Beyond the Bounds - June 1, 2019
Leave a comment

Reflective Tools and Ethics in Design

By Shadrick Addy & Victoria Gerson

Asgraphic design practices gradually shift beyond traditional boundaries toward inclusive user-centered and user experience research methods, awareness of the ethical implications of our profession has become a necessity and responsibility of design practitioners and educators. This article highlights three graduate studio projects in which the authors investigated the ethical implications of graphic design. Each investigation led to the development of reflective tools that encourage graphic designers to reflect upon personal and collective values to evaluate the cultural and social impact of their work. The authors thereby define ethics as the moral principles or values held or shown by an individual person, as well as the codes of conduct or moral principles recognized in a particular profession, sphere of activity, relationship, or other context (Oxford English Dictionary, 2017).

Ken Garland, Noah Scalin, Elizabeth Resnick and Andrew Shea are among prominent designers, educators, and activists whose work and publications focus on design ethics and social responsibility (McMahon, 2018). David Goh (2012) referred to design responsibility as the ability “to adhere to a design process that involves sufficient research conducted in an ethical manner relative to the scale of the project with considerations for the well-being of society.” Although great strides have been taken to push our profession towards a socially responsible future, ethics in graphic design is still in its infancy (Roberts, 2006). As designers begin to explore new territories, social responsibility should become a core value within their work. Therefore, we encourage designers to view social responsibility as an integral component of our profession, rather than a constraint.

The Ethical Design Canvas

The first investigation addresses the provocation, “How might an ethical standard of practice encourage designers to become aware of the cultural and social implications of their work?” A series of mini-studies and further reflection upon the provocation led to the creation of the Ethical Design Canvas (EDC) and the Cultural Review Framework (CRF). The EDC is a reflective tool that helps designers visualize and align their personal values with their clients’ services to avoid unintended implications of their work. In response to stereotypical African American advertisements discovered during the design of the EDC, we developed the CRF to help facilitate how businesses review culturally sensitive advertisements.

In “Black Designers Missing in Action,” Miller (1987) raised the question, “What is missing in the design industry as a result of so little input from the largest of all American minority groups?” The unique perspective and cultural aptitude of African Americans and other American minority designers make them valuable contributors to design teams. Conversely, the lack of diversity can lead to stereotypical advertisements by businesses seeking to reach minority communities.

In 2011 consumers became outraged over a Dove advertisement (Figure 1) considered to be racist (Knafo, 2011). The stereotypical ad, along with others depicted in the poster below (Figure 2), echoes the sentiments of Miller and raised the questions—were there no black designers involved in the decision making that led to the creation of the advertisement? What could have been done differently had an African American designer been apart of the discussions? These inquiries led to an attempt to recreate the advertisements without the stereotypical representation of African Americans, to show that it is possible to maintain the intended message the company sought to convey to its audiences while designing with a cultural awareness (Figure 3).

Figure 1. Dove advertisement.

Figure 2. Examples of ads with stereotypical messages.

Figure 3. Recreation of the advertisements without stereotypical representation of African Americans.

We are aware that designers outside of a project may more easily notice ethical errors that design teams overlook when rushing to meet a project’s deadline. This understanding led to the creation of the EDC (Figure 4), which could be used by designers to construct an ethical system to serve as a guide from the beginning of a project to completion.

Figure 4. The Ethical Design Canvas

The EDC is inspired by the Flourishing Business Canvas, a set of tools and methods created to support business leaders in their efforts to design organizations that are socially beneficial, environmentally conscious, and financially viable (Flourishing Enterprise Innovation, 2018). The significant differences between the FDC and EDC is the application of each canvas. The FDC is used by business owners seeking to create sustainable enterprises. The EDC encourages designers to become cognizant of the cultural and social impact of their designs, as well as to avoid costly, adverse reactions from their clients, client’s stakeholders, and their communities. Once preliminary business endeavors have been completed, and the client has approved the design brief, the designer refers to the inquiries prompt sheet (Figure 5) to reflect upon a set of questions that relates to a section on the canvas. Each sub-section of the canvas is nested in a more extensive section, enabling the designer to navigate to a broad or specific inquiry as they construct the project’s guidelines. The arrows at the bottom of the canvas indicate that the answer to an inquiry may inform a response to the next or previous section, further emphasizing that design processes are not always linear.

