Design Ethics – What Wouldn’t you design for?

Posted on December 9th, by Andrew Kelsall in Graphic Design. 36 comments

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design ethics sign

Creative Commons Image: Neubie

Way back at University, one of my design tutors was a well-know designer and illustrator. He told me that he once turned down a substantial design contract for a major company because he didn’t agree with their work ethos.

This seemed very strange to me at the time. I thought that if you’re a designer, you would design anything for anyone (within reason) because it’s your job? You need money to pay the bills and spend all your working life with a fully booked diary of work…right?

Below is a list of over 20 designers who have generously shared their thoughts on the matter; all answering the same question: What (or Who) wouldn’t you design for? Some answers are short and others longer, but they all offer valuable insights into this burning question, including my own. Here goes:



I’d have to say that I would definitely consider each project individually. Obviously you hope that every client you take on isn’t some sort of evil corporation, and thankfully so far I’ve not had to turn any clients away due to my personal beliefs or such. For me, there isn’t anything I could pick out and say I’d never design for anybody who was involved in this. At the end of the day I can easily detach my personal beliefs from my work if I needed to.

I think it’s more important for me to keep away from companies who have the wrong idea of what it is that I can do for them. I wouldn’t like to work for a company that would restrict my creativity on a project and be too forceful about doing things their way. Personally I’d be more concerned about how client would handle my ideas and then I would be about any ethical reasons that might hold me back.


David Airey →

The British National Party, because I’m not racist.


Jon Phillips

I’m not one to turn down work, unless my schedule is full, but I can say for sure that I would not design for a hate group or website. I wouldn’t do it for many reasons, the first one being that I don’t want my name associated with those kinds of websites. I’ve worked with companies and people in many industries, form the adult entertainment business to the real estate industry, and every time it’s been a great, professional experience, and I learned a lot. Not sure I could say the same thing about a hate website.


Chris Spooner

I’m afraid my answers are pretty boring and clichéd as I don’t really have any gripes about anything in the world other than the usual ethical no-go areas of terrorism, p**dophilia and animal cruelty (amongst others…!).

So I guess that rules out Bin Laden, Gary Glitter and Yosemite Sam on my potential client list!

Mark Biegel

I turn down work where the client has no respect for the process. In my last example I received a enquiry from my website and the potential client had a small budget. After dealing with him for a little working out what he wanted it came time for the deposit. After asking for a deposit to get started (as usual) , I then missed a call from the client. I promptly called back and said “sorry, I missed your call I was driving”.
The response was “Don’t ever ring me and say sorry, when I call you I expect you to answer! I have 2 other developers who could work for me so your lucky to get my business”

I promptly wished him well with his other developers and informed him that we could not do business together.

The main point, I don’t work with clients who are demanding in an abusive way who think that contracting my skills is the same as hiring me as their employee.

To this day (3 months later) his website is still not started…he must not be having luck with being pushy!

A note to clients, I and many other designers/developers will bend over backwards to help you and give you MORE than you pay for….if you are nice and respectful.



I got a call asking if I could remove text from above a watermark on an existing document and reproduce a blank original document. The project was pitched as if for refining a letterhead that the digital source file had been lost for, or doing a vector tracing of a raster graphic etc. so I asked for more information and that an example be sent to me.

The document turned out to be a police criminal record check for prospective employers… I didn’t accept the job…

Typically speaking though, aside from the obvious stuff like promoting violence, racism, etc. I think the only product I wouldn’t work on would be cigarettes? A bit of personal history their and I would never help promote them.


Karen Mc

Some designers will say that work is work and there really shouldn’t be any distinguishing factors between the kind of projects you take on. However, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I’m a freelancer, so it’s very important to have a good reputation – and building a body of work I can display proudly is a part of that. I think it’s responsible to be socially sensitive as to what you put out there. Probably the most risqué thing I’ve designed was creating some artwork for a TV channel doing a biography on a 50’s pin-up star. Even though some of the pictures I got with the design brief where racy to say the least, I chose to use the more conservative images of her. I didn’t feel conflicted taking on the project as it wasn’t about the pinup industry per se, it was about her as an individual, and her story about how she came to work in the industry. That’s probably as far as I would take it – I don’t think I’d design anything that blatantly glorified extreme p**nography. I think I would also have issues doing work for any company I felt was harming the environment in some way. Excessive violence and racism/ethnocentrism are also areas I would steer clear from. I have no rules though – I consider the impact of each project I take on individually.



