6 Ways to Practice Ethical Design

what is good design?

How do you get paid to do good work? This has been a question I’ve been attempting to answer for well over five years.

Just Do It

My first true, go-out-and-do-it attempt was a year and a half ago when I joined a friend to start a public interest design practice.

First off, neither of us had run a business or practice before so we had to quickly learn basic marketing, sales, operations, and management. Second, we wanted to focus on working with ethically-minded people and organizations, who typically aren’t the highest funded. Organizations like IDEO.org, Frog Design, D-Rev, Design Impact, and MASS who were all succeeding were who we aspired to become.

Being in the Bay Area, we were immersed in the risk-taking, startup culture along with progressive social and environmental initiatives. But we also hit roadblocks when trying to ‘sell’ our services to nonprofits who typically have a pro bono mindset (why pay when you can get it for free?) and the lack of money invested in the up-and-coming social enterprise network (newer industry so not a lot of risk-taking.)

Nonetheless, we persevered with making connections with some remarkable people, failing many times, and producing some worthy projects. It wasn’t an easy ride but in the end what I learned along the way was worth the bumps, bruises, and depleting my bank account.

Now I’m in a new city with new people and organizations, and yet I still have the same dream–do good design work with people who need it–and I’m riding high with the SF risk-taking attitude to go out and try again with a bit more experience and direction under my belt.

Say What?

Although there are many organizations practicing ethical design (or one of the terms in the image above), I still find it difficult to explain what it is I do. I’ve talked to many designers who are in a similar situation so I thought I’d share my list of these, shall I say, ‘terms of endearment’ that are inspired by and expanding on Public Interest Design’s glossary.

This is something I would loved to have seen five years ago when I began my journey. Back then I wasn’t aware of how to approach work differently and I thought my options were to find a job in a like-minded organization or continue with volunteer work–all very good options but to me seem limiting in progressing the field.

Fortunately because of the recession, workflows are reorganizing to include more freelancers and consultants based on projects rather than heavily staffing up organizations. Michael Schrage’s recent article ‘Prepare for the New Permanent Temp’ does an excellent job at documenting this shift.

Terms for New Design Practices

Many of these terms below can be combined with the adjectives above, say for instance, ‘social-impact design consultant’ or ‘human-centered design freelancer’, to categorize the type of design. Overall, I want to see what the terms and work styles could be as if the ethical part was inherent.

1] Design Consultant

Inspired by a talk I had with Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Design, this term moves beyond ‘architecture’ and opens up the service as solution-based, which can include a space, program, communication, or organizational role. I see this is more of the ‘problem-solver’ approach where needs-assessment and ‘programming’ are essential.

Work style:

You can work on your own with a multitude of clients or within a practice, preferably a multidisciplinary one.

2] Social Entrepreneur

In San Francisco, we started using this term to align with ideal clients, but then learned that entrepreneurs aren’t always the spendy type. Entrepreneur can be applied to a multitude of professions and the social part categorizes you as having a good purpose. Entrepreneur also puts you in a for-profit mindset, which aligns with my goal.

Work style:

Go it alone and with purpose! I see the entrepreneur as the visionary who forges ahead with an idea and eventually brings in more people (see the next one below.)

3] Social Enterprise

A step up from an entrepreneur, you are running or working within an ethically-focused organization. Again, you are aligned with the social impact scene, but now you’re an established business. This one requires formal business registration where B-Corp could come in handy.

Work style:

Whether it be telecommuting, setting up an office, or coworking, you’ve got a team to work with and pursue initiatives.

4] Design Collective

Since joining a team for IDEO/+Acumen’s HCD course, I’ve met people from different careers trying to employ the same human-centered methods. In fact, the communications designer, ergonomics engineer, and architect (me) all want to use HCD strategies full-time with ethical organizations. Having a collective of designers could be something like a consultancy, but a bit looser.

Work style:

People can work on projects together, solo, and come in and out freely. It could also encompass a workspace where people collaborate and produce amongst each other.

5] Design Nonprofit or Charity

When I heard Heather Fleming from Catapult Design describe all the reasons why they chose to be an design and engineering nonprofit, it made complete sense. It’s easier for nonprofits to work with other nonprofits since funders see this as value-aligned. And the perks! Software for free, tax-deduction incentives, and more. AfH does this, as does Public Architecture, and many for-profit/nonprofit combined practices like Inscape Studio/Publico and SCALE studio/africa. If you’re clients are established nonprofits or are heavily invested in staying within the nonprofit world, then go this route. My hesitation with this one is that I see so much potential with the gap that social impact organizations are trying to fill with for-profit methods.

