communication designer

Ethics of a Graduate


To a recent graduate, the graphic design industry can be many things: exciting, extensive, rewarding. But while on the job hunt, many may, instead, find it overwhelming and highly competitive.

As a final year, undergraduate communication design student at RMIT University, I can attest to the nervousness many graduates feel towards leaving the security of tertiary study for the chance to establish themselves in 'the real world'.

When I graduate, I will join approximately 9,000 other graduates in Australia vying for a disproportionally small number of entry-level designer and internship positions (Branson, 2015). With such overt competitiveness, it’s fair to assume that many designers will to gain some form of advantage over other candidates. While there are numerous ways this could be done, I will focus this essay on identifying and contextualising one potential area where graphic design graduates with AGDA affiliations may violate their ethical obligations to their fellow designers in order to secure a start in the design workforce.


Deuze (2007) identifies that current workstyles in almost every industry are resulting in “the size of permanent staff quickly diminishing” and entry to the workforce being “more difficult and less well rewarded or supported”. Indeed, The Design Business Council (2015) classifies the Australian graphic design industry as a "micro business", meaning there are literally fewer jobs in this industry than other, more established industries. While graphic design has one of the highest rates of full-time employment within the creative industries (DBC, 2015), there is a drastic oversupply of graphic designers wanting to work (Yoke, 2013).

Such is the demand, that practising designers listed 'competition' as one of their top three pressing, industry concerns in a 2013 study (Yoke). While competition is “critical to the efficiency and vitality of... the creative industries”, it is important to note that the outcomes of a competitive process “benefits consumers”, not producers or employers of creative work. (Hartley et al. 2013)

There is much data available on the state of the graphic design industry on the whole, yet, I was surprised to find very little on how designers fare entering the workforce immediately after graduation. To rectify this, I conducted a small-scale, online survey of recent RMIT Visual Communication Design graduates, and attracted respondents with varying areas of specialisation and work preferences (e.g. freelance, studio, etc.).

While largely anecdotal, the responses indicated that, within the first 12 months, 48% of graduates were unable to obtain full-time positions within the design industry, and of those who could, a further third could not confidently rely on their design work to provide adequate income for living.

Many admitted, after prompting, that they consciously accepted inadequately paying design positions just to get their foot in the door.

Educators are aware of the challenges their students face upon leaving, and many institutions run exhibitions and industry events specifically for soon-to-be graduates to provide exposure and networking opportunities. For a small handful, this can lead to them landing positions within the initial few months of graduating (Gallina, 2016). However, once the hype dies down and the year rolls on, networking and internship opportunities become increasingly difficult to obtain as studios - having filled their vacant positions – shift their focus back to their clients.

So what does this mean?

The overall findings of my research indicated that job-seeking graduates reported strong (if underlying) feelings of anxiety, frustration, and desperation. It's fair to assume that the negative effects of these emotions can only grow stronger as months progress and employment opportunities look more and more unlikely.

If some graduates are willing to sacrifice financial security in order to gain a place within the industry, then what other areas are they willing to compromise in? More pertinent to this essay, which ethical principles are most likely to fall by the wayside in order for them to obtain a competitive advantage?


Unlike other creative or non-creative industries, graphic design does not have a universal nor legally binding code of ethics (Smith, 2012). While there are a number of frameworks created specifically for graphic design (AIGA, 2016), and other external, industry-adjacent codes that can apply (Smith, 2012), none have total uptake or compliance.

Nevertheless, the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) has "over 2,600 members distributed throughout the creative, visual communications, applied design and technology sectors" and is perhaps the most relevant industry body in Australia with a strong student base. It established its code of ethics in 1996, and, debatably, it has the most influence on the ethical conduct and obligations of graduate graphic designers (AGDA, 2016).

After reviewing their code, I identified three main areas I feel graduate designs could either intentionally or unintentionally compromise their ethical responsibilities to fellow designers in order to gain entry to the design workforce. These areas address design competitions, free pitching, and (as I'll focus on below) self-promotion.