A wise man once said, the measurement of success as an artist is the ability to turn down clients who are diametrically opposed to your belief system. I’m not sure who the author of this quote was but I would have to say that this is true of my experience. Never mind the obvious nightmare clients we’ve all encountered since I believe others have already listed them. If a client offers me a retainer and a contract to have a consistent amount of work but his agenda is to distort facts, promote aggression or demean race, sex or creed, then I won’t work with him or her.


Lauren “LaurenMarie” Krause →

The story: I was approached by a colleague one time to design her church’s website. I take my Christian beliefs very seriously and I always screen potential religion-based clients; I don’t want to personally help promote ideas or beliefs that I think are false. It’s not easy to turn down the money, but keeping my conscience clear is far more important to me. Sure, there will be a designer who aligns with the beliefs of the organization or who simply doesn’t mind the religious aspect, but I don’t want to be a part of promoting something I fundamentally disagree with.


Emily LozanoEmily Lozano’s site

When I decided to go freelance I struggled for a little bit with this idea. While there are a few causes or types of people on my blacklist that may change as my views change one steadfast group will remain on my list forever: Cigarette companies. Cigarettes, in my opinion, are nothing more than death sticks and I don’t want any part of that.



I had a client a few years back that wanted to hire me to fix/update certain areas of their site. The problem was that at the same time as I was supposed to be working they had another design firm working on a full redesign of the same site.

Quite a bit of the work I needed to accomplish was based on the other design team implementing their work and then I could make the updates I needed. I ended up turning down the work because there was also a tight deadline involved and I felt too much relied on the other team which I was not familiar with. They also weren’t very responsive when I tried to get in touch.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t work for a client with a separate design team which is working on the exact same website.


Jacob Cass

Deciding whether or not to design for a certain company or product is going to be determined by a number of factors, all of which must be taken into consideration at the time. To be honest, in this context, I couldn’t say who or what I would not design for… there are just so many considerations one must take into account before making a decision.


Brian Pajak |

I would not design advertising for any pseudo scientific products/services. If I create something that promotes a downright scam or even a harmful product then I am an accomplice in ripping people off and I choose not to be a part of it.



As a book designer, my sense of what work would be objectionable is a lot less obvious, since I rather think the whole freedom of speech thing enters. Would I refuse to work on a new version of Mein Kampf, for instance, knowing what it stood for? What about a new Mein Kampf—that is, this generation’s type of book?

I’d like to think so.

Two books I found objectionable, that I simply priced myself way out of league, so I wouldn’t get into an argument that would perhaps turn up in print or online somewhere, and sink me at a pivotal time in my career, were one on violence as a strategy and another on the harm of “wind turbine syndrome”.

I think I’d be way more forthright now, however, and just say I can’t get behind what such books are trying to make a case for and decline in so many words.



As a Christian designer, let’s say that there’s a whole lot of stuff I won’t design for—basically, I won’t promote anything against what is taught in God’s word, the Holy Bible. Apart from this, there’s certain doctrinal beliefs even from other Christians that I won’t design for. I’m more “picky” than most, I reckon.

Yeah, this costs me clients and money, but no amount of money is worth betraying my beliefs or principles.

Recently, I ended up turning down a project that I had already started for a top fashion company here in the UK. Lets just say that at about 20% the way through the project, the client supplied images to be used that showed way too much flesh in my opinion.

Other project categories I have rejected in the past are heavy metal websites, foul mouthed rap artists (I’m not saying I won’t design for rap, but will review lyrical content), Christian-psychotherapy and new-age healing.

I’ve also learned as a designer that working on projects for friends and family can be a real nightmare. About 8 years ago, when I started as a designer, I would work for nothing for them—but would still end up chasing them for feedback. Now, I will quote them (apart from my immediate family). Even at heavily discounted prices, I have learned that they never get back to me as they want it for free. Now, the only free design I do is pro-bono work of my own choosing.


