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The Code of Ethics for designers: Top reasons our clients should care

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Last month I journeyed to Malaysia to help wREGA, the Malaysian national association of communication designers, launch their new Code of Professional Conduct, which we crafted substantially upon the very successful code in use by the Graphic Designers of Canada’s Code of Ethics and RGD’s Rules of Professional Conduct.

It was an awesome event in Kuala Lumpur, the best-attended member event wREGA event ever.

Photo of a crowd of people with right hand raised solemnly in a theatre setting

wREGA president Zachary Ong leads Malaysian designers in swearing in of their Code of Professional Conduct, 3 September 2013, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

At the launch event, perhaps the most dominant questions from designers were around why their clients should care that they now have a code of conduct. So I asked Zachary Ong, president of wREGA, to interview me about this. Here’s the result…the answers are appropriate no matter what country you are in, nor how long you’ve had a code.
Q. So why should our clients care if we have a code of conduct? What’s in it for them?
Perhaps the biggest benefit for clients is that hiring a member of the professional association guarantees them a breadth of minimum standards of behaviour and delivery from their designer. And it’s enforceable: there’s a grievance procedure in place they can trigger if the designer doesn’t uphold the standard.
Q. What’s an example of why a client can rely on you more with a code in place.
Basically, the code is a series of promises you are making. And one section is all about commitments to the client. So, for example, part of the code is that you have to deliver what you start. You can’t walk away from a project halfway through because you realize that you are going to lose money on the project.
Q. Ah. What are some other examples?
They can be confident that you’ll carefully make sure you aren’t infringing on any intellectual property rights. That avoids them legal hassles and costs for them now and perhaps far into the future.
Q. That’s important. And you’ll tell the truth, right?
Yes, in fact you’ll be honest with them, you’ll be honest in the messages you help them deliver to their audiences, and you will be honest in your own promotional literature.
Q. Are you also promising that you’ll give them amazing creative?
No. The code (and those letters after your name) guarantees a minimum level of service… it doesn’t promise them a rock star designer. It does promise them you’ll work hard and follow standard business procedures…which of course increases the chance they’ll get excellent creative and measurable results.
Q. What about confidentiality… keeping their secrets… avoiding conflict of interest?
Yes, the code promises you’ll keep their secrets well… keep their plans and all their confidential information safe (including from the press), until if and when the clients says it’s okay to share it … if ever. And you will also disclose any conflict of interest.
Q. Does the code also help them with cost certainty?
Absolutely. The code makes you promise to clearly set out what your services are going to cost, and how you calculate your fees.
Q. Can the code save them time?
Absolutely. When a client is constructing a Request For Proposal for design work, the document could be half as long if they simply state that only designers that comply with a given code need apply.
Q My client has a corporate social responsibility policy and another has a green policy. Will our code help them with that?
Yes it will. They can proudly declare to the world that they’ve chosen for their project (or perhaps all of their projects) to only work with designers who have made a professional commitment to our code. And our code promises a deep and proud commitment to society and the environment, as strong as any profession (in fact that’s why I got involved in it in the first place!)
Q. Is having a code going to cramp my style as a designer?
Well, it is going to limit some things you can do, but those are the things you shouldn’t be doing anyhow: lying, overcommitting. And in balance, it’s going to open more of what you can do, because your client will be able to trust you more…and so extend more trust, and give you more latitude to be creative, to be strategic, to really make a real difference: whether it’s for the client’s specific business outcomes, or in making a strong society more broadly.
Q. What if my client doesn’t care about hearing about codes?
Whether they care about the fact that there is a code or not, they’ll reap the benefits of what you’ve promised. However, the fact that the code is a public document means that they have a written promise of the minimum standards you must maintain in order to keep putting the letters “RGD” or “wREGA” or whatever after your name.
Q. So that’s all very nice David, but what If my clients do not value the benefits of a code… should practitioners adopt it anyhow?
Look, clearly some clients are going to value it more than others. But as a whole, as an agency or an entire profession, the code will elevate the quality of the practise of design and the strategic outcomes of the design work itself, so over time we’re all going to notice how design is making more of a difference for our clients, and of course that means more design work with better compensation for designers who take the code seriously. Actually it will make things better for all designers, in our country and abroad. Are you convinced yet?
Q. What is best method for me to educate my clients about our code of conduct?
I think the best method is to add the letters after your name, and then when clients ask “What do those letters mean?” you explain that it’s the client’s guarantee that you’ll subscribe to the code.
I also like to include a sentence in our proposals that proclaims that we are members of such and such organization. In fact, we ought to include a link to the code in our proposals and our Web sites. I include a link to it on my Web site, but I should add it to our proposals too. I’m going to go update our master template with that right now! See ya… gotta go!

If you have more questions, tweet me @davidberman? I’ll email you the URL you can link to in your proposals and Web site.

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Reviewed October 10, 2013

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