Design Ethics

It came up in another discussion, I thought i would give this conversation its own post.

Scenario: A potential client comes to you wanting to invest their life savings in to their once in a lifetime “Multi Million Dollar” idea. You know that their idea is “FAIL”. Do you take the job anyway or is it your ethical obligation to tell them what you think.

PS: Hypothetical, but i have seen it

I’d tell them what I really think and charge them for that. That little piece of information might save them their life savings, it has value!

You responsibilities can only reach so far. I deal with a lot of start-ups in my line of work, here’s what I do-

  1. If the idea is completely crazy, and it’s obvious the guy has no idea of the risks or knowledge of the industry, I turn it down. Moreso because if he isn’t smart enough to handle his own business/concept, he is also likely a pain in the a$$ client who will have unreasonable demands.

  2. If he is uneducated, but seems knowledgeable about the risks and is coming to you as the person who is to provide that knowledge, I’ll take it. After all, if he knew everything, he probably wouldn’t need you.

  3. If the client is as number 2, but I get a bad feeling, I will turn it down. Sometimes it’s just gut. This takes experience and the confidence to listen to your gut, even if your brain is telling you otherwise. Chances are you will be burned in a situation like this a few times, then learn pretty quickly.

Key point to the above (aside from the crazies), is that yes, it is your obligation to provide your opinion (in essence that is what they are paying for), but it’s not their obligation to take it. You also may well encounter perfectly good clients, do good work, and still for other reasons the design/business fails. As long as you are working in good faith, you should be able to rest at night.

Also, don’t discount the possibility that you will turn something down as a crazy idea and it will work (ie. he goes elsewhere and becomes that millionaire, no thanks to you). It has happened 100s of times in history (not to me yet), but this is also the risk of job. You need to recognize you also don’t know everything.


I would say no. I don’t believe it’s a question of ethics but rather lack of information. As a designer, do you know the whole value proposition of the product/service? Are you aware of the ROI for that particular product as well as the client’s hurdle rate? Is he planning to capitalize on an identified weakness in his competitor’s product/manufacturing/service offering? Or is he going after an unidentified need of the consumer?

You wouldn’t know this unless you’ve read his business plan and have discussed these plans with them at length. As a result, just because you design the product doesn’t qualify you to comment on the success of the business. In hindsight, the product is one many components in a business model. As an individual, you won’t be able to accurately determine the success of the business with only that one component in mind.

There are many crappy products out there that make a TON of money. The above are a few reasons why they are successful. In most instances crappy products are used as a vehicle to get your foot in the door. At a later date when you’re older and wiser (along with more $$$ for development) do you go back and refine the product.

Please don’t crush an idea because YOU (unless you’re a venture capitalist) don’t think it’s a good idea. Do what you’ve been asked to do at the best of your ability and get paid well for it.

I would agree that this is less of an ethics issue and more of a morality issue. The reason I say this is that in the business world there is the “let the buyer beware” institutional ethic. That said this is more of an issue as to your internal feelings about how you treat your fellow man and how you will possibly be seen by others.

So ultimately this is your internal morality and you will need to decide for yourself.

I hope the above does not sound kind of weaselly. It is just a clarification of what you are asking. I want to make sure you are trying to externalize a decision that must be made internally.

From my moral point of view I would have to tell them what I think in regards to the potential failure of the project. I would also attempt to negotiate some low cost up-front user and or market research to find out where the failures might be. I would have this research as a stage gate before design and development monies are spent. This way:

  1. My client will feel I have their best interest at heart (Empathy).
  2. The cost of failure becomes very low (Fail early and cheaply).
  3. The research may uncover hidden value propositions for the product that turn it from a loser to a winner (Problem re-framing).

All the above fit into Design Thinking principles.

Again, this is a morality issue so I am just saying what I would do. I am no way implying what you should do. I just want you to internalize this problem.