Ryan Scherf

I would never design for any person or company that was expecting me to do spec work for them to decide if they want to hire me or not. You can’t hire a plumbing contractor to come over and do spec work to see if they do good work, so why should hiring a designer be any different?



•  Those who want more than what they are paying you for
•  Those who refuse to give you information (mission statements, business plan, overall vision)
•  Those who want a project way faster than any normal time would allow
•  Those who are late or faulty on their payments

Not a huge list, but those are some definite red flags that pop up. Obviously some of these things you won’t know about until you’ve started a project, but when you see a red flag pop up, it’s time to stop the project and get out of there.


Brian Klepper

I would not design for PETA no matter the amount of money! I love animals and would never harm them, but give me a break. How much money does one have to spend on world wide smear campaigns? They could be spending this money on many other causes that actually save Human Lives.


Andrew Brynjulson

I had to respectfully turn down logo design work for a company/site that celebrated “love of strippers,” to be discreet. I wouldn’t have been able to look my grandma in the eye the next time she asked how work was going.


Daniel Whyte

I would not design for people or companies that have just had work done by other designers that is overly complex, badly designed… and they are raving about how great it is.

Rob Cubbon

The only work I have turned down on ethical grounds involved nudity (not mine, I hasten to add). Not that I’ve got anything against people who would do this – I just thought it was a line I shouldn’t cross.

I’ve yet to be tested by other businesses, organisations or people who I would consider politically unethical. Obviously I wouldn’t work for people with deeply offensive views (eg. the BNP) but it’s difficult to know where I would draw the line politically. And, socially, as well. I’m sure lots of us work for companies who import from the third world. Do I think about what the conditions were like in the factory that produces the product I’m advertising? Not often, I’m afraid.

But I’ve got a list as long as my arm of other people I wouldn’t work for (I’m going to sound really picky here):

• Friends. Friends are a nightmare to work for. They always ask for “mate’s rates” or corner you at a social occasion saying they’re starting up a new business and need a fantastic new logo. The business never takes off and you don’t get paid.
• People who want you to work for no money or less money in lieu of promised future work.
• Ordinary people who want their personal photos Photoshopped in some way. They are terrible at briefing, really picky and you feel bad for charging them.
• Even people who can’t spell and don’t explain what they want properly. It’s always a bad sign.

These people I don’t just refuse to work for I just ask for a ridiculously high price and if that doesn’t get rid of them I’ll feign business.


Well, that’s a real mixed bag of opinions, but there’s one thing in common with the majority of them: we have limits on what or who we design for. Be it for political, ethical, religious or personal reasons, it appears as though we reach a point where we will say “no” to work—at the cost of personal income and potential long-term clients.

I think it’s obvious that most designers won’t design a p**n site for example, but it’s been a real eye-opener to see what other projects creatives won’t work on.

This has been a great article to put together—and the varied responses of all involved in this “poll” have been quite interesting. Thanks again to all who participated in this study, and I hope that anyone who reads it, be they a designer or client who hires creatives, will gain an insight into the issue of ethics in design.

Who or what wouldn’t you design for? Feel free to leave your own thoughts below…

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36 responses to “Design Ethics – What Wouldn’t you design for?”

  1. Hernan Valencia says:

    Thanks for allowing me to comment on this topic. It has been a trying year for me. I live in Las Vegas and as much as I like this city, it’s riddled with people trying to make a quick buck. And that’s ok. But tricking people and falsifying information to exploit others is not something I’d like to associate with. In fact, one of the main reasons I design is to influence people positively. I think this industry has lost sight of itself by focusing on vending and promoting useable products. Designers also communicate ideals, ideas and philosophies, not always revolving around consumerism but awareness.

  2. Rachel says:

    Really interesting post. If I was freelance I would turn down anything to do with alcohol or show women in negative way.

    But even being employed you can find ways not to do work you don’t agree with.

    On the flip side if we did take on something borderline we could influence the direction it took – I’m thinking specifically of the Dove advertising here.

