Ethics means Professional 24/7

The GDC Code of Ethics saved me a whack of professional time the other day, and its not the first time.

The GDC Code of Ethics saved me a whack of professional time the other day, and its not the first time.

You see it used to be that if we were asked to compete for a project on spec work, we had to engage in a long and often painful process of explaining to the client the whys and hows of that issue. However today, instead I just say “I’d love to bid this RFP. But the way it’s worded would mean I’d lose those fancy letters after my name. Could you please remove this clause? Thank you.” Rather than fighting us on it, the potential client said “Thank you so much for telling us about that: of course.”  And that’s just one small practical example of why being subscribed to a code of professional conduct is good for our civilization: it’s good for your business.                  

For a couple of millennia now, doctors have been taking a pledge. Imagine if, instead of following the Hippocratic Oath, doctors had only focused on the wealth to be had from cosmetic surgery…or shaking down dying people for their entire inheritance in exchange for a remedy that would extend life by a few weeks. Design professionals have also built oaths to provide an ethical path for their practice.

In 1983, the world bodies of the main design disciplines jointly declared that “a designer accepts professional responsibility to act in the best interest of ecology and of the natural environment.”

In the year 2000, the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada adopted a courageous and progressive national code of ethics, standing on the shoulders of inspiring documents from around the world, including their own original Code of Ethics.

I’m proud to say that our resulting code went further than any other code that we were aware of from any profession: it established, by definition, that professionalism includes a commitment to social and environmental responsibility.

Ico-D, the world body for communication design, offers our Canadian model as a benchmark for design associations in other countries seeking to establish their own codes of conduct.

In 2005, AIGA, the world’s largest national association of designers, adopted our language when republishing its own professional standards, then in 2008 translated it for use in design education in China. Also in 2008, GDC members helped Norway adapt the Canadian policy to serve as its first code of ethics for Norwegian graphic designers and illustrators. Meanwhile, design associations around the world have been injecting environmental and social responsibility into their codes, from Ukraine to Australia to Israel to Brazil.

Our GDC has a Code of Ethics that includes a commitment to social responsibility (and many other good things: licensing, authorship, competitions…).

By joining GDC, a designer makes a public professional commitment to abide by a standard of ethical conduct. (Of course, there are many other benefits to joining as well.) A commitment to professional ethics implies a standard of conduct: a combination of your personal and public principles and the personal commitment you make to yourself, in the form of your mission, morals, and beliefs. The professional commitment is a promise to uphold a common set of published standards of behavior, which you make when you join a professional body. Professionalism implies a 24/7 commitment, a recognition that your profession is part of who you are.

Combined with our Grievance Procedure, our Code of Ethics raises the level of professionalism for graphic design in Canada, and thus elevates the perceived and actual value of what designers do.

Highlights from the GDC Code of Ethics:

Responsibility to Society and the Environment

31. A Member, while engaged in the practice or instruction of graphic design, shall not do or fail to do anything that constitutes a deliberate or reckless disregard for the health and safety of the communities in which they live and practise or the privacy of the individuals and businesses therein. Members shall take a responsible role in the visual portrayal of people, the consumption of natural resources, and the protection of animals and the environment.

32. A Member shall not accept instructions from a client or employer that involve infringement of another person’s or group’s human rights or property rights without permission of such other person or group, or consciously act in any manner involving any such infringement.

33. A Member shall not make use of goods or services offered by manufacturers, suppliers or contractors that are accompanied by an obligation that is detrimental to the best interests of his or her client, society or the environment.

34. A Member shall not display a lack of knowledge, skill or judgment or disregard for the public or the environment of a nature or to an extent that demonstrates that the Member is unfit to be a Member of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada.

35. A Member shall not contract directly with the client of his or her client or employer without obtaining the permission of his or her client or employer to do so.


David Berman, CGD, FGDC is a former GDC National Ethics Chair