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Ethics FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

As National Ethics Chair, David often fields questions regarding communications design and professional conduct. Here are the most frequently asked questions:

I have received a Request For Proposal from Acme Inc. that requests that applicants must design and provide conceptual campaign materials in their proposal. What should I do?

The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) forbids its members from performing work on “spec”, and discourages non-members from doing the same. You could choose to not respond at all; however, client education may allow you to still compete for the work and will help the industry at large. I suggest you send a letter that says something like:

“We’d love to help you with this challenge, however the professional society which the graphic designers in our firm forbids them from participating in such a competition which demands works be delivered on speculation. They would be in contravention of their professional code of ethics and could lose their accreditation. You’ll find this is so with all graphic designers who are members of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada with whom you are considering working. In addition to this, we have found that conceptual work provided in the absence of the orientation, research, and interaction that is part of our process once retained is usually of little value. Selection of a firm is typically more successful based upon viewing past results and reputation, or by hiring a limited number of firms to proceed with properly-framed conceptual work for a fee.”

Both the GDC and Icograda (the World body for communications design) have published guidelines for competitions (both for award competitions and for competitions for work). These documents are available from our Do Good Design page.

If you know other parties who have been included in the competition for work, you could urge them to send similar letters. In my experience, when a client receives several such letters, they will often change their policy. Meanwhile, you won’t be singled out as a complainer. You may also request that a letter be sent from the president of your local professional association chapter.

I have received a Request For Proposal from Acme Inc. that requests that we assign all moral rights in all the deliverables. I have received another Request For Proposal from ABC Inc. that requests that we waive all moral rights in all the deliverables. What should I do?

Even if you agreed to assign (i.e., transfer) moral rights, such an agreement would not be binding, since moral rights are not transferable. You could point this out to the client at some point, in the interests of client education; however, whether you naively agree to assign them or not will not change the fact that they are unassignable. On the other hand, you can agree to waive moral rights …which means you give up your right to complain if they tinker with what you have created: you would then no longer get to have a legally-binding artistic hissy fit* if they ever make changes to your artwork or compromise its integrity in any other way. Some designers will charge an additional fee to waive moral rights. Waiver of moral rights only occurs if you specifically waive them. *vivid phrasing courtesy Steve Eichler, lawyer and bass player.

What year was the inception of Design Cares? Was it 2001 (the first exhibit?)

After the final draft of the 2000 edition of the GDC Code of Ethics was completed in 1998, there was a feeling of “what’s next?” while we had to wait one year for ratification. Steven Rosenberg of Winnipeg and David Berman of Ottawa came up with the idea of a national social action committee which could focus on action rather than thought. A series of ad hoc discussions morphed into semi-regular online meetings amongst a handful of national executive members. It was in one of these exchanges that Catherine Garden of Calgary came up with the name “Design Cares”.

In 1999, we established the Design Cares Web site (the current Design Cares site is at www.designcares.com), where designers from around the World continue to post examples of their acts of social responsibility, or visit in order to be inspired by those of others.

In 2000, at the suggested of current GDC president Matt Warburton, David Berman started to speak at design conferences and events across the country on the topic of graphic design and social responsibility, spreading the philosophy of Design Cares: “don’t just do good design, do good”.

In 2001, as a response to ongoing questioning of the appropriateness of conventional design award shows balanced with their practical value in raising funds for local chapters, at the GDC AGM in Halifax that year, Peggy Cady of Victoria proposed the Design Cares Exhibit, where work would be judged on its contribution to the community rather than purely on its aesthetic merits. Peggy and Laurie Darrah proceeded to organize the first Design Cares Exhibit and Forum events in November of that year (with support from Adobe Systems Inc and Western Living Magazine). It was a huge success and remains the most impressive Design Cares initiative to date, as the exhibit has now travelled to many countries.

Who are the committee members at the moment and their roles?

As of May 2003, these were the members:
David Berman, FGDC, R.G.D. (national ethics chair, GDC)
Catherine Garden, MGDC of Calgary (past treasurer, GDC)
Cynthia Hoffos, MGDC of Ottawa (national past-president, GDC)
Rob Peters, FGDC of Winnipeg (current president, ICOGRADA)
Steven Rosenberg, FGDC of Winnipeg (chapter president, GDC Manitoba)
Peggy Cady, MGDC of Victoria (national vice-president, GDC)
David Coates, FGDC of Vancouver (past national president, GDC)

If a designer works for and is paid by a company to perform what the GDC defines as spec work, is that designer in breach of the GDC Code of Ethics?