Figure 5. Ethical Design Canvas Inquiries

Because a project is still liable to have controversial errors even if it is developed through an ethical lens, we created the CRF (Figure 6) to help guide the final review process of marketing campaigns before they are published. This framework takes a project through a series of stages in which stakeholders review different elements of the advertisements. The framework also suggests that businesses hire cultural liaisons—individuals that have an in-depth understanding of the company’s target audience and serve as the last line of reviewers before a campaign is published.

Figure 6. Cultural Review Framework

MGD Code of Ethics Workshop

In this section, we present an overview of the process and the development of a workshop formulated in response to Ken Garland’s First Things First manifesto (Soar, 2002) and Meredith Davis’ AIGA Design Futures Trend #4: Core Values Matter (Davis, 2018). The authors worked with the NC State Master of Graphic Design students to develop a code of ethics that expresses the ideas from the Core Values Matter trend. Following the structure and sentiment of Garland’s manifesto, we created a collaborative space for the students to develop a declaration for the future of the graphic design profession.

Market research shows that quality, reliability, and transparency are the core values that help brands build trust amongst their consumers. Because core values matter in shaping people’s attitudes and behavior, design has the potential to be a force for social change (Davis, 2018). In preparation for the workshop, we identified two core themes of importance as described in the Core Values Matter article—the values that businesses and companies must use to gain trust from their consumers, as well as the independent values that designers must cultivate to create ethical work.

We situated the workshop within four domains—designers’ responsibility to their clients, public, society + environment, and fellow designers. The workshop participants split up into four groups with each team assigned to a domain. The facilitators provided three case studies from which the participants chose one to write an analysis of the project’s ethical implications (Figure 7). The project analysis exercise encouraged the teams to consider unintended implications of various design projects and create a foundation upon which they began to develop the MGD Code of ethics.

Figure 7. Teams working together to write an analysis of a chosen case study.

Following the analysis and class discussion, the facilitators provided each team with four prompts—“we will, we won’t, we recognize, and we are responsible.” The prompts provided a framework through which each group could brainstorm statements outlining values, principles, and standards of practice, as related to their assigned domains (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Teams brainstorming statements for each of the four prompts.

We asked each group to come up with statements for each of the four prompts, followed by a group discussion to narrow it down. The groups read their statements to the class for everyone’s approval to finalize the declarations that are included on the MGD Code of ethics manifesto.

Figure 9. A participant writing one of the final sixteen declarations on the manifesto.

Once the students refined and agreed upon the statements, each participant hand wrote one of the final sixteen declarations on the manifesto and recited it in a video (Figures 9&10). Participants’ involvement in formulating the manifesto and video fostered a sense of community, agreement, and understanding among the students

Figure 10. Video of participants reciting the manifesto.

Introducing Core Values into the Classroom

People are no longer passive consumers of information, but active participants in generating the content of their experiences (Davis, 2018). Design classrooms have become active learning environments, and design students can no longer passively receive instructions and be expected to produce meaningful design solutions. Designers must now be taught how to create work that aligns with their own core values.

A designer’s ability to identify their own core values, that can be incorporated into their professional practice, begins in the classroom. Cinthia Wen (2011), writing about design education in the book Just Design, expresses this sentiment:

In the classroom, we engage in active learning, and can use assignments as the premise to provide opportunities for students to engage, research, and concern themselves with world issues. As educators, we can inspire critical thinking and encourage each other to take on the responsibility in balancing the relationship between what designers do commercially, and what designers can do socially to bring about positive impact (p. 147).

Students’ social and cultural aptitude is strengthened by emphasizing that core values matter within design curriculums. Exposing students to a social, political, or environmental issue can instill within them an understanding that such concerns can be addressed by graphic designers. This pedagogical approach can ignite exciting ideas in students and encourage them to pursue solutions for social issues beyond the classroom.

Building upon what was learned through the first two investigations, this final investigation audits an undergraduate sophomore level design course. The investigation utilizes data visualization and mapping to reflect upon and address pain points that are potentially solvable by implementing lessons on core values and ethics within the curriculum. Pain points are a specific problem that a user is experiencing, in this case the users are students and professors.