Section 8 of AGDA's code focuses on self-promotion and publicity. Specifically, subsections 8.1 and 8.2 outline that an AGDA member "shall not use false, misleading or deceptive statements in advertising or publicity material" (include self-promotion) and that "where a project is a collaborative effort... each designer/consultant shall be credited for specific areas of authorship."

While straightforward in theory, there are a number of ways these stipulations can be broken. Many graduates (myself included) have a portfolio mostly filled with student work and we chose to publish this work on social media platforms to increase our exposure. Some projects are collaborative, and some are completed with affiliations to prestigious brands and companies. These stipulations are widely accepted (and, in fact, encouraged) by the industry, but if graduates neglect to mention them when promoting their work, there is a breach of the AGDA code.

Recently, I completed a conceptual student project in partnership with an international, luxury hotel brand. Upon briefing, the hotel team had to stress the importance of using a specific hashtag when distributing the project outcomes for personal promotion, as students in the past had neglected this and caused tension between the hotel and their design firm; the appearance being that that the hotel was unhappy with their current studio's work, and was seeking to take their business elsewhere without informing them.

This example also gives the impression of breaching section 4.2 of AGDA's ethics: "A Member shall not knowingly accept a commission to work on a project for which there is an existing designer without first informing the other designer."

Likewise, with the rise of Instagram as a personal platform, more and more designers are using it for self-promotion. The concept behind Instagram is that content is primarily image-based, with the option of providing short snippets of text for context (Instagram,2016). Many graduates may not declare the extent of their involvement in the collaborative projects that they post or the circumstances in which the projects were undertaken. Some reasons for doing so include: increasing cut-through on other people's feeds; avoiding distraction from the image itself; and the argument that their collaborators don't have Instagram accounts and, therefore, cannot be tagged.

What is the perceived payoff of these actions?

Clients and studios appreciate graduates with experience (Gallina,2016), and some - especially those pursuing freelance careers - may be tempted to exaggerate the extent of their relationships with brands to increase their credibility. In an interview setting, a graduate may not declare the true nature of the work in their folio due to time constraints or to paint themselves in the most favourable light amongst the long line of other contenders up for the same position.

I posed these scenarios to the respondents of my survey, and all of them agreed that there was a likelihood of these unethical behaviours occurring, to varying extent. One respondent was particularly convinced, stating that "Every designer pushes the boundaries at some stage in their career to get ahead or win a job. I would never tell a prospective client or employer that the work in my folio was student work unless they [directly] asked me."


Ultimately, I have chosen to be an AGDA member and, by association, strive to abide by their code of ethics. It is difficult to speak on how I will respond if pushed to desperation as an unemployed graduate next year, but I sincerely trust that I will keep my ethical integrity. By identifying areas for a potential violation, I have given myself the advantage of mindfulness.

As previously stated, there is no compulsory code of ethics in the graphic design community, and my competitors may choose not follow the same code that I do. But I know that I want my start in the industry to be transparent and untarnished, and if that means that start is delayed, then I am willing to accept that.


American Institute of Graphic Arts 2016, AIGA Standards of Professional Practice, 2012, American Institute of Graphic Arts. Available from: [09 August 2016].

Australian Graphic Design Association 2016, About / Code of Ethics, n.d., Australian Graphic Design Association. Available from: [09 August 2016]

Branson, G. 2015, The Business of Graphic Design, lecture notes distributed in RMIT Professional Practice. Business Design Council (BDC) 2015, The Business of Graphic Design, lecture notes distributed in RMIT

Professional Practice.
Deuze, M. 2007.
Media Work. Cambridge: Polity. Gallina, R 2016, personal communication, 06 August.

Gosling, E. 2016, The Graduates – Is it every okay to work for free?, 2016, blog post, 21 July. Available from: [09 August 2016].

Hartley, J. et al. 2013. Competition pages 24-28. Key Concepts in Creative Industries.

Nash, R. 2016, Graduate Experiences, survey. Available from: [09 August 2016]

Smith, N. 2012, Ethics in Graphic Design – Code of Ethics, 2012, blog post. Available from: [09 August 2016].

Yoke Studio 2013, The State of the Australian Graphic Design Industry, infographic. Available at: [09 August, 2016]