  3. Rob Cubbon says:

    Thanks for inviting me to add my two cents to this, Andrew. A lot of interesting replies from a cross-section of the industry. It seems that a designer may regret doing some work when the result is unsatisfactory, but they never regret turning down work when it conflicts with their conscience.
    .-= Rob Cubbon´s last blog ..First thoughts on the 4 Hour Workweek =-.

  4. Chingy says:

    Very inspiring article! 😀

  5. @Hernan → I really like what you said here:

    …in fact, one of the main reasons I design is to influence people positively

    I feel that sort of ethos sums-up what we, as designers should aspire to. I’ve never been to Las Vagas, so I can’t totally relate to your experiences with the people there, but thanks for sharing—and thanks again for contributing to this article.

    @Rachel → Yes, I’ve seen the advertising and I think it’s great. In a world which constantly promotes unhuman beauty which doesn’t even exist outside Photoshop, Dove has broken free from the common mantra.

    @Rob → I can see where you’re coming from there. I once had to work on a project called “evolution” in a company I once worked for. It wasn’t about monkey-into-man, but about changing landscapes, but it has always played on my conscience ever since, since I’m against the whole concept of evolution. That kind of thing is the reason I’m an independent designer, so I can pick and choose what I’ll work on.

    @Chingy → Cheers, and thank’s to all who contributed and commented 🙂

  6. This is a great post. I can definitely identify with a lot of the designers.

    I myself have turned down 3 clients in the past for ethical reasons. The first was for a tequila bottle design and the second for promotional materials for a bar. The third was for a website on “mail enhancement” pills.

    I turned the first two because I’ve seen the damage alcohol causes. I turned the third job because it would be just uncomfortable.

  7. Very interesting article. I’ve often thought about where I’d draw that line, and my line has changed over the years. I once had a client who wanted me to design a CD cover that was somewhat misogynistic. I ended up doing it but regretted my decision later, so that’s definitely something I wouldn’t do again.

    I used to be a smoker, but even then I didn’t think I could design for a cigarette company. I don’t have anything against smokers, but I’m not sure I could have a clear conscience promoting something so unhealthy. I also won’t design for any anti-choice groups and certain religious organizations.

    Thanks for a very insightful article.

  8. @Ruben → I can see why the third job you mentioned would have been uncomfortable. Even if you agreed with the ethical side of it, I can see why you would stay clear of projects like that.

    @ileenieweenie → I can totally relate to the whole smoking issue. Like you, I have nothing against smokers. If they want to smoke, it’s their choice and have to live with any consequences that arise from the habit. However, I would never play a direct part in promoting them—adding fuel to the fire, mind the pun.

    Thanks both of you for sharing your thoughts…

  9. Nate says:

    Great article. It’s really interesting to get different thought on the matter. At the end, the only thing that matter is getting the work done without feeling ashame or not entirely confortable with it.
    Thanks 🙂

  10. It’s really great to hear people walking away from jobs that at the end of the day are not worth it. Being a young freelance I’ve had to do a lot of these jobs over the years to survive and they really take it out of you. I recently turned down quite a large job which would’ve really assisted in my financial situation as the client was quite aggressive and thought he was God’s gift to this earth – there was no better feeling than telling him I will not work with him.

    The only organizations I’d feel uncomfortable designing for would be anything in the adult industry, religious groups and anything I would like showcasing in my portfolio or showing my family.

  11. Lynne Foster says:

    I agree with Karen Mc Dade, it’s all about your reputation and who you are happy to be associated with.

    We have turned down clients from what we would deem to be ‘seedy occupations’ and which we feel could have a negative effect on our business if we were seen to be endorsing them (by building them an online presence). Not only do we have to consider our own reputation, we also have to think about the designers working on the site – I don’t think they should be exposed to images etc that are ‘icky'(!) or have to work in a situation that could make them uncomfortable.
    .-= Lynne Foster´s last blog ..Bespoke v’s Open Source Content management systems =-.

  12. @Nate → Thanks for your opinion.

    @David → I think that without even the smallest set of principles, the designer just becomes a designing-robot, available to hire at the right price, so it’s great to hear of your own experiences and what you won’t design for.

