Threading Ethics in a Design Curriculum

Design students’ learning experiences in college-level curricula play a major role in shaping their careers. The approaches and underlying philosophies to which students are exposed can lead to specific opportunities in the field and help shape their mindsets as practitioners. While studies in traditional design disciplines concerned with products, spaces, and messages are still popular, there is also increasing student and institutional interest in educational programs that address issues of ethics in practice. This situation often presents educators with the challenge of incorporating such issues into existing design curricula.

The author and his faculty colleagues in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University have constructed an approach over several years where ethical concerns have been “threaded” into their programs.(1) Specifically, various issues are addressed over a program’s sequence in a purposeful manner so that students are exposed to potential ethical choices in a variety of contexts. The focus of this chapter is geared toward sharing information concerning this approach primarily with the design education community, though the author hopes that any resulting insights will also be helpful to students and working designers who may wish to apply similar considerations.

What Do We Mean by “Ethical” Design?
The Oxford Dictionaries define “ethics” as “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.”(2) There are, of course, many interpretations of how this definition might be applied to design activities. Typically, design professional societies have framed ethics in the context of responsibilities to both clients and fellow professionals. For instance, the “Standards of professional practice” section of graphic design professional organization AIGA’s online publication Design Business + Ethics(3) includes passages titled “The designer’s responsibility to clients” and “The designer’s responsibility to other designers.” The first covers issues such as confidentiality of client information and potential conflicts of interest by consulting with competing businesses. The second concerns itself with issues related to fair competition among designers, honoring intellectual copyrights of other creators, etc. All of these are, of course, important ongoing issues and have traditionally been included in statements of professional ethics from societies representing multiple design disciplines throughout the world.

In 2004, the author published a piece on the AIGA website titled “In Search of Ethics in Graphic Design,”(4) which sought to prompt an expansion of the organization’s Design Business + Ethics publication to address broader ethical issues. Following is a passage from that piece. Please note that the final three statements below were adapted from codes authored by ICSID, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, now known as the World Design Organization (WDO)(5), and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).(6) Of the many professional codes referenced at that time, these two groups were among the few to include any significant statements concerning responsibilities to the public.

The Designer’s Responsibility to Audience Members and Users:
• Designers must recognize the need to include audience members and users whenever possible in the process of developing effective communications and to act as an advocate for their concerns to the client.
• The Designer’s main concern must be to create communications that are helpful to audiences and users and that meet their needs with dignity and respect. Any communication created by a designer that intentionally misleads or confuses must be viewed as a negative reflection on the profession.
• Designers must not knowingly use information obtained from audience members or users in an unethical manner to produce communications that are unduly manipulative or harmful in their effect.
• Designers must advocate and thoughtfully consider the needs of all potential audiences and users, particularly those with limited abilities such as the elderly and physically challenged.
• Designers must recognize that their work contributes to the well-being of the public, particularly concerning health and safety and must not consciously act in a manner contradictory to this well-being.
• Designers uphold the credibility and dignity of their profession by practicing honest, candid and timely communication and by fostering the free flow of essential information in accord with the public interest.

Since the publication of that piece, significant discussion among the design professions has occurred, and the AIGA Design Business + Ethics publication has been updated to now include passages titled “The designer’s responsibility to the public” and “The designer’s responsibility to society and the environment.” While both entries are somewhat general, they do address important issues and represent an example of a good-faith effort by one professional design society to promote potentially more informed and ethical behavior of its members.

A History of Advocacy for Ethics in Design
Notably, there have been several examples of individuals and groups throughout the history of the modern-day design professions that have promoted their visions of ethical practice. Many of these figures are fairly well documented, and the discussion of each here will be limited. An important early effort is the First Thing First Manifesto(7), published in 1964 by Ken Garland and signed by a group of British graphic designers, photographers, and students. They proposed that their efforts would be better spent on design that would “promote our trade, our education, our culture, and our greater awareness of the world.” They were also critical of the advertising industry that had co-opted designers’ talents to sell trivial things such as “cat food, stomach powders, detergent, hair-restorer, [and] striped toothpaste.” The manifesto was then shared more widely, being published in The Guardian newspaper and other national publications. This effort was also taken up again in 2000 when an updated version appeared in the UK publication Eye (8) and was signed by a large international group of well-known graphic designers.

One of the more controversial individuals who advocated for a more ethical approach was the late industrial designer and educator Victor Papanek, who wrote the following in 1971, in his book Design for the Real World:

“Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second.”(9)

He also suggested a fairly radical model of practice, where designers would devote their efforts mainly to educational and health issues and play a significant role in advancing technologies helpful to those in the developing world. While there has been greater involvement by designers in these areas of practice since that time, much design activity still appears to contribute to consumer culture and over-consumption, as Papanek noted.

