Graphic design serves as a filter through which much of our communication is disseminated. Graphic designers find themselves in the unique position of being gatekeepers of information as well as providing a mirror that reflects contemporary culture.

The influence that graphic designers have on how communication is delivered may not always be apparent to them. Often they are embroiled in the details of a project and don’t even realize the impact their work has had or will have until some time has passed and the work is seen in retrospect.

From http://www.ethicsingraphicdesign.org/

Most of the online resources I can find that talk about ethics in graphic design talk about professionalism, responsibilities to client & other designers or legal issues. The AIGA article on Ethics and Social Responsibility mainly discusses these points and barely mentions any responsibility to the audience or society.

I would argue that a designers first responsibility is to the audience, not the client. Your responsibility to the client is often a responsibility to protect their profit, and that can often mean misleading the audience. This isn't only dishonest but can have a much bigger affect on larger society.

So my question is -

Do we have a responsibility, not only our clients but to the audience and society as a whole? Or is our responsibility only to our clients, and they in turn have a responsibility to the audience?

And if so - at what point do the needs of the audience outweigh the needs of the client?

I'm looking for constructive answers backed by research or experience please.

  • WCAG 2.0 has introduced requirements in color contrast and font size, you are obliged to consider visually impaired, at least in the web world. These are legal requirements in a lot of countries Australia/USA most of Europe. Which is a responsibility of the designer and client.
    – Lex
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 17:27

2 Answers 2



As designers we are responsible for the impact our work has on individuals, society, and even the world.

If you've never seen it, I recommend watching this talk from Mike Monteiro. It's called, "How Designers Destroyed the World." It's quite powerful, and he makes some very important points (caution: NSFW language used).

It's a little preachy, but I believe the sentiment is important for designers to share. Some key takeaways:

  • Creation without responsibility breeds destruction.
  • As a designer, you are not a pixel pusher, you are the gate keeper for good design.
  • Good design can have very good real-world repercussions, just as bad design can have severe, real-world repercussions.
  • YOU have the power to pull the plug on something that is a bad idea. Speak up.
  • You are not bigger than the problems you are solving. Ditch the ego.
  • YOU are responsible for the work YOU put out into the world, and YOU are responsible for the effect your work has on the world (as a person, not just as a designer).

At the end of the day, we are putting things out into the world for other humans to consume. To ignore the impact (whether good or bad) your designs may have on your audience and put the onus on the client is irresponsible design.

  • That's a great talk and goes way beyond answering my question. And I don't think it's preachy at all - I think he hits the nail right on the head! :)
    – Cai
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 8:20

Do we have a responsibility, not only our clients but to the audience and society as a whole?

Yes. Just as anyone in any profession does.

And if so - at what point do the needs of the audience outweigh the needs of the client?

It depends.

That's simply not answerable in any concrete manner. It'd be philosophical, at best, and entirely dependent on the particular situation. Everyone is going to have a different perspective on this based on the client, the objectives, the audience, etc combined with the age-old question of "do I have enough money to cover rent this month?"

  • 1
    At times I have to strongly recommend clients to allow hyphenation in their text book. But in the end it's their book – and I would never go so far to just decline doing what they specifically ask. ...I take it philosophically, and show such books to the next client as an example of bad design.
    – Jongware
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 10:17

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