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Considering the Ethics of Graphic Design

All around us there are messages, both obvious and not. On every screen and almost every surface we pass there are images meant to influence ideas and decisions. What do these visual messages have in common? There is a graphic designer behind them.

Working as a graphic designer is not as simple as taking a contract; creating the graphics; sending in deliverables to your client; and then getting paid. There is a great deal of ethics to consider, even before you take that contract. Now more than ever it is important to show great morality when deciphering the true messages we are asked to portray. You have to consider the implications of what you are creating and weigh the consequences it could do if put in the public eye.

“We must continue to be committed to the highest professional and ethical standards as per our professional associations such as the RGD & GDC,” says Ashlea Spitz, “and deeply review any public-facing advertising projects from an ethical perspective.”

The Code of Ethics

The Association of Registered Graphic Designers Code of Ethics has a section dedicated to the responsibility we have as creatives to the communities we live and work in. In it it states that we will not do anything that constitutes a reckless disregard for health and safety, we will not accept contracts that infringe upon human rights or involve the promotion of hatred, discrimination, or exploitation, and that we are to consider the environmental, economic, social, and cultural implications of our work. 

You might think harmful messages are easy to spot, but it doesn’t always appear as obvious as you think. Propaganda is understood as a form of manipulation of public opinion. The semiotic manipulation of signs is the essential characteristic (“Propaganda is a major form of manipulation by symbols” ). Propaganda is a particular type of communication characterized by distorting the representation of reality, and with the proliferation of advertising across all mediums, what we see is not always what the reality is.

Here are some types of propaganda you might encounter:

  1. Appeal to prejudice propaganda – Appealing to a stereotype or prejudice for the benefit of the propagandists
  2. Ad nauseam propaganda – Presenting a message in an overwhelming amount of times so that it is always top of mind. This uses tireless repetition of an idea. An idea, especially a simple slogan, that is repeated enough times, may begin to be taken as the truth. This approach is more effective alongside the propagandist limiting or controlling the media.
  3. Card stacking – Presenting incomplete or incorrect information to paint a narrative
  4. Cherry-picking – Suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of incomplete evidence is the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position while ignoring a significant portion of related and similar cases or data that may contradict that position. Cherry picking may be committed intentionally or unintentionally.
  5. Demonizing the enemy/competitor/opposition – This is a propaganda technique which promotes an idea about the enemy or opposition being a threatening, evil aggressor with only destructive objectives. Demonization is the oldest propaganda technique aimed to inspire hatred toward the enemy or competitor necessary to hurt them more easily, to preserve and mobilize allies and demoralize the opposition
  6. Transfer propaganda technique – To an audience’s positive association to an unrelated concept
  7. Bandwagon – Create a sense of isolation and “FOMO” (aka. fear of missing out), in people who wish they could be part of a certain group. It’s an attempt to persuade the target audience to join in and take the course of action that “everyone else is taking.”
  8. Fear appeals – Scaring people into making the desired decision or taking action
  9. Stereotyping – Appealing to a stereotype, to either enforce or break it
  10. Black-and-white fallacy – Presenting only two choices, with the product or idea being propagated as the better choice. (e.g., “You’re either with us, or against us….”)
  11. Slogans – A slogan is a brief, striking phrase that may include labeling and stereotyping. Although slogans may be enlisted to support reasoned ideas, in practice they tend to act only as emotional appeals, ie. “Stay Safe, and Be Kind.”
  12. Testimonial / Appealing to Authority – Using a celebrity or beloved figure to endorse your message, whether they truly believe in what they are promoting or not. Appeals to authority cite prominent figures to support a position, idea, argument, or course of action

Does that feel like big shoes to fill? Today it is the least we can do when you consider the effects messaging has on society, “Advertising today is not what it was yesterday, or what it will be tomorrow, but as designers; ethics, inclusivity, and accessibility will remain incredibly important.” – Ashlea Spitz, RGD, CGD, M.Ed.

Business + Marketing, Design


Sep 24, 2021


Now more than ever it is important to show great morality when deciphering the true messages we are asked to portray. You have to consider the implications of what you are creating and weigh the harm it could do if put in the public eye.

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