No Ethics for Web Designers and Developers!

I recently decided to put a code of ethics on my business website. Calling it “Our Pledge”, I thought it would be a quick task that involved a few Google and Yahoo! searches. I was very wrong.

You would think a code of ethics would be a simple matter. In 2008, I fully expected to find dozens of examples from which to emulate or follow. I could hardly find any, and the few I found were paltry and even laughable.

The chief reason I decided to put it on my own website was to set a tone with potential clients upfront. I also felt it would be helpful in dealing with other web agencies that I occasionally have to work with in order to complete a project. I certainly didn’t do it to set myself apart from other web designers, but I think I may unwittingly have done just that because it seems to be a fairly rare thing for a web company to put this in writing.

This is a huge problem that the web development community needs to address. We demand to be treated as professionals, but squabble like children over inane matters such as whether designer trumps developer or vice-versa. Even though this problem has been lamented before, it still doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to solved.

Here’s a survey of what I’ve found so far (and my own haphazard solution below):

Many of the trite attempts I found had basic ethic-ese language that I’m pretty much sure the stole from the National Board of Realtors or IEEE. Stuff like “I shall be truthful and honest in all my business dealings.” I suppose when you get down to such minutia you might as well put in the Ten Commandments, too: “I will not kill my client”.

One horrible-looking website with a really good domain name that showed up high in a number of my searches,, has a seven step code that includes such ditties as “I will strive to attain and to express a sincerity of character that shall enrich my human contacts.”

I don’t even know what that means. The other six statements were just as dryly worded (and unimpressive to clients, I’ll bet).

A lovely tables-based site called the UK Web Design Association lists a Code of Standards for their members with similar platitudes, and left me with no help at all.

Another supposed web-design organization called the Web Design Developers Association had a weak attempt for their Code of Ethics (enshrouded in ugly 1997 graphics and iframes so you’ll have to click your way to it) which listed a few decent standards:

To respect the rights of intellectual property.
Adjust promptly any cause of dissatisfaction and endeavor to make every purchaser a satisfied customer.

Along with some very curious ones:

Recognize the basic tenets of human rights. These include, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the right to personal privacy.
Conduct themselves in such a manner as to deal fairly with and safeguard the rights of the public, the Internet, and fellow professionals. This includes, but is not limited to, the refusal to exploit children, animals or any group.

Are there past cases of web designers destroying the freedom of assembly or exploiting kittens? Maybe, but I hardly think it needs to be included in our code of ethics. No sense in putting ideas into our clients’ heads. And as far as “exploiting groups”, isn’t that the whole idea of marketing? To exploit your competition for your own profitable gain? Seems to me this is too much and too broad.

A decent one I found came from the Web Developers Assocation of New Zealand. I didn’t even know New Zealand had internet access! I’m only kidding, of course. Everyone pretty much realized that once New England got it, New Zealand wouldn’t be far behind since they do these things in alphabetical order. All kidding aside, their Code of Ethics is worth looking at.

I particularly liked “Disclose any conflict of interest with clients, suppliers or WDANZ prior to commencing any business.” That’s something I didn’t put in mine (yet) just because I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that. Coming from a highly-regulated industry like insurance, I’ve always been careful about this.

On the one hand, I feel I owe clients some measure of dedication and confidence. For instance, I have several clients who are attorneys (and in the same field of practice) and I have a few dance studios. I think that when one hires me (even if based on my prior work which they liked) that they should know that I will give them as much equal effort as the other. So I usually contact my previous clients in that field and just run it past them. So far I’ve had no problems.

On the other hand, what if one of them said no? Am I giving my clients the right of first refusal for me to accept future clients? I certainly don’t mean to be. In fact, there’s the possibility I could always let the former client go so that I could work on the newer. So far I haven’t had that problem, but I’m not entirely sure what I would do if I did. I suppose I’d like to play it by ear which is why I’m hesitant to put that in my pledge just yet.