    @Lynne → I assume your terminology “icky” is quite subjective, but I kind of have an idea about what you mean. Thanks for commenting.

  13. Very enlightening read Andrew. I’d like to think everyone has their limitations, but then again everyone also has a price!
    .-= Antonea Nabors´s last blog ..Ant Does Sydney =-.

  14. This is an interesting topic. The answers are largely driven by personal values and/or how working with a particular client would reflect on the designer’s brand, while some of the responses are also based on the abillity (or inability) to work with a particular type of client.

    Based on the type of clients, I would turn down work (and have done so in the past) for anyone who is rude, disrespectful of the design industry or wanted work on spec.

    Based on personal values and my brand, I would turn down any work which involved exploitation (this includes scams and get rich quick schemes, and I have been approached to work for the latter in the past), cruelty, or harm to others (cigarettes would fall into that last category).

    For me the question to ask myself is: would I be comfortable adding this job to my portfolio, based on who I’m working for?
    .-= Tracey Grady´s last blog ..Why You Should ALWAYS Check the Details … Again! =-.

  15. supertivo says:

    That was an exceptional and inspiring article andrew. It’s nice to see designers determined to protest racist or violence works.

  16. What Wouldn’t you Design for? Opinions from Jacob Cass, Liam McKay, Chris Spooner and Rob Cubbon…

    Would you would design anything for anyone because its your job. Money to pay the bills and spend all your working life with a fully booked diary of work right?…

  17. @Antonea → I don’t think everyone has a price. Most people have limitations, but it’s just where those limitations are that differentiates us.

    @Tracy → It’s great to hear what your own limitations are. Some of mine are also in agreement with your own; Cigarette advertising for example.

    Whilst I am against Spec Work in principle, I work for a long-term client who always pay on time and have plenty of work for me all year round. A couple of times, though, they have asked for an example of how something could look (to present to higher management). This is categorised as spec work, but since this client is neither new or untrusted, and I know I will most likely get the job, I make an exception in this case. However, on 95% of cases, I’m very much with the “no spec” crowd…

    @supertivo → Thanks. Yeah, I think gaining other designers’ opinions on such matters is an advantage to everyone. It helps clients and designers alike make more informed choices; knowing that our opinions and limitations are more wide-spread than we think.

    Thanks again everyone for your input. Appreciated.

  18. Interesting post and I used to have a disclaimer on my site, listing a few “industries” that I would refuse to work for. I can’t remember exactly but I think they were:

    P****graphy sites
    Racist/Hate groups
    Link farms
    Any sites where revenue from advertising was the fundamental reason for it to exist
    Sites with excessive pop-ups

    In addition to this, I have refused several requests from religious groups/churches. I understand that you’re Christian but I fundamentally disagree with religious groups spending considerable amounts of money on a web presence when perhaps charitable work would be more appropriate. Despite my CofE beliefs, I also would not like to be associated with a particular faith in a professional context.

    Oh, and, without exception, I don’t work for free no matter who the client is – “customers” who don’t pay give the all-time worst specifications, are incredibly pushy, want more control at every stage of the design process, want unlimited revisions, are more impatient than paying customers and are basically a pain in the…

  19. Oh yeah, and I completely refuse spec work, no matter what the situation (unless you count a sketch on a piece of paper).

  20. @Luke → I totally understand; even as a Christian, I have also, and will probably do again in the future, turn down work for some Churches. The term “Christian” is thrown around way too much in all the wrong contexts and for many wrong reasons. The reason? ~way too much doctrinal deviation from the Bible. Adversely, thee are aslo plenty of Christian groups and Churches I will design for. Just depends.

    Oh, and, without exception, I don’t work for free no matter who the client is – “customers” who don’t pay give the all-time worst specifications, are incredibly pushy, want more control at every stage of the design process, want unlimited revisions, are more impatient than paying customers and are basically a pain in the…

    I agree with you on this one too. Better not to tell friends or family what you really do for work 😉 —I have often found this when working for “professional friends” in the past.