Well-known graphic designer Milton Glaser had the following to say about ethical issues, quoted from a 2016 interview with the UK web publication It’s Nice That:

“Your obligation is to the client, and not necessarily the public. In some cases, you’re encouraging people to buy things that they don’t need, or encouraging them to move in a direction that does not serve them. Frequently in advertising — and PR and journalism as well — we have to persuade people to do things that we don’t really believe in and that they don’t really believe in. Should you participate in something that encourages people to do something that is not good for them?”(10)

Glaser appears to have had an ongoing concern with ethical considerations related to design. As one example, in a speech delivered at the AIGA 2002 Voice Conference (11), he noted that “in the new AIGA’s code of ethics, there is a significant amount of useful information about appropriate behavior towards clients and other designers, but not a word about a designer’s relationship to the public.” In fact, it was this statement that prompted the author to propose changes to the AIGA Design Business + Ethics publication as discussed earlier.

Another important figure in defining ethics in design is educator Jorge Frascara, whose 1988 article “Graphic Design: Fine Art or Social Science?” appeared in the journal Design Issues.(12) He urged graphic designers to move beyond issues of visual style and to consider their impact on the public. He proposed the following list of considerations:

Social responsibility in graphic design is a concern for the following:
• The impact of all visual communication on the community and the way its content influences people.
• The impact of all visual communication on the visual environment.
• The need to ensure that communications related to the safety of the community are properly implemented.

While Frascara addresses graphic design specifically in this article, the principles raised apply equally well to other design outcomes such as spaces, products, services, experiences, etc., and seem to suggest a general approach to ethics in design.

Human-centric Research and Ethical Design
If design efforts are to positively impact societies and communities, then efforts to understand people’s needs and aspirations are required. Toward such ends, many of the design disciplines have embraced human-centric research approaches as significant parts of their practices. Today, it is common to see job titles such as “design researcher,” and “user experience researcher,” alongside traditional design position announcements. In fact, a recent web-search of the first term resulted in over 700 related job listings on the LinkedIn professional networking site (13) — a remarkable number for design roles that were uncommon years ago.

The design and innovation firm IDEO was an early adopter of a human-centered approach in design practice and has done much to popularize it through the various writings of the firm’s principals. One such example is the Human-Centered Design Toolkit (14), available as a free download via their website. IDEO’s Jane Fulton Suri (15) is an early pioneer in this area along with the author’s faculty colleague at the Department of Design at The Ohio State University, Elizabeth B.-N. Sanders, Ph.D., one of the first social scientists to work as a design researcher in the 1980s.

Fulton Suri, Sanders, and their various collaborators have also contributed to the development of many of the basic approaches used today in human-centric design research, including listening to what people say, observing what they do, and allowing them to make things to express aspirations for designed outcomes that serve their needs in a better way.(16) Sanders’ book with coauthor Pieter Jan Stappers, Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design (17), is a substantial guide for incorporating participatory design research activities in the design process.

While the human-centric research approach in design has been applied widely in business to develop innovative and effective products, spaces, messages, services, etc., it has also been used increasingly in “social innovation design,” an emerging area of practice. One example of an education program devoted to this area is the MFA in Design for Social Innovation at The School of Visual Arts in New York City, chaired by Cheryl Heller, who states on the program’s website:

“Social Design is the creation of new social conditions — in cities, corporate cultures or communities — resulting in increased creativity, equity, social justice, greater resilience, and a healthy connection to nature. It is relevant to every business, government, city, neighborhood, and individual. It uses systems design, critical thinking, strategy, game mechanics, social movement design, collective leadership, imagination, and beauty to move people to think differently and become more resilient and resourceful themselves.”(18)

This type of practice requires designers to collaborate closely with others from many disciplines — such as individuals typically found in government, nonprofits and NGOs, for-profit businesses, etc. — and the outcomes typically serve a broad spectrum of people. The scales of the problems addressed are often greater than those found in more traditional design projects and can involve a variety of coordinated efforts on many fronts that evolve over time. Some design consultancies also devote a portion of their efforts to this area, such as IDEO’s OpenIDEO (19) web-platform that allows the firm to collaborate with a community of partners on a variety of projects. Social innovation design is a potentially more ambitious and complex undertaking that has drawn great interest from students and younger designers who wish to more positively impact the world through their developing design practices.

