TDC Code of Ethics v1.0
Most design students don’t take a class on ethics in design school. I didn’t, and neither have my students (at DAAP). I suppose that wasn’t such big deal until recently. Graphic design wasn’t always known for its consequences.
I remember moments in University when I’d share with my sister, she was studying to be a nurse, the stresses of being a designer. She’d say something like, “what's the problem, it’s not like anybody is going to die?” Point taken. Nobody is going to die because of a logo. But what if the overall brand created encourages unnecessary consumption that contributes toward climate change and the depletion of our earth’s resources? That may sound like a stretch. Yet, it was typography that altered the outcome of a presidential election, which arguably changed the world.
“What if?” followed by a [insert a worst-case scenario] isn’t always welcome during a creative brainstorm. Devil’s advocates are often shunned from blue-sky sessions. Lead with “yes, and,” not “no, but.” I’m guilty of that type of judgement. Though it’s in my nature to think of worst-case scenarios, when I’m designing, I often only think of the best cases. I’m an optimist when it comes to my clients’ potential. Perhaps, that’s because I’m paid to be? It’s in my best interest to not look critically at a client because that might mean I might have to make a difficult decision or have challenging conversation. That’s not something I was taught to do in design school.
My school, like many others, was built upon creative arts programs. Sure, there was critical thinking, but on the whole, the main thrust was aesthetics. If ethics ever did come up, it was usually about whether or not one should design for a gun or cigarette company (easy decisions, in my opinion). What about learning how to say no to a potential client that’s only using design to “infer authority”? Or, how does one navigate a situation where success means more (unnecessary) consumption (say a fast fashion designer or a UX designer for Twitter)? These are hard decisions when you have to weigh them against paying for your groceries and college debt. Design students are not prepared to navigate these dilemmas after graduation.
Thankfully, folks like Mike Monteiro are writing content about the consequences of design, teaching designers of their role as gatekeepers, and proposing professional codes of ethics. I’ve injected this kind of content into my teaching at DAAP and am starting to have more conversations about ethics with the students individually.
Vivianne Castillo (who wrote the forward to Mike’s book, Ruined By Design) suggested in a presentation on YouTube that designers start by writing their own code of ethics. That inspired me to give an extra credit assignment in my User-Centered Design course, where the students are to come up with their own code of ethics by the end of the semester. Along the way, I’ve shared an example from Monteiro's code of ethics before each class.
That’s all fine and great. But I don’t even have my own code of ethics. How can I ask my students to do something that I hadn’t done myself? That question led me to my first take on a code of ethics that is written below. I decided to keep my set simple. It's three points. They’re inspired by Jesus’ temptation by the Devil. Before you discount that source, think about it. It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in the carpenter.
Here we have a human (Jesus of Nazareth) who’s not taken food or drink for several weeks. He’s in a situation of scarcity. In this context, enters the Devil. The Devil makes three attempts to influence Jesus in his position of poverty. In each scenario, the Devil presents the temptation of power. That’s precisely what we as designers face in our contemporary times. We are living in scarcity (college debt, high rent, tons of competition, never information, etc.), and we’re chasing after power so that we don’t have to face our lack. In the case of Jesus, he stuck to a greater narrative of abundance and passed on the Devil’s temptation of power. I think that’s solid ground for a code of ethics.
Trischler Design Co.’s Code of Ethics
One - Don’t turn stones into bread.
Designers have the power to create desire. That’s powerful. Choose how you use that ability wisely. Don’t put lipstick on a pig. Don’t dress a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This applies to non-profit organizations as much as for-profits.
You will have enough money if you say “no” to bad clients.
Two - Gravity will win.
What goes up must come down. It’s a law of nature. Similarly, practices like cutting corners and making distortions are always found out. That’s a rule of life. Don’t test it.
There is always enough time to do the work well.
Three - Don't chase fame.
If only I were a famous designer, then everything would be great. Not! Always keep in mind the motto from Dorothy Sayer’s essay, “Why Work,” and "SERVE THE WORK". Don’t serve anything else; yourself, or the Instagram community, or even the client. If you serve the work, it will be good. You will be satisfied. So will the client. Maybe, then, you’ll become one of the unlucky designers who are famous. Then again, it’s been said that being a famous designer is like being a famous plumber. Remember, famous designers aren’t always good designers. They’re famous designers.
You are enough without the fanfare.
Additionally, check these boxes when possible:
 Have advisors for complicated business and design decisions.
 Have an emergency fund available so you don't have to say yes to bad work.
 Include diverse points-of-view. Everyone has different mental models. Yours is only one perspective. Don’t be afraid to challenge it.
Good luck! It’s in abundance.
1. I borrowed this narrative of design school from Ruined by Design by Mike Monteiro. See chapter on “From Bauhaus to the Courthouse.”
2. I borrowed this quote from a comment made by Jessica Helfand during a round table discussion at DB|BD 2019.
5. Again, borrowing from Jessica Helfand. Buy her book, Design: The Invention of Desire.
7. I think Sagmeister said this.