The creative field, which encompasses design, illustration, photography and anything else that is a commercial-based service and takes imagination and a certain amount of talent on the part of the vendor, is unregulated.
There are no real guidelines for ethics among creatives to compare with such things as the Hippocratic Oath for doctors, or the BAR association that keeps lawyers on the straight and narrow. Plumbers, carpenters, cab drivers, pilots and just about every other career/industry has some sort of checks and balances to keep members of the industry professional and continue the sound reputation of that field. Even criminal organizations and prison inmates have more self-governing rules than members of the creative field.
So, how is it we survive as a collective of individuals making up an entire service industry?
Who are the villains here?
One reason our industry hasn’t become a version of Escape from New York or The Road Warrior is that we creatives are civilized adults. As with any responsible adult, we are functioning members of a society, sometimes religious, occasionally happy, sad, greedy, generous, jealous and loving; just as anyone else, in any other industry. So our everyday morals guide us in ethical conundrums like stealing, cheating, lying and—as it goes with some clients—murder.
When most creatives talk about bad ethics, they are referring to clients who lie, trick and even threaten to get free or low cost work. Every story of a client who pays late, aside from not at all, brings gnarled grunts about unethical business. Scope creep is unethical as are so many bad business tactics and habits.
But, we are speaking of us—the creative community. And we’re not innocent victims of bad business ethics—usually we borrowed our own troubles.
Ethics are not just pretty rules or gentlepersonly behavior in business situations. Ethics are about trust, professionalism and truth and it all comes wrapped up in guilt for an entire industry when a few players go astray.
There’s lots of blame out there:
Art schools don’t train students
Not for the real world of being a professional designer, illustrator, photographer, they don’t.
Unfortunately, this is true. Very few art schools have senior level courses on professional practices, business, finance and, of course, ethics. You will, however, find ethics are a required part of almost every professional career course of study. Usually it’s all up to a favorite teacher who talks a bit about business in his/her class on design, lettering, advertising, etc.
The only way most creative people learn about ethics is through very hard life lessons.
That leaves trauma and childhood upbringing as the lessons of our inner set of moral ethics. As creative children are often the kids who standout to bullies and other cruel children, our playground lessons come at a high price for our future outlook on interpersonal dealings and what we see as “ethical.”
Ethics are not rules for doing business
Ethics are the beliefs on the majority of society in how we do business with each other and how we handle the unexpected when it arises.
If your client chooses not to pay you for a project, because they decide after you deliver the final artwork, not to use it; is that an ethical question, or a legal one?
Is that client unethical? Probably not, despite our gut reactions. Chances are, they just haven’t considered the blood, sweat and tears you poured into the job.
If you have a contract that states you are to be paid in full upon or after delivery, then the client’s refusal is illegal and unethical. If there was no written or verbal agreement about usage equaling payment, then the client may very well be unaware of the ethical responsibility to make that payment.
Ethics are not legal protection.
Arguing that someone should do something because it’s ethical is meaningless in a court of law. If your client says “I didn’t think I had to pay if I didn’t use it”, the chances are the judge will give them a gentle rap on the knuckles and send you all on your way, with some advice to get a better contract next time.
Of course, if the client says “I didn’t think I had to pay if I didn’t use it, even though I ordered it, accepted its delivery, and signed off on it” then it’s clear the client understood the ethical and legal position—but then, no client is going to be stupid enough to win that case for you.
Not everyone shares the same ethics
That’s true in life, as well as in business.
If you’ve been in a position of hiring or managing other creatives, you know that creative work ethics are much different from other industries. Steve Jobs was right when he referred to creatives as “the crazy ones”…
Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently—they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Creatives are the hardest professionals to wrangle and control. It’s because we’re crazy! We see the world in different ways, which is what makes us so good at pulling visual solutions out of thin air. We also have our own set of rules on life and that’s where ethical problems arise.
Yes, it’s unethical for a client to request free work no matter what he/she may think of creatives. Even if they truly do believe they are doing the creative a favor, giving them an opportunity, or such, it’s unethical and stupid. When a client stops a project midstream, grows the scope of a project knowingly not offering more money for the extra work and not paying in an acceptable (or contracted) time period, then they are being unethical and incompetent. Despite that, how the creative responds to these problems also relates to ethics. Meeting an unethical person with the dropping of ones own ethics is never a good idea. It just elevates tensions and the loss of any remaining ethics.
An ethical point of view
Years ago I was invited to sit on the Joint Ethics Committee, in New York City.
The JEC, as it’s known, was comprised of representatives from the major creative organizations headquartered in NYC. Somewhat like the supreme court, they acted as the one voice of the creative community in matters of creatives’ rights, copyright law and other legal and ethical matters that affected the creative community.