Work style:

Board of directors is a big plus to obtain guidance, connections, and support. With non-profit in your name, you’re almost immediately seen as a good company so explaining your social mission is easy. However, I’ve heard that setting up as a non-profit in the US can take awhile, so be prepared.

6] Freelance Designer

This one is similar to a design consultant with selecting clients but perhaps is seen as even more solo. ‘Freelance’ is not a new term, but I find that most freelance designers are doing web design and related work.

Work style:

Riding solo means work from home or venturing out to coffee shops and coworking spaces. As I’ve written before, coworking is my favorite option for meeting fellow freelancers. With the growing workforce of temporary positions, I’m sure we’ll see many more workspaces catering to these types of people.

The ‘Who’ in All of This

No matter what you want to call yourself, finding, communicating, and building relationships with your clients is the most important element. Identifying the who will determine how you describe your role and the value you bring to the project.

But how we communicate this is just as important, especially if we’re going to build a community of social impact/ public-interest/ participatory/ socially-responsible designers.

Are you a creative designer employing new ‘terms of endearment’? How do you describe yourself? Does your client determine how you sell yourself? Leave your comment below or email me at katie [at] designaffects [dot] com. I would love to hear how you’re communicating your services and how you’re getting paid to do good work.

On a side note, I’m also in the midst of getting my first interview posted, where we’ll learn about one practice doing good work in Singapore!

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9 Responses to 6 Ways to Practice Ethical Design

  1. Dav Singh says:

    Great article. Just popped over from linkedin (the professional networking platform I still can’t seem to get the most from!)

    I graduated from University after studying Product Design. I too had a similar mindset, however after hundreds of unsuccessful job applications I decided I might as well go it alone.

    I am set up in office space in my family home, it is limited and I schedule meetings in hotel restaurants and coffee shops. This is something which is becoming more of a norm.

    As a self employed…(considering job title) “Design Consultant” I am now pitching my services to include design for manufacture, design for print and web design. I listen to a client’s needs before offering my skills.

    I have found pricing up my services to be somewhat of a challenge. I think this is where self confidence comes into it. Profit is not at the forefront of my mission at the moment, as I live quite a sheltered life. If possible, I try to find ways to involve contacts in my network with the jobs I secure. One example of this is web design. My knowledge is very limited, however I have strong connections with talented coders. It is important to me to work with other people and help them achieve their goals.

    • katie says:

      Thanks, Dav, for sharing your experience! I like your approach with clients in finding about needs before offering up the skills; although, I’d be curious to hear how you talk about and sell your services. Do you use examples? Talk about the process? One piece that I’m working on is explaining the outcome without knowing what exactly the ‘thing’ is.

      • Dav Singh says:

        Sorry for the extremely late reply to your post – I must remember to visit this site more often!

        When offering my services I tend to use examples of my work. This is where my website and social media presence do most of the talking. Having lots of different examples on my facebook page really helps create a buzz and gets my clients thinking about the new opportunities strong design can bring. There are times where I have been hired for a simple flyer design and ended up doing complete re-brand work for clients, purely because they have discovered an item on my page they were currently not using/hadn’t thought about.

        My website is currently set up to act as a portfolio to showcase some of my work, however I aim to develop this in early 2014 to include more about the services I offer and try to get the website to work for me in terms of gaining new customers. There’s always something to work on when you’re self employed, be it for a client or the needs of your business.

        Would be interested to read the article you reference in your previous post – I will have a look for it now. Please feel free to link me to it 🙂

  2. […] on this concept, and shed light on how designers can adhere to their values through taking on six emerging roles within the industry. Crepeau focused on how professional titles like "social […]

  3. […] on this concept, and shed light on how designers can adhere to their values through taking on six emerging roles within the industry. Crepeau focused on how professional titles like "social […]

  4. […] on this concept, and shed light on how designers can adhere to their values through taking on six emerging roles within the industry. Crepeau focused on how professional titles like "social […]

  5. Manu Madan says:

    I am still finishing my course in graphic design, after deciding to take my artistic pursuits to a creative professional level. My business name and card are ready, my home office is set up and I am pretty sure that I want to focus on print, editorial design and branding/corporate identity – logos etc. Clients are the mystery at the moment and I am starting with volunteer work for NFPs and working at cost for people I know or meet. I guess at this stage I am focusing on building that list of happy clients to try and sell my services more proactively further down the line when I graduate.

    This article has been a great read. Thanks

    • Katie says:

      Hi Manu, it sounds like you’re off to a good start! I’ve found that it’s easiest to get up and running by working with people you know, then you can branch out through word of mouth. One tip if you’re doing pro bono work — send them a zero-sum bill at the end of each month showing how much time you spent and the cost of that even if you’re not charging them. This has helped me in showing the value of the services provided, even if they’re not spending a dime. I’ve found that clients appreciate my work more!

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