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Ethics 101 = Professionalism 24/7 … from Canada to Kuala Lumpur

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I’m booking a flight to Kuala Lumpur today because of Canada’s strong tradition of having an ethical code for designers.

If you’re a designer you may not think codes of ethical conduct have much to do with your daily practice. However I find that, day in and day out, following the common codes of our professional associations has pragmatic value for the individual designer as well as long-term value for our profession and our society.

Practising in Ontario, I’m guided by two very similar documents: the Code of Ethics of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada as well as the Rules of Professional Conduct of the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario. However, wherever you are, member or not, following these codes has value.

Initials carry clout

For example, the other day I saved hours of professional time.

In the past, if my firm was asked to compete for a project on spec work we had to engage in a long and painstaking process of explaining to an agitated client in detail why designers must, in solidarity, agree to not work without proper compensation for the good of the profession.

However, in my recent experience, I’ve simply said, “I’d love to bid on your 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 says, “Thank you so much for telling us about that: of course we’ll change that.”

And that’s just one small practical example of why being subscribed to a code of professional conduct isn’t just 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 gathered from selling 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 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, I worked with designers from across the country within the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada to develop a courageous and progressive national code of ethics, standing on the shoulders of inspiring documents from around the world, including GDC’s original Code of Ethics.

We also adapted the GDC Code of Ethics to become the Code of Professional Conduct for the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario. Combined with that certification, abiding by this code became linked to the laws of the land in Ontario: a world first!

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.

Canuck Integrity

Icograda, 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.


By joining a national or regional professional association, 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 personal and public principles and a 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 behaviour, which you make when you join a professional body. Professionalism implies a 24/7 commitment—a recognition that being a designer is part of who you are.

Combined with its Grievance Procedure, GDC’s Code of Ethics raised the level of professionalism for graphic design in Canada, and thus elevates both the perceived and actual value of what designers do.

Spreading The Code

In a month I’m traveling to Malaysia, where on September 3 we’ll be launching the first code of professional conduct for designers of that country … thoroughly based on excellent words crafted here in Canada over a decade ago.

Another case of sharing both the practical and idealistic ideas of Canadians punching above their weight class on the global stage.

The entire world needs this. What else can we do to speed that along?


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Reviewed August 9, 2013

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