In a situation where a company is overtly performing spec work (e.g., a company takes on a project to design a wordmark that will only be paid for if the client likes it), and a salaried designer is aware of this and participates nonetheless, they are complicit and thus in breach of the GDC Code of Ethics.

Are there plans for future exhibits and international aspirations for Design Cares?

Yes. The existing exhibit is touring, and there is interest in the United States and elsewhere to host the show and/or create similar events. The traveling exhibit consists of 43 posters of the juried exhibit pieces, was shown in Cu
ba and many cities in Canada in 2003, and in Qatar, Slovenia and Hungary in 2004.. It will travel to other Canadian cities and countries this year (see http://www.gdc.net/index.php?news=1&id=47). Sappi Papers has funded the creation of a set of posters, which have been design and printed. The exhibit tour has been endorsed by GDC and Icograda.

Meanwhile, the speaking tour traveled to Europe in 2002 and David has spoken now on the topic in over a dozen countries (see www.davidberman.com/seminars/howlogo.php).

How do I submit work to the Design Cares Web site?

Go to www.designcares.com and choose the option to submit work. Your work is then juried by an editor for appropriateness, before being added to the page.


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Reviewed November 5, 2010

6 Responses to “Ethics FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)”

  1. priya says:

    Great post! Very informative
    Thanks for sharing the brilliant ideas.

  2. Vivek says:


    “The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) forbids its members from performing work on “spec”, and discourages non-members from doing the same.”


    Is it truly ethical for an organisation to control an individual’s choice? “Spec” work is so-called because the creatives pitch design ideas to the client until the client goes for the one they like. How is that any different from what design agencies do on a regular basis? It is the agency’s and the individual’s choice to pitch or not to pitch, but the hard reality is that everyone has to compete in some way to get noticed.

    PS: I’m a designer with over 8 years of experience. I’ve been on both sides of the fence – I started from scratch, learning the basics and building my portfolio from scratch via, you guessed it, spec work aka crowdsourcing. I’ve built a successful freelance career and co-founded my own creative studio, neither of which would have happened without the tips and lessons I learned from the designers on these sites.


    Best wishes,

  3. m. buchanan says:


    I’m employed as a Graphic Design educator at a vocational high school in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
    One of my co-workers is actively encouraging students to participate in work-on-spec. competition sites like 99 Design.

    I am of the strong opinion that businesses and sites such as these are corrosive to our industry as whole. Not to be confused with sites that allow designers to bid on jobs, and then proceed with work once contracted to do so.

    I would like to confirm the GDC’s official position on this sort of activity. Education around this practice, and ethical issues pertaining to the design industry should be a standard component of our curriculum starting at the high school level.

    Thanks in advance for your insight into this.

    • David Berman says:

      Thank you for being in touch.

      The official position of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) on spec work is in alignment with your own, and out of alignment with actively encouraging students to participate in work-for-spec competition sites.

      That position is more robustly presented in our Code of Ethics, as well as both the society’s (and Icograda’s) policies on competitions.

      I’ve assembled some links that will help you go deeper on the Code of Ethics and more specifically the competition rules: please look at the first five links in the Resources section around halfway down this page: http://www.davidberman.com/social/resources/

      Thank you for your diligence!


  4. B says:

    Q. Hiring and spec work

    A question has come up at work in regards to a new designer position we’re hiring for, and I was hoping I would be able to bounce it off of you and get your input. We have a short list of 6 candidates for the position, and it was suggested that we provide them with a hypothetical project to complete over a week and then talk about as part of the interview process. It would be a very simple project and would not be published or used for anything other than a reference to gauge how their skill set fits with what we’re looking for.

    Is this considered spec work? I just wanted to check and see if this is frowned upon in a designer interview process.

    • David Berman says:

      Good question.
      Yes, this is indeed considered spec work.
      So, instead you should pay the finalists to do the hypothetical project.
      However, keeping in mind that you are considering them for hire in a payrolled position, it would be fine to pay them the same hourly rate they would be payrolled at … and so it may not cost that much to find out how well you would work together.

      Does that give you all the clarity you are seeking?


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