Two other organizations which supposedly represent many web designers (although I don’t know a soul who belongs to them) are the World Organization of Web Professionals (WOW) and the International Webmasters Assocation. Despite their lofty titles (who uses the term “webmaster” anymore?), neither of them had any publicly-identifiable code of ethics for their members, yet they both were more than happy to take your money to join. Seems to me that they are missing part of the equation.

I even searched the defacto standarnistas of our day, A List Apart, to see if they had discussed ethics, but couldn’t find any mention of it, which quite frankly surprised me.

Bruce Clay, an internet business consultant, posted a rather lengthy SEO Code of Ethics for his search engine optimization customers. I like what he had to say and I think more SEO “marketers” should agree to it. While a little of it applies to us web designers and developers, particularly those of us who design sites to be SEO-friendly in the first place, it is largely meant to send a message to his clients who have been burned by overhyped promises of various black-hat types.

I found one web design company that had their own code of ethics. RJM Web Design has a detailed list of their ethics, although it looked like it had been around for a while. There the owner promises not to “utilize or distribute spyware in any form”, and “not participate in Web rings, but overall he hits upon some very typical concerns of most clients. Despite the outdated references, it remained one of the best examples I could find.

Two other web designers used their code of ethics more as a marketing tool, basically using it to talk down the competition, or theoretical competition. Not only did it make the COE longer than it needed to be, but they sounded churlish and unprofessional. I get their overall points. I’m not even sure I could blame them since their seems to be such a lack of leadership from our captains of industry on this.

The first one, SiteTutor, a web design company in California, uses their Code of Ethics to trumpet themselves. A few such statements were: knows search engines. You can count on us to stay up-to date with the ins and outs of search engine optimization, website coding, interactive media and any other element needed to make your campaign a success. simply doesn’t cheat. We don’t cloak content, mirror without purpose, spam or use re or misdirection. This means your results are sustainable and your reputation protected.

The second site I found, more of a blog really, was from Jennifer Poyer of Xprt Creative which she titled the “Code of Ethics for the Web Professional Who Really Cares“, implying, of course, that she is some kind of unique caring type and the rest of us are hapless dolts. Here’s a few quips of hers:

4. I will not drag my feet, or make my clients jump through hoops if they choose to find another web designer or developer. If they no longer want to work with my company, then I need to do as much as I can to help them in their transition to whatever company they want to use. I’d be sorry to see them go, but if I’m not providing the service they’re looking for, then it may not be a good job fit. So far … this hasn’t happened, but I’m confident that if a client chose to leave, I would help in any way possible could to assist them in the transition. Any Web Professional Who Really Cares would do the same thing.
6. I will dot my i’s and cross my t’s, even when no one is looking. How many times have I gone into a client’s site — long since finished — only to fix a typo they had on their site that no one noticed? Too many to count. Do I charge them for it? No. Keeping their website in good working order benefits both of us. Besides, it’s the right thing to do for the Web Professional Who Really Cares.

Okay, I had to hold down my lunch, too. There’s something particularly smarmy about the wording, and if you bother to read it, it’s hardly a concise code or pledge that a client would read. Perhaps it’s no surprise that her company instead placed a brief mission statement on their main website.

The trouble with COE’s like Jennifer’s and SiteTutor is that they only serve to say that you are, in essence, diligent and skilled. Hopefully, your reputation and portfolio will bear this out anyway, but a Code of Ethics is not where you outline your skills anyway. No other organization does that. It is where you set standards, of an ethical and moral nature, to communicate to your clients that you are aware that you are in a position of trust, and are also aware that in these key areas, you stand to benefit greatly from abusing that trust.

Things like refusing to comingle funds belongs in a Code of Ethics, not “dotting i’s and crossing t’s”, “not cheating”, or “keeping my skills up to date”.

Thus, it is clear to me we need some kind of national consensus on this. Of course, the requisite external website, list of adherents, and lovely shiny Web 2.0 badges wouldn’t hurt (and will necessarily follow), but it seems we aren’t even at the colony stage yet, much less the national platform.

