists copy; great artists steal. I’ve heard it all before. But there is a difference between stealing elements of a work as inspiration, and stealing it from whole cloth. We get our inspiration from everywhere, and sometimes it’s easy to see someone else’s design and think, “Man, if only I could do it like that person did.” If you sell that idea as your own, you’re stealing. And that’s the line you don’t cross. Now look: mistakes happen. I’ve designed something I thought was my own only to find out that I was inspired by a pin on Pinterest or something. And when I came to that realization, I apologized profusely and stopped working with the design entirely. But if you don’t make that call, you’re the one in the wrong.

I will deliver items on time.

I hate being late. I say this knowing full well that I’ve turned in work at midnight the night it is due – and even been late a time or twelve. But I will freely admit that this is unprofessional. I should have my deliverables done with more than enough time, which would then give my clients enough time to do their job. But this comes down to respect, something I’ll touch upon later. You want to treat your clients with respect, and, in turn, you should get the same back. By taking deadlines seriously, you’re doing just that. And if you do end up in a situation where you are going to be late, give them as much notice as possible.

I will not cause anyone harm because of my designs.

Ever had a crappy chair? A poorly designed chair can wreck your back, as has been the case for me many times before. Someone designed that thing, and because their design doesn’t work for me, it puts me in physical pain. Who wants that? I don’t think people intentionally do poor designs, but I do think that sometimes designing by committee or pushing things past your comfort level can produce crappy results. When there are too many cooks in the kitchen, you get crappy food, and the same applies to design. Don’t let yourself fall into that trap, and if you see something start to go south, speak up. It could be the difference between a quality product and a pain in the back.

I will design for everyone and anyone, not just someone.

The other day I was in a call center, and as I walked through the aisles, I noticed the screen of one of the employees was not only huge – 32-inches, I think – but incredibly zoomed in. I paused, took a closer look and realized that the gentleman in question was visually impaired. I didn’t ask how or why, but what I did notice was that he was able to perform just as well as anyone else, he just did it differently. And because of the way his workstation was laid out, he was able to do so efficiently. Companies like Apple are constantly thinking about accessibility. They want everyone to use their devices, not just those of us that aren’t differently abled. Just take a look at this video of a blind man using his iPhone: Crazy, right? Now you, as a designer, need to think the same way. Whether you’re designing for the web or for the physical world, make sure you think of accessibility for everyone, not just yourself. It’s worth the extra effort.

I will not undersell my value.

I’ve done some work with a client, and almost every time he pitches me a job, he follows it up with, “Too expensive.” Whatever, I brush it off and move on my way. But one day he says, “Have you ever heard of (insert cheap design service site)? I get a ton of revisions over there. Super cool.” OK then. Guess I won’t be working with that guy anytime soon. Good work is not cheap, and cheap work is not good. I’m sure many of the designers selling their work for such low prices are nice people, and I’m sure some do great work. But by selling themselves for low dollar amounts, they’re bringing down the perceived value for the rest of us. It’s why I don’t work for free, and neither should you. Never undersell your value.

I will play well with others.

There’s this guy that I’ve worked with a bunch recently that grates my nerves. He uses phrases like “information transfer” instead of “talk,” and humblebrags about the price of his home. But as much as he makes me want to take a bat to the computer when we do a Skype call, I treat him with respect, just like I want to be treated. It’s the professional thing to do. Playing well with others may seem like a preschooler’s rule, but it applies to adults, too. We’re all going to have people that are tough to work with, but we have to manage. And heck, maybe they think that you’re the difficult one. So make sure to pass around the respect, because it’s important.

I will contribute to the greater good, not promote the worst.

We’re not all destined to create the next iPhone, and our designs may never win any awards. But you can work for companies and people that you feel contribute to the greater good, not promote the worst that humans have to offer. I once interviewed with a company that had a history of doing some very sexist things. It was enough of an issue that I considered turning down any offer that came my way, but none ever did. Then, a few years later, they came back and things had changed. Not only was there new management involved (as it turns out, they had just begun when I interviewed the first time), but they were making sweeping changes to remedy the company’s past. This time when the offer came, I took it. Were things at the company to have gone along the old ways, I would’ve passed. We all have standards, and it’s important to stick with them.

I will treat my clients with respect.

Just like you expect a certain level of respect from your clients, you should give out the same. Why? For the same reasons you should treat people in general with respect: you don’t know their situation. This is a lesson that took me a long time to learn, but when I did, it hit me hard. We, as people, are the product of our life’s experiences. I make the decisions that I make because of the life I’ve led, as do you. So it’s not fair to judge them because you have no idea of where they come from. This is one of those general rules that you should live by regardless of your profession, but considering the antagonistic relationships we can have with our clients, I think it’s worth mentioning.

I will not belittle my colleagues’ work.

Ever talk smack about fellow designers? I know I’ve been guilty of this before, and in hindsight, I think it’s a bad position to have. Going back to our previous thought, it’s important to extend our respect to other people in our profession. After all, they’ve seen their fair share of ups and downs, just like us. We should treat them as comrades in arms, not the competition. I know, it’s fun to talk smack about people sometimes. Heck, I’ve made a career out of it. But it’s not fair to them to judge them unfairly, and who’s to say that you’re as awesome as you think, anyway? Are you so much better than them that you have room to talk smack? Probably not. So don’t.

I will establish my own personal guidelines, and then hold true to them daily.

I played around with the idea of a personal manifesto a few years back, because I was looking for meaning in my own life. I created a short version of one, and it’s something I refer back to quite frequently. It’s a way to make sure that the decisions I make are in line with my personal beliefs, and that I don’t stray too far from that path. You don’t have to call it a manifesto, but I do think we, as designers, should have our own guidelines and stick to them. You can use some of the ones listed here, or, should you feel strongly about another position, use that. But then continue to check in time-to-time with those statements. Adjust them as necessary, and go from there. It’s important to have a stance on things, and then hold true to those beliefs.

Execution is everything.

Now it’s up to you. Take these guidelines as your own and go forth, or make up some of your own. Either way, do something to set some standards for yourself because, in the end, our beliefs are all we have. Stick to them.

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About the Author
Kevin Whipps

Hi! My name is Kevin Whipps, and I'm a writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona. When I'm not working taking pictures of old cars and trucks, I'm either writing articles for Creative Market or hawking stickers at Whipps Sticker Co.

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