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Ethics of Graphic Design for Apparel – Graphic design can be a fun and rewarding job. It can also bite you in the butt if you don’t take a few ethical guidelines into account.

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list and it is not legal advice; you should speak with an attorney if you have any concerns about your day-to-day design practices.

Ethics of Graphic Design for Apparel


Each design you create should not be coercive or misleading. It should be an honest representation of the client’s goals and expectations and convey useful information to all who see the image.


Every image you create to print on a t-shirt is symbolic for a specific group of people. Whether it is for a sports team, a family reunion, or the general population of cat-lovers, your design should be inclusive and accurate in describing the group.

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The information the design shares with the public should be clear, so you must establish the exact message you are sending before you begin the work.

It may be as simple as the name of the group and a simple depiction of their activity. It may be as complex as contact information that is easy to memorize. It might be the use of specific colors to drive the point home – or it may be all of these and more.

Human Rights & Decency

Really – don’t get involved in a design that infringes on anyone’s right to live the American dream. That goes double for elements in a design that disparage or demean an individual (or group) in a malicious fashion.

Alluding to adult themes is fine, as long as the wearer of the t-shirt wouldn’t be arrested for breaking decency laws. You know what we’re talking about 😉

If you create a design and you would be ashamed to try explaining it to your children, skip it and move on to something more uplifting.


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Intellectual Property

Never, never, never copy someone else’s work and sell it as your own, unless you have written consent from the legal owner of the copyright. The only other way you can take credit for the work of another designer is if you have paid the market value for their time and they have agreed that you retain the unlimited right to use the image.

If you work together with others to come up with the design, don’t try to take full credit for it. Be clear about the contributions you made, along with the names of the other contributors.

Green Practices

In all of your business dealings, have a plan and follow procedures that minimize the use of our natural resources. Even if it is more time-consuming, take the approach that best nurtures the environment and protects animals.

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Health & Safety

Do not knowingly behave in a way that is dangerous to others. This includes good safety practices and healthy workplace initiatives in your shop but must also extend to your interactions with suppliers and other people or businesses.

Fair Competition & Pricing

All competition should be based on skill and competitive pricing. When you are bidding on a project, be honest and truthful about what you can do for the client and how you’re going to do it.

Don’t promote false claims about your abilities or false accusations against a competitor. You should also guard against dropping your price too low in order to get the deal.

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When it comes to creating designs and giving them away, save the pro bono work only for charitable organizations with the proper non-profit licensing. Otherwise, handing out free deals hurts the design industry and cheapens the valuable work that you do.

On the same note, don’t produce designs without a guarantee of payment up front. Unscrupulous clients may try to get you to give them design mockups, and then “reject” them – although they still have the design ideas.


Client Communication

Make sure your meaning gets through to your clients at every encounter. Whether it’s a phone call, IM, or email, make sure you are fully transparent about what the client should and should not expect.

Clients find it to be dishonest and infuriating if they are allowed to make an assumption that works in your favor, and then find out later that the assumption was incorrect.

Make sure all written agreements are very clear and direct about the terms. Have your contract template(s) blessed by an attorney to save costly headaches down the road.

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Treat every aspect of a project as if it were the client’s personal health information. In other words, use secure software and storage for the work you are doing and don’t talk about or show your work to anyone – unless you have specific, written permission to do so.

Some projects are extremely sensitive – like a mystery product rollout – and you would damage your client’s business by letting the design leak. Other projects may not seem like a big deal – but it probably is a big deal to the client.

This includes releasing images or information to your brother-in-law just as strictly as releasing to the press. Your contact in the client company should sign off before you respond to a request for direct contact from another person at the same client company.

Maybe this is too complex for you to deal with. Solution: Let SpeedySep take care of it because we are a fountain of ethical design!

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Graphic Designers of Canada

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