Preparing Students for “Ethical” Design Approaches
There are many possibilities for embedding content related to ethical issues in design curricula. At the Department of Design at The Ohio State University, we employ an approach where complementary content areas related to ethics are “threaded” through the various courses in our programs so that they can be strengthened and reinforced over time. Our current undergraduate programs in industrial design, interior design, and visual communication design are also highly interdisciplinary and include significant curricular overlap. There is a strong belief that students in our three programs should have a foundational knowledge of each discipline, and should be comfortable working with each other to create design solutions that successfully integrate products, spaces, messages, etc. There is also a substantial history of teaching human-centric design research courses and then employing those approaches in our studio courses — being, along with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, one of the few US design schools to have consistently integrated this subject in our curricula.(20)

Also, we attempt to enable a shift in mindset with our undergraduate students over their four-year experience in our programs — from thinking that design is mainly about creating an expressive visual form, to understanding that design foremost serves people, and can also be a proactive means to positively impact society. Our course sequences begin with students from the three programs mixed together in all first-year foundations courses. The general concept of “responsibility to others” is introduced to undergraduate students at that point — simply by stressing that there will always be people interpreting, experiencing, and using the things that they create. Projects throughout the curriculum include requirements that students identify those their designs will serve, interact with those people, and incorporate their feedback into the design development process.

Curricular Threads in Our Programs
Students in the three undergraduate programs are again mixed together after the first year and take two courses that are dedicated to human-centric design research, one in the second year, and another in the third year of studies. The first course deals with evaluative research (21) where student teams identify problems that occur in daily life. They often observe people experiencing such issues, and survey them to understand the specifics of what could be improved. Prototype designs are developed, and students then conduct an iterative process, having people evaluate a series of further-refined versions.

The second course focuses on generative research (22), which typically allows stakeholders to contribute fully to design directions. Students often employ participatory, co-design research approaches, working closely with those involved to discover previously unmet needs. They then continue to work to develop design outcomes significantly shaped by the people who will ultimately experience them in use.

Each of the three undergraduate programs also provides discipline-specific course sequences that embed related content areas. For instance, the visual communication design program, in which the author mainly teaches, provides a thread over all four years of study that reinforces content related to the subject of User Experience (UX) Design.(23) Since this area of activity is particularly applicable to industrial design and visual communication design students, we introduce basic UX concepts during foundation studies, when all of the disciplines are mixed together in the courses. From there, the visual communication design program includes increasingly complex UX subject matter over the next three years — mainly through a sequence of media courses that involve designing for digital technologies, and include activities such as developing use scenarios and personas, conducting usability testing, etc.

The main sequence of visual communication design studio courses over years two, three, and four also address a variety of traditional practice activities — such as brand development, information design, packaging, environmental graphic design, etc. The third year also includes a collaborative studio experience where students from the three programs work in teams to develop more ambitious projects that integrate products, messages, spaces, services, etc. In all cases, human-centric research approaches are employed in both commercial and social innovation design contexts, with the goal of better serving those who will experience any designed outcomes. Likewise, a seminar course devoted to a variety of topics related to “designing for social good” exposes students to important readings, theories, and directions surrounding ethical issues. Undergraduate design students then create senior thesis projects in the fourth year, informed by both the seminar course and previous course experiences that have provided a grounding for ethical approaches to their work.

A similar seminar course for graduate students gives them the opportunity to explore potentially more ethical modes of practice than were experienced previously in the profession, and to incorporate those interests in longer-term, master-level research and writing efforts. As our graduate program is interdisciplinary in focus, students are encouraged to pursue academic research to advance issues applicable to all design disciplines — ethical issues being one of many broad topical areas.

Example of Student Projects
Following is an example of a visual communication design student’s senior thesis project, which occurs over two-course experiences in the academic year. The first semester’s course is devoted to identifying a problem area and conducting research with those involved to define a basic project direction. In the second term, the project is developed in detail, documented and exhibited. This student developed a responsive website named Ballot to address low voter turnout in young US adults. By working with this group, he determined that the system must include the ability to register to vote or update one’s registration; nonpartisan information to make informed choices on issues and candidates; a complete checklist of intended voting to take into the ballot; and GPS information on voting location. While not implemented, the project provides a significant model for how voting could be made more convenient for this technology-savvy generation.

Two exploratory projects from graduate students in the previously mentioned seminar course are also shown. The first is a running shoe that combines an easily replaced, eco-friendly sole with a long-lasting, 3D-printed, woven “upper” piece that can be recycled after a considerably longer than normal use-life. The second project addresses young adults that often move from place to place, by proposing a group of “semi-nomadic” furniture pieces (24) (such as the table shown here) that can be easily assembled, disassembled, and at-packed in their original packaging. As with the previous example, these projects have not been implemented, but do represent important future directions.