I think this may be where groups like Doterati and Florida Creatives can be of some help. I’m presently also in the market for a Blogger Code of Ethics after reading The Cult of the Amateur last month and realizing how many mistakes I’ve made as a blogger that have contributed to the noise problem on the internet. We discussed it at BlogOrlando 2007 and I’m sure it will be discussed even more this year.

What I came up with so far is below. The latest version will always be at my business website here. Feel free to criticize, demolish, and demonize it. I’m sure it needs much work. Any assistance would be appreciated and if it can contribute to the overall idea of a more community-built COE, I’m all for it.

We pledge to:

1. Disclose all costs, fees, and services up front to our clients. All fees are posted on our website and agreed to in-writing prior to work commencing.

2. Always use the latest coding techniques available. By doing so, we enable our clients to more easily move their site elsewhere, update it cheaper and quicker in the future, and allow them and us to more readily work with other firms to enhance their web presence.

3. Treat each client’s business like our own. This includes doing what we can to ensure their success, valuing their time, and delivering their service as quickly and reasonably as possible.

4. Give ten percent back to the community via non-profit work, supporting local efforts, or donations to charities.

5. Work collaboratively with other web developers, graphic designers, and marketing firms wherever possible to give our clients the team they need to ensure their success.

6. Use web tools to keep our clients informed and to keep them involved as often as they would like to be. We store and archive all work and documents on a separate secure website, accessible only by clients or their approved staff, so that our clients have 24/7 access to these materials, including past messages, image files, source files, agreement copies, and more.

We pledge never to:

1. Outsource any of our work to third parties without our client’s prior consent, and even in that rare case, to use only American products and services.

2. Hold a website “hostage” or refuse to turn over source files to a paid client.

3. Ask for more money than what was previously agreed upon for the original scope of work.

4. Reveal our current or past client’s internal business information (good or bad) to third parties.

5. Harass or harangue a potential client (or “lead”) into buying.

6. Use any part of our client’s paid design for other projects or to sell any part to other parties.

7. Store client source files, private messages, or documents on a public web server where this information might later be obtained by our client’s competition, hackers, or other unauthorized parties.

8. Infringe upon the intellectual property rights of others, or knowingly allow our clients to do so, including but not limited to, images, audio, video, or even excerpts of text.

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Great post. It’s something I think a lot about, because I constantly run across shoddy and shady work from previous designers. My thought at one point was to craft some sort of certification or seal of quality, with a code of ethics attached, but that solution just has too many holes. I think a COE is great, and I would subscribe to your draft in a second, but client work stays strong because of personal reputation, and producing great work.

Your draft code of ethics works because it is based on your core values which you apply to all aspects of your life. The sad examples that you referred to fail because they are a sales pitch or pretentious jargon.

I like what you’ve got here. It makes me think we should do something similar. We’ve got a “What to Expect” page, but it’s more marketing oriented:

One designer that I like to read a lot for ethical discussion is Andy Rutledge . He always has very compelling articles that often center around ethics in this profession.

That is funny (and by funny, I mean not really) that you used the word “swarmy” in reference to my blog post and you say it’s hardly a concise code or pledge that a client would read. If you read the rest of the blog, you’ll notice that it is very personal in nature, with no reference of stuffed shirt dialog or business-speak, additionally, every most of my clients read it and thanked me for it. Some even posted their approval.

Did you see the pics of my son with his mohawk, which are pretty cool, by the way, or the post about my college coach who died from a brain tumor and what that meant to me, or several of my other posts which are terribly “unprofessional” as well.

Of course if you read my post in context, it’s not meant to be a code of ethics in the sense that you are implying. It is a personal view of my craft, my company’s craft, and any of my clients could attest to our very personal methods and processes.

Of course my company’s “official” business-speak is on our website in the form of the Mission Statement you mentioned. I appreciate your intent, you actually wrote very good blog post, but you didn’t really read my blog or you would have caught the true meaning behind my post.

And … did you have you use the word swarmy? ;)

-Jennifer P.


ugh - I meant smarmy — that is so great to leave a post defending your character and you have typos. I won’t mention the other two - heh heh.

-Jennifer “the smarmy poster”

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