Ethical Aspects of Your Work as Freelance Graphic Designer

Have you ever wondered if taking up a project might pose an ethical problem to you as a freelance graphic designer? Did you ever consider if using the basic idea of another project is OK for a current project? These are ethical issues we all face – and many freelancers are not really sure what is the right answer, because so far no one has compiled a Code of ethics for independent services suppliers. Certainly, we all use our common sense, but sometimes things are more subtle and complicated and some exterior guidance is necessary.

However, there is no doubt that a good ethical reputation will bring you more clients, will help you build profitable and long lasting relations both with people who hire you and with people who want to collaborate with you. Here are a few questions every graphic designer should ask before starting to work on a new project:

Should I use a basic idea I used before?

If you just use the idea, but develop something original out of it, then it’s OK. Even mother nature uses the same ideas in different things, if it’s a great idea: just see the similarities between the veins of a human hand and the veins of a maple leaf. There is unity in diversity and your talent can produce several original designs starting from the same backbone.

However, there is a difference between going through your swipe file and getting a head start and tweaking an old project here and there and presenting it as original work to a new client. You are not just cheating the client; you are cheating yourself as a creative graphic designer.

Should I get inspired from other designers’ work?

Any graphic designer gets to that moment when he is stumped in a project. It is human and it happens, but your project needs to be completed by the deadline. Looking around through image galleries such as Behance for inspiration for your theme is alright, as long as you do just that: clear your mind of clutter and refresh your creativity and inspiration.

The line between inspiration and plagiarism is thinner than you think. Using the same color palette as another designer, but with your own creative concept is inspiration. Taking a basic design idea and working around it is called plagiarism. For example, many companies use red and yellow in their corporate colors, but only McDonald’s has the golden arches logo.

Should I specialize in a graphic designer niche where there are few clients which are in competition?

Some design niches bring more money than others. However, if you end specializing in a very tight niche, with high earning potential but a small pool of clients, some ethical questions arise. Will you end up doing work for competing clients? When you bid for one project, should you specify that you previously worked for a competitor?

There are instances where the commercial laws oblige a graphic designer to disclose this information. For instance, if the contract you signed with one client specified that for a period of time you must ask for their approval before working for a competitor, you must do so. In other situations, when you still receive royalties from one company, you must disclose this before working with their direct competitor and let them decide whether you are eligible to work for them.

How much of my work can I add to my portfolio and how long after project completion?

Some clients will give a graphic designer full credit for his work and allow him to retain copyright. Other clients will pay you a higher price than the market average so that they become the copyright holders. In this case, you may ask them for permission, but it is entirely up to them whether they grant it or not. In the best situations, they will allow you to include them on your list of clients.

Regarding the timing: if the client is just launching a large rebranding or marketing campaign, you should wait till the campaign is over to add the artwork to your portfolio. Again, communication with the client is very important. You will certainly reach an agreement and establish an adequate period after the campaign, when you may add the work to your graphic designer portfolio.

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Ionut B
Digital Art Director with an innovative creative thinking able to translate ideas and concepts into useful and memorable interactive marketing campaigns.

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