    Thanks for commenting…

  21. […] the flip side of that coin, it was surprising to read a discussion fellow designer Mark Biegel had with a potential client. After missing a call while driving, Mark […]

  22. Omar says:

    So many great names and people on the list. I agree mostly with Rob Cubbon. Ordinary people are not the best clients. I’ve had people ask me to “teach” them Photoshop/Flash for weekly sessions only to realize they have no understanding of graphic or web design. They want to just jump into the field without realizing I’ve spent years trying to master it, and haven’t even mastered it completely.

    I typically don’t do business with bad spellers either, since it means unprofessional-ism and sloppiness considering every computer comes equipped with some form of spell check.

  23. […] What Wouldn’t you design for? […]

  24. I also find friends the worst people to design for. Strangely they don’t seem to think they need to stick to any business ‘rules’, such as getting back to you on time/at all! They expect better rates and are slow to pay. Nightmare and not worth my time!
    On ethical grounds it would have to be hate or racist groups that I’d mainly avoid, although I’ve never had an issue with it (so far!).

  25. Judy Frary says:

    I’m very glad to see there are more designers out there with a social concious and not just thinking about the money.

    Personally, I wouldn’t design for unhealthy/unethical food companies, particularly if their product is aimed towards children.

  26. @Omar → Spell-checkers don’t catch everything, though, but I know what you’re getting at.

    @Nadja → I know exactly what you mean. Family friends? Worst.”clients”. Ever.

    @Judy → Well, I can agree with that!

    Thanks all for commenting…

  27. says:

    What Wouldn’t you design for? Opinions from Jacob Cass, David Airey, Liam McKay, Chris Spooner and Rob Cubbon | Andrew Kelsall | Creative Designer…

    Would you would design anything for anyone because its your job? This article details the opinions of some top Graphic Designs on the design ethics issue….

  28. Juliana says:

    I would never design for a cigarette company

  29. Ash Menon says:

    One of the first few jobs I got as a freelancer during my college days was to design a logo. The contact was through a mutual friend of my mom’s, and I was excited to begin.

    As I progressed through the project, it became clear to me that hiring me wasn’t about quality, it was about satisfying the manager’s beliefs, of positive discrimination. In one conversation he mentioned that there was another designer that they were considering, work-wise, in comparison to my work, for a separate project. The work quality was about the same, according to them. They then implied that the reason I got the job (and that the other designer didn’t) was because of my race.

    To this day I am not proud of this, and I nearly walked out of the job. But I needed the work, and the portfolio, and I stuck it out. Now in my career, I’d definitely say no to that.

  30. Juliana → Yeah, me too!

    Ash → Thanks for sharing your story on the matter. We all live and learn…

  31. Ryan Murphy says:

    Naturally, as a student, I take on as many jobs paid or unpaid as I can get my hands on. These being primarily from friends, or via friends.

    From the little experience I have of these situations I have found as long as from the outset you make it clear that the relationship in the particular context is proffesional then they tend not to treat it too casually. Of course this differs friend to friend, but if they do mess you around. You should probably question if they are a good friend to you, instead of a good client.

    As for ethical products, I would almost be enticed by slightly taboo industrties, to try and shed some new light onto it. Its very easy to look down on industries, i know i do, but if you were to take a step back and consider any potential pro’s of it, besides the money, then you could find a valuable gap in the market.

    Also it would look far more impressive on a Portfolio if you have work that could potentially transform a ‘negative’ industry.

  32. nido says:

    “I thought that if you’re a designer, you would design anything for anyone (within reason) because it’s your job.”

    This “experiment” kinda died for me the moment you said “(within reason)”… you had your answer already even while you continued to sound shocked…?

    but nonetheless.. I would not design for my cousins… again. They don’t pay.. AT ALL!.. and then they tell all your other cousins you did it for free and worked like a dog.

  33. Leon says:

    Interesting that none of these designers brought up design contests, but I guess that goes without saying. I could relate to a few of them myself.

  34. I wouldn’t design for anyone connected to the production of tobacco products, or betting/gambling as they profit from addiction.

    Also, these new ‘quick day lending’ companies that offer shot term loans with massive interest on the repayments. These are nothing more than legalised loan sharks.

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