That evening they were preparing for an event with a panel of experts from the industry. The discussion, as imparted by the head of the JEC was: “What would professional illustrators do if a photographer dropped off his/her portfolio on a Friday and the illustrator used one of the photos for a last minute illustration assignment?” The ethical question was clear: would the illustrator pay the photographer for the shot used as a model for the illustration or not?
It was ridiculous and foolish of me, but I said it aloud: with all of the ethical problems in the industry, they wanted to focus on a tiny part of the illustration field, on illustrators who required photos as models for book covers and such, based on ridiculous parameters. I couldn’t figure out why they would focus on such a problem; it turns out they chose that subject because it was a real problem.
It seems the photographers’ organization had numerous complaints from members about illustrators stealing images and the illustrators were complaining about photographers charging too much for the rights to use the photos as models for paintings and drawings. It just goes to show you that even within our own industry, there are different ethics for different disciplines.
Are you ethical?
Of course you are… in your own mind. In the mind of a serial killer, they’re probably ethical. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
The ethics and morals shared by a society are based on outward manners and considerations we show one another. Perhaps on the faceless internet, it has become easier to lose our manners the minute the possibility of a punch on the nose is taken out of the equation. Perhaps it’s the screen names and avatars that allow us to rid ourselves of a humanity we despise whilst hiding our own.
Here’s a little quiz to see if you truly are an ethical creative:
- Have you ever said anything false about another creative or client you know isn’t true, just to hurt their reputation (whether it’s deserved or not)?
- Have you ever lied to blame someone else on a project blip or failure?
- Have you ever told a client, “I’m just finishing up now,” when you haven’t even started?
- Have you ever handed in a project you knew had problems or wasn’t near your best work?
- Have you ever stolen (you may call it “inspired by”) another creative’s design or image?
- Have you falsified your résumé?
- Have you ever said, “I don’t know” when you really do?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you are unethical—but you’re also human.
How to tackle the unethical
While running a small design studio, I went to pick up some original art that a client had used for an issue of the magazine for which he worked. They were a good client and used my studio almost every week for cover art. The only drawback was having to deal with the assistant art director, who was… unethical: he lied, he made false promises, he didn’t know how to act in a professional manner.
Unfortunately, after searching for an hour, he couldn’t find the original art that had to be returned to the illustrator who owned it. (While looking for it in his amazing piles and crammed drawers of art, he bent and crumpled several other pieces of art, belonging to other artists.) He promised he’d find it by the next time I came, and that’s when the calls to supply cover art stopped coming in.
I contacted him and said that either the art had to be returned or paid for. He first insisted I had already taken the piece. The studio records showed I hadn’t, and general common sense about drop-offs and pick-ups at his office leaned towards the art not having being returned. At last, he broke down and said that if he tried to pay for the art, he’d be fired.
I worked out a plan whereby he would use one of our studio illustrators at least once a week and raise the fee to include a small percentage of the cost of the art, basically paying it off over the course of time. I thought it was brilliant: the illustrator was happy because he was getting paid and would have more work from this magazine; the art director was happy because no one would find out he had lost original art and cost the company money through his own incompetence; I was happy because I considered myself a great negotiator and averted a very bad situation.
Everything went great for a few months, then things soured. No calls for weeks about more assignments from the magazine and no returned phone calls, either. Since everyone at the magazine knew me well, I was able to go to the office and step right past the receptionist/gatekeeper and confront the assistant art director.
“I thought we had an agreement,” I said in a comforting, sincere tone, “to pay back the art with continuing assignments?”
“Well, I think I’ve paid back enough!” he said sharply.
I discussed where he was in the payback schedule, and reminded him of the code on the studio invoices that showed how much he still owed. To cut a long story short, he refused to give the studio any more work and accused me of blackmailing him.
Blackmail? Yes, it was and to prove it, I got him fired.
The question is—was what I worked out an unethical solution in your opinion? Certainly blackmail is both illegal and unethical. Was it wrong to force this upon the poor guy or should I have taken the company to court, let him be fired right then and there, and let the illustrator lose the value of his art if the court case didn’t go our way?
Your word is your bond
But nobody else’s is! That’s why there are contracts, courts and lawyers. If you have ever been in court, then perhaps you heard the judge talk about how a contract is important in business. It’s enforced ethics on a legal playing field.
Yes, in the days before photocopiers a “man’s word” was everything. Once proven ethically bankrupt, a man’s life was pretty much over; no credit from the local suppliers while he waited for the crops to come in; no one would do business with a known “liar.” His wife and child were ostracized by others in the town; people were tarred and feathered, drawn and quartered and had their tongues cut out. Ethical behavior was once the cornerstone of our society. We might still claim it is, but we also like our checks and balances.
To quote an old Sinbad movie, “Trust in Allah but tie up your camel!”
If you behave unethically, people will start to distance themselves from you. Try to see the other guy’s point of view, if only to double-check your own position. If you’re still in business after a decade, chances are you’re either an ethical designer, or extremely devious.
Featured image/thumbnail, evil businessman image via Shutterstock.