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Code of ethics

I am first and foremost a human being

Before I'm a designer, I'm a human being. Like every other human being on the planet, I am part of the social contract. We share a planet. By choosing to be a designer I'm choosing to impact the people who come in contact with my work, I can either help or hurt them with my actions. The effect of what I put into the fabric of society will always be a key consideration in my work.

Every human being on this planet is obligated to do our best to leave this planet in better shape than we found it. Designers don’t get to opt out.

If I ever do work that depends on a need for income disparity or class distinctions to succeed I'll be failing my job as a citizen, and therefore as a designer.

I am responsible for the work I put into the world

Design is a discipline of action. I am responsible for what I put into the world. And while it is certainly impossible to predict how any of my work may be used, it shouldn’t be a surprise when work that is meant to hurt someone fulfills its mission. We cannot be surprised when a gun we designed kills someone. We cannot be surprised when a database we designed to catalog immigrants gets those immigrants deported. When we knowingly produce work that is intended to harm, we are abdicating our responsibility. When we ignorantly produce work that harms others because we didn’t consider the full ramifications of that work, we are doubly guilty.

The work I bring into the world is my legacy. It will outlive me. And it will speak for me.

I value impact over form

We need to fear the consequences of our work more than we love the cleverness of our ideas.

Design does not exist in a vacuum. Society is the biggest system we can impact and everything I do is a part of that system, good and bad. Ultimately we must judge the value of our work based on that impact, rather than any aesthetic considerations. An object that is designed to harm people cannot be said to be well-designed, no matter how aesthetically pleasing it might be, because to design it well is to design it to harm others. Nothing a totalitarian regime designs is well-designed because it has been designed by a totalitarian regime.

I owe the people who hire me not just my labor, but my counsel

When I am hired to design something, I am hired for my expertise. My job is not just to produce that work but to evaluate the impact of that work. My job is to relay the impact of that work to my client or employer. And should that impact be negative, it is my job to relay that to my client along with a way, if possible, to eliminate the negative impact of the work. If it’s impossible to eliminate the negative impact of the work, it’s my job to stop it from seeing the light of day. In other words, I'm not hired to just dig a ditch, but to evaluate the economic, sociological, and ecological impact of that ditch. If the ditch fails those tests, it’s my job to destroy the shovels.

I use my expertise in the service of others without being a servant. Saying no is a design skill. Asking why is a design skill. Rolling our eyes is not. Asking ourselves why we are making something is an infinitely better question than asking ourselves whether we can make it.

I welcome criticism

No code of ethics should protect my work from criticism, be it from clients, the public, or other designers. Instead, I encourage criticism in order to create better work in the future. If my work is so fragile that it can’t withstand criticism it shouldn’t exist. The time to kick the tires on my work comes before those tires hit the road. And be open to that criticism coming from anywhere.

The role of criticism, when given appropriately, is to evaluate and improve work. Criticism is a gift. It makes good work better. It keeps bad work from seeing the light of day.

Criticism should be asked for and welcomed at every step of the design process. I can’t fix a cake once it’s been baked. But I can increase the chances my project is successful by getting feedback early and often. It’s my responsibility to ask for criticism.

I strive to know my audience

Design is the intentional solution to a problem within a set of constraints. To know whether I'm properly solving those problems I need to meet the people who are having them. And if I am part of a team, my team should strive to reflect those people. The more a team can reflect the audience it is solving for, the more thoroughly it can solve those problems. That team can come at a problem from different points-of-view, from different backgrounds, from different sets of needs and experiences. A team with a single point of view will never understand the constraints they need to design for as well as a team with multiple points of view.

What about empathy? Empathy is a pretty word for exclusion. If you want to know how women would use something you’re designing get a woman on the team that’s designing it.

I don't believe in edge cases

When I decide who I'm designing for, I'm making an implicit statement about who I'm not designing for. For years we referred to people who weren’t crucial to our products’ success as “edge cases”. We were marginalizing people. And we were making a decision that there were people in the world whose problems weren’t worth solving.

Facebook now claims to have two billion users. 1% of two billion people, which most products would consider an edge case, is twenty million people. Those are the people at the margins.

“When you call something an edge case, you’re really just defining the limits of what you care about.” — Eric Meyer. These are the trans people who get caught on the edges of “real names” projects. These are the single moms who get caught on the edges of “both parents must sign” permission slips. These are the elderly immigrants who show up to vote and can’t get ballots in their native tongues.

They are not edge cases. They are human beings, and we owe them our best work.

I am part of a professional community

I am part of a professional community and the way I do my job and handle myself professionally affects everyone in that community. If I am dishonest with a client or employer, the designer behind me will pay the price. If I work for free, the designer behind me will be expected to do the same. If I do not hold my ground on doing bad work, the designer behind me will have to work twice as hard to make up for it.

While a designer has an ethical obligation to earn a living to the best of their abilities and opportunities, doing it at the expense of others who share the craft is a disservice to us all. I'll never throw another designer under the bus to advance my own agenda. This includes public redesigns of someone else’s work, spec work, unsolicited work, and plagiarism.

I welcome a diverse and competitive field

Throughout my entire career, I seek to learn. That means confronting what I do not know. That means listening to other people’s experiences. That means welcoming and encouraging people who come from diverse backgrounds and cultures. That means making space at the table for people who society has historically kept down. We must make space for traditionally marginalized voices to be heard in the profession. Diversity leads to better outcomes and solutions. Diversity leads to better design.

I try to keep my ego in check, to know when to shut up and listen, to be aware of my own biases and welcome having them checked, and fight to make room for those who have been silenced.

I take time for self-reflection

No one wakes up one day designing to throw their ethics out the window. It happens slowly, one slippery slope at a time. It’s a series of small decisions that might even seem fine at the time, and before you know it you’re designing filtering UI for the Walmart online gun shop.

I take time for self-reflection every few months. I evaluate the decisions I’ve made recently to know whether I'm staying true to who I am.

My job is a choice. I will do my best to do it right.

Based in Mike Monteiro's "The Designer’s Code of Ethics".