Ballot responsive website and its four main functions. Designer: Michael Booher.
Eco-friendly running shoe (top). Designer: Erika Braun. Semi-nomadic table (bottom). Designer: David McKenzie.

The programs, courses, subject matters, and ethical concerns that have been described are specific to the curriculum of one academic unit in a US public institution of higher learning. Other types of educational programs exist in other contexts, and those faculty members would undoubtedly make different decisions on how to best integrate such issues into their unique situations and curricula. Regardless, the opportunity to embed ethical issues in design education programs exists and those educators who wish to provide this added dimension of learning to their students should embrace it.

In another piece published on the AIGA website titled “Graphic Design Family Values,” the author noted:

“Being a professional designer means in part that we adopt values that are at the core of how we practice. Our profession is diverse, and there are varying beliefs that are reflected in our education programs. It’s time for us as design educators to make the values of our programs obvious. Our students deserve to know a bit more about the kind of family they’re joining when they embark on their design careers.”(25)

Discussions concerning specific ethical issues to address, and what values to reflect in a curriculum should occur among faculty members so that a planned and cohesive approach can result. As educators, we can help shape our students’ careers beyond the traditional subject matters of professional practices. At its best, design education leads the way to new areas for the profession to explore and develop. Ethics in design is one significant area deserving further consideration by all concerned.

(1) T. J. Newcomb, B. R. Murphy, and J. M. Berkson, “Curricular Threads: Integrated Themes from Introductory to Capstone Courses,” Natural Resources and Environmental Issues 9, no. 29 (2002): 32.

(2) Oxford Dictionaries, “Definition of Ethics in English,” Oxford Dictionaries, accessed March 15, 2018,

(3) AIGA, “Design Business and Ethics,” AIGA, last modified 2009,

(4) Paul Nini, “In Search of Ethics in Graphic Design,” AIGA, August 16, 2004,

(5) World Design Organization, “Code of Professional Ethics,” WDO, n.d.,

(6) International Association of Business Communicators, “Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators,” IABC, last modified 2004,

(7) Victor J. Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005).

(8) Ken Garland, “First Things First Manifesto 2000,” Eye Magazine, 1999,

(9) Ken Garland, “First Things First 1964 Manifesto,” 1964,

(10) Nathalie Olah, “Milton Glaser: We Talk Drawing, Ethics, Shakespeare and Trump with the Graphic Design Legend,” It’s Nice That, May 17, 2016,

(11) Milton Glaser, “This is what I have learned” (Paper presented at Voice: AIGA National Design Conference, New York, March 23, 2002).

(12) Jorge Frascara, “Graphic Design: Fine Art or Social Science?” Design Issues 5, no. 1 (1988): 21–22.

(13) “Design Researcher Jobs,” LinkedIn, accessed March 15, 2018,

(14) “Design Kit: The Human-Centered Design Toolkit,” IDEO, August 31, 2018,

(15) Jane Fulton Suri, “Interview with Jane Fulton Suri, Executive Design Director at IDEO,” DesignBoom, April 25, 2016,

(16) Elizabeth B. N. Sanders, “From User-centered to Participatory Design Approaches,” Design and the Social Sciences: Making Connections, ed. Jorge Frascara (London: Taylor & Francis, 2002).

(17) Elizabeth B. N. Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers, Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design (Amsterdam: BIS, 2014).

(18) School of Visual Arts, “DSI/Social Design,” n.d.,

(19) “Social Impact Powered by Design Thinking,” OpenIDEO, accessed March 15, 2018,

(20) Katherine Bennett and Elizabeth Sanders, “Specialized Research Courses for Design Undergraduates,” IDSA Innovation 33, no. 4 (2014): 40–41.

(21) Liz Sanders, “ON MODELING: An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research,” ACM Interactions 15, no. 6 (2008): 13.

(22) Ibid.

(23) “What is User Experience (UX) Design?” The Interaction Design Foundation, accessed March 15, 2018,

(24) Rain Noe, “‘Nomadic Furniture:’ DIY Designs from the 1970s,” Core77, November 9, 2015,

(25) Paul Nini, “Graphic Design Family Values,” AIGA, last modifed January 27, 2005,

Originally published in Ethics in Design and Communication: Critical Perspectives, Bloomsbury, 2020, pp. 206–215. Laura Scherling, Andrew DeRosa, editors.

Design educator + Professor @ The Ohio State University

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