Stay true to your business ethics

ReputationalCompliance March 23, 2012 0

By DEIDRE M. BASTIAN

DO you have good business ethics? Would you take on a client whose business was ethically appalling? How far would you stretch the truth to help a client sell their products or services? How far would you go in your promises to win a client?

Each of the above are ethical questions graphic/web designers struggle with daily. Since ethics should be an important factor in all business decisions, I thought it would be interesting to mull over this topic. But really, how much do ethics affect a design practice? Or perhaps I should ask: “Are you operating with any ethics at all?”

Truly, ethics is flat out black and white: Either you are ethical or you are not. We can’t say: “I only murdered him a little” or “I am half way pregnant”. I’m sure you’d agree that it is ethically wrong to take another human being’s life. Perhaps, on the rarest of occasions, we might see it as acceptable if it is done in self-defense. But what about stealing? Is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed a starving child? It may now be logical to say that situations arise that often conflict with our ethics.

Ethics are not easy. I believe reasoning should be used for each situation to determine what takes precedence. Sometimes I feel that ethical norms are so ubiquitous that I am tempted to regard them as simple common sense. But, in the most basic terms, business ethics boils down to knowing the difference between right and wrong, and choosing to do what is right.

As human beings, we seem prone to failing personal ethics tests, which may be the only luxury some people are choosing to live without. Many people believe that embracing ethics would limit their options, opportunities and their very ability to succeed in business. For instance, is there much time to worry about world hunger when you are building a business? That’s not to say entrepreneurs cannot be socially minded on a lesser scale.

However, despite ethics being a subjective issue for most professions, the line is very thin for designers, as they face ethical dilemmas as well. Earlier, I discussed with a friend about how ethics are often malleable, and how decisions made are most often based on the current situation.

For example, if you are anti -smoking, would you take on Marlboro as a design client? Lee Newham, a branding expert, gave this answer: “If I was financially secure, and if I felt strongly about it, no I would not, but if I needed the money, I would think about it but within reason.” Do you think the design of a cigarette pack can really encourage people to smoke, or that it encourages long-time, veteran smokers to buy different cigarette brands?

There is a deeper confusion, as I can’t help but believe that ethics is never a business, social or political issue. It is always persona,l like pressure, pride, priority and power. Unfortunately for many people, having power is like drinking salt water. The more they drink, the thirstier they become.

But let’s not lose the flame. Consider these questions: When ethics and responsibilities conflict, how do you make a choice? Do ethics become easier when we’ve put in time thinking about them before we’re confronted with having to choose?

I recall my design ethics being challenged once while helping a company out. We actually built up a great relationship, but this happened when I was asked to do a job that contained an advert for an ‘adult’ store, which I did not wish to be associated with. Thus, I politely told them that I would be unable to comply, followed by a specified reason.

They respected my frankness, and said it was not a problem. They still wanted to continue working with me. The lesson here is that the easy road is not always the right one, and I was happy I did not compromise my integrity. But realise that designing is a delicate career, and sometimes freelancers are thrown into compromising situations.

I suppose I would turn down anything that may inhibit the growth of mankind or breakdown a community. I recall chatting with a colleague last week, who said he declined to design a church website because it wasn’t promoting or sharing the same doctrine as his church beliefs. Again, where should the line be drawn? I think this is a very important question, as obviously there are personal factors to consider. Here are a few ethical considerations designers should consider, especially when communicating with clients.

* Taking advantage of Clients: Any Designer who has been in business long enough has dealt with nightmare clients. The ones that are never satisfied or can never make up their minds. However, there are a few who are not aggressive and never complain, and we call them ‘dream clients’.

The downside is that this can also make it very tempting for unethical designers to take advantage of their goodwill. Nevertheless, designers should always honour whatever was agreed upon in their contract. And if for some reason the agreement cannot be met, then it is only ethical to refer the client to another designer.

Overcharging: Most clients have no idea what goes into a design project, so they do not know whether designers spent an hour or 10 hours on it. This could make it easy for clients to be over-charged more than the usual hourly rate. Hence, clients that receive a bill that’s 20 per cent higher than expected are not going to be very happy.

Disclosure of Terms: It is important that designers disclose all terms in a contract. This means everything from payments and incurring extra charges, to who owns the rights to work created.

Ownership of Source Files: This is probably one of the murkiest areas of design ethics. Should you turn over the source files to your clients when you have completed a project? While designers may have made it clear that the client owns the designs, what about their files? After all, most clients don’t need (and won’t have any idea what to do with) their PSD files anyway.

The ethical thing to do after receiving full payment is to deliver all files to the client, unless it was spelt-out otherwise in a contract. This is credible, as the client may decide to have another designer update their design in the future.

Copying another’s Design: This is a hot button topic. A client produces some examples of sites they wish to copy and, after one or two rounds of revisions, the designer realises they actually wanted the identical to their competitor.

There are two kinds of clients who makes this request: The clueless one, who is having a difficult time understanding why it is wrong to use someone else’s design, and the breed that understands it is blatantly wrong, but still demands it anyway. Agreed, it is fine to use some elements from another’s site, but duplicating an entire site is a no, no.

The truth is that doing the right thing often leads to the greatest financial, social and personal rewards. This should encourage designers to speak out if something opposes their principles. Being a conduit for integrity, I believe that “it’s better to light a candle and let integrity rule”. By all accounts, people who continually attempt to test the edge of ethics are inevitably destined to one day fall over it. Until we meet again, fill your life with memories rather than regrets. Have fun and stay on top of your game!

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