Visual diagramming gives you the ability to pick, choose, and combine content, allowing you to observe from multiple perspectives. The process of reflection for this class began by mapping out the semester in a calendar format—filling out the calendar with the daily tasks, phases of the design process, and all lectures, demonstrations, and critiques (Figure 11).

Figure 11. Visual mapping of the semester’s curriculum.

The mapping exercise aids in identifying key pain points, phases of the design process, and instructions. For example, unusable materials left after a demonstration on how to use spray adhesive to mount and cut paper on a foam core board, raised concerns on sustainability. If the instructor implemented lessons on conservation within the demonstration, there would not have been wasted material and the students would begin to think about environmental issues. As previously stated in the EDC investigation, a lack of cultural awareness can lead to the creation of negative stereotypical images. This lack of awareness became apparent in class critique when students presented a mobile application that intended to serve a predominantly African American community. The icons for their mobile interface depicted stereotypically white features, eliciting negative feedback from the class and instructors. Lessons on developing design solutions with considerations of your audience could have helped the students avoid the cultural mishap in their work. Reflection on these instances brought attention to the lessons on core values that can address these pain points within the class.

Figure 12. Key for Figure 13.

Figure 13. Circular diagram used to visualize the data.

As projects, classes, and semesters can be seen as a cycle representing continuous reflection and improvement, the circular diagram is used to visualize the data (Figures 12&13). The outermost ring is the visualization of the core values that align with each project, which can be used to identify what lessons can be introduced and where within the existing instructional course materials.

Lessons covering core values do not yet exist within the current projects and a reflective mapping exercise can help pinpoint the places where we can implement ethical principles within the existing curriculum. Design educators can use reflective processes and data visualization to analyze a class they have already taught and use the class analysis as a tool to improve upon and make adjustments to the class curriculum continually. We can actively and intentionally introduce core values by identifying opportunities and inserting subtle changes to already existing instructions.

Final Reflections

Through an analysis of our investigations, we observed that reflection is an essential component of understanding how to implement core values and ethics in graphic design practices. Businesses and entrepreneurs can use the Ethical Design Canvas and Framework to lead their organizations in a socially conscious direction. Through exercises such as the Core Values workshop, designers can use reflective practices to identify their own values and beliefs and implement them in their practice. Design educators can use mapping and visualization to reflect upon their courses and introduce core values within design curriculums. Therefore we conclude that it is imperative to educate designers on how to implement ethical design principles within their work and provide them with the reflective tools and exercises needed to do so.

Shadrick Addy  (MGD ‘19) is a recent graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master of Graphic Design program. He is interested in the relationship between immersive technology and historical narratives.

Victoria Gerson (MGD ‘20) is a Master of Graphic Design Candidate at North Carolina State University. Her current research focuses on community, accessibility, and diversity issues in education and VR.


  • Davis, M. (2018). Core Values Matter. Design Futures Trend.
  • Flourishing Enterprise Innovation – Tools for the Strongly Sustainable Revolution – Financially Rewarding, Socially Beneficial, Environmentally Regenerative. (2018). Retrieved from
  • Goh, D. (2012) In The Pursuit of Ethics (thesis) Retrieved from (Open access)
  • Knafo, S. (2011, July 25). Dove Ad Casts Spotlight On Madison Avenue Racism. Retrieved April 18, 2019, from
  • McMahon B. (2018) Designing Computer Supported Collaborative Conversations (thesis) Retrieved from (Open access)
  • Miller, C. D. (1987). Black designers: Missing in action. Print, 41 (5): 58-65, 136-137.
  • Roberts, L. (2006). Good: An introduction to ethics in graphic design. Lausanne: USA and Canada Watson Guptill.
  • Soar, M. (2002). The First Things First Manifesto and The Politics of Culture Jamming: Towards a Cultural Economy of Graphic Design and Advertising. Cultural Studies, 16(4), 570-592
  • Wen, C. (2011). Doing. In Christopher S. (Ed.) Just Design. ; Socially Conscious Design for Critical Causes (pp. 145-147). F. M. Last Editor (Ed.),  F & W Media, Incorporated.

Leave a Reply