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Ethical Guide to Design

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Incorporating representation without appropriating communities. Internal page.

Jessica Oddi

This is a free resource written by Jessica Oddi. Please attribute her when sharing with others. No payment is required, but PayPal Tips are always appreciated!

This document contains general advice on adding ethics to our design practices. It has questions to ask before getting involved with projects. This is from my experience with inclusion as a freelance graphic designer.

Being disabled, I understand there are intersectional aspects within communities. There are privileges that I have within my own spaces. It is important to note this guide is through the lens of a white woman’s perspective.

Accountability is a necessity in the ethical practice of representation. We must be able to learn and grow beyond our own experiences. If you find harmful or misguided information in this document, please get in touch. I am more than happy to revise the content of this guide.

adding diversity to our work

At the base level we should add diversity to our work, photography or illustrations. It is our job as designers to bring visual identities to businesses. We are responsible for the lens in which companies [large or small] provide the masses.

We need to ask: if clients are not open to include those who are under-represented, should we accept the work? Some of these groups include: BIPOC [Black, Indigenous People of Colour], Latin, Asian, Jewish, 2SLGBTQIA+ and Queer. As well as those discriminated against based on their religion, class, gender, sexuality, body size, age, and disability.

The short answer is no. Even with “target audiences”, there is no reason why our work cannot be inclusive. This isn’t simply to “check the diversity box”, but to represent the society we live in… Which last time I checked, includes members of under-represented groups.

Within our own work we can show support. Art is expression. We need to incorporate those values into our creations. But we must not overshadow the art and culture of a community. This brings questions. How do we know the intent of a diversity project from our clients? Within our work, when does our expression begin to harm the very group we are trying to support?

when to not work on projects

We all have privilege. Diverse design is good. But working on projects for a community we are not part of is wrong. True support lies in our ability to move aside and give the opportunity to others. But how do we know when to decline work?

We must question the intent of a project. Whether it be one of our own creations or requested by a client. The following are a few internal questions to ask. Please note I've used these throughout the years. It is only a suggested place to begin. Research every project and the community it intends to represent.

before accepting a project

  • What is the business model and values of the company? What is their stance on equity as a business, and what are they doing to support those claims?
  • What is the purpose or intent? Is this a “diversity box check”? Or is it going to provide a valuable resource to the community?
  • Do they have representatives of that community? Do they plan to hire and compensate members of that community? If the answer is no, it is unethical to take on the project.
  • Is this work better for someone else? If no one from that community is present in the project you're asked to work on, it's a red flag. We must step down so designers from that community can take on the work.
  • Where are the proceeds going? If it is for profit, there needs to be transparency in where the money is going. This includes finding out who will be profiting.

before starting a personal project

  • What is the intent? Are you a member of the group or showing support? Does the message behind the project hurt that or other groups? Are you considering intersectionality?
  • Have you consulted with that community? It is easy to misrepresent a group you’re not part of. Misinformation is harmful to those you are advocating for [whether accidental or not]. If you are a member of the community, have you considered perspectives beyond your own?
  • Would the work be better suited for someone in the community? Why take away the work from skillful members of spaces you're not part of? Instead of creating something, hire someone to work with.
  • Will you be profiting off this project? Profiting includes financial and self-promotion. As well as exposure or personal gain. If you are benefiting from this project in any way it is probably unethical. Especially if it doesn't help members from that community. Remember, no one wants your saviour complex!

Still have questions? Accountability in our involvement with equitable work is crucial. It ensures a project is ethical. If a project promotes equity, diversity or awareness, we need to remember:

when in doubt

Consult: Reach out to communities before starting a project. Research and educate yourself. Collaborate: Work with not for these spaces. Make sure a project is intersectional. Credit: Tag and support the people involved, or those who inspired you. Pay people for their labour, and promote their work!


Republished and revised October 2023. Revised August 2020 for plain text. Originally written June 2020. Thanks Jess Avolio, Karli Drew, Shantel Allen, and Walter Henry, for helping me with this.

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