Ethical or Unethical?

I was recently approached by a web/graphic designer that is currently working full time for an agency. Business is currently a bit slow in the design area and someone within the company approached them about the possibility of using their personal online portfolio to show potential clients in hopes to attract design work. Let me preface by saying they are not requiring they do so but still put the question out there. They were curious to find out if anyone else had been approached within the design community with a similar situation or thought this was even ethical. I of course wanted to help and knew the community would too.

Andy Sowards
Web Developer/Programmer

I Believe that this scenario would be completely UN-Ethical, Based on the simple fact that If this were me, I would say “No.”. It may just be the entrepreneur inside of me, but I feel that if the web agency is making MORE money off of me than they are paying me, then they should be able to reel in their own business. If they cannot get any business, then obviously they are doing something wrong, and you would be better off on your own working freelance and reaping the benefits that your employer was so happy to do for you while they employed you, and had the nerve to ask you to give up your portfolio, so they could continue to profit off your efforts!

David Billings

Since the agency is asking and the designer has the right to refuse, it’s perfectly ethical. In fact, as long as the designer is credited, it sounds like a good opportunity not only for self-promotion, but could be a great time to negotiate a commission or bonus for new work coming in based on his/her personal work.

Marnie Bergan
Business owner/Designer

Personally, I don’t think it’s right that the company even asks. While it’s not exactly a misrepresentation, as it IS work that’s been done by the company’s designer, it’s completely unprofessional for the company to do so. Not just in regards to its potential clients, either – if I was the designer I think I’d lose a little bit of respect for the company if they asked me.

While it is work that’s been done by the company’s designer, it’s not work that has been supervised by the company or used their processes or policies, so I think it’s unethical for the company to claim otherwise.

Mike Smith
Web entrepreneur

I think that if the company is a small business (5 people or less) then it poses a different answer, but if the company is large enough and you’re not a solid asset in their eyes (ie: they hired you, you’re working FOR them, not WITH them) then I would turn it down.

Also, if the work at this company is slow and they want to show off your portfolio, obviously you’ve got the talent to gain some deals through your work, so I would suggest starting some promoting for yourself as a freelancer on the side.

Kristi Colvin

I don’t see a problem with this, but what’s not specified is whether or not they want to add all of your previous work to their portfolio, in essence adding to their client roster, or they just want to point to your previous work. I have been on the other side of this issue… I have done work as an employee for software companies, and if that work were not in my portfolio, some of my best work would not be represented. I try to distinguish where I was an employee, and where someone was a client.

An experienced designer brings talent to an agency, and to show past work as part of an overall “portfolio of our designers work” would seem like an advantage to me if there are strong pieces there, but I do see an ethical dilemma if the agency claims client work when the pieces represented were never clients… but I think that can be worked around by representing things honestly in the agency portfolio.

Tracey Grady
Graphic Designer, Illustrator and Animator

I have two concerns here:

First, anyone who wishes to use your work for their commercial purposes should pay you to do so. That payment should reflect the value of using your personal work, and must be separate to the wages that you earn working for the agency.

Second, I’m concerned about the agency wanting to use work for promotional purposes when they had no involvement in the creation of that work. How do they explain the work to prospective clients – who was the client and what was the campaign? Passing off the work of others as their own is hardly honest or credible.

I think that the most ethical way of resolving this (apart from refusing the request) would be for the agency to commission a couple of works from the designer, reflecting their personal style. That way the works have been paid for and the agency has been involved in the process and can rightfully claim ownership of the end product.

Damien Basile

There is only one ethical outcome for this situation.

Your boss would have to clearly identify that this is the personal portfolio work of yours, that you are a principal at their firm and if clients like this work they should expect more in this vein.

Anything else would smack of passing it off as their own.

This would be a nice complementary route considering their is a larger scope to who and what designers at agency’s design. It would give clients a whole new view and access to information when deciding to go with a firm. An agency is made up of people who are multifaceted. By only showing one side of things you inadvertently cut off part of the conversation even before it began.

YOU are the agency. Having your work shown alongside CLEARLY delineated as your personal work will enrich your, the agency & the client’s experience.

Chad Behnke
Senior Interactive Designer

d) Not enough info.

In all seriousness, I’m on the fence about it. To me, it’s not necessarily an issue of the designer/agency relationship, as the whole portfolio business would strictly be between said two entities, and the ethics would be up to the two parties to decide. It would be a question then of the amicability of the two parties. If the designer has worked for 10 years at the agency, loves his or her work, and the designer and art director call each other up late at night like so many cliche teenage girls from movies and television ‘just to talk,’ then it really wouldn’t be so much of a leap for the designer to help out the agency that they love and have become an integral part of, would it?

Given those parameters, it basically it boils down to the agency/client relationship. And that *still* doesn’t make it any easier. On the one hand, the agency itself didn’t actually make the work. In addition to that, there’s a lot of ‘baggage’ that goes along with a design than just the design itself, in terms of project management, client relations, briefing, approach, and all of that good stuff. By that logic, the company wouldn’t be able to technically deliver the content in the portfolio, because the experience wouldn’t be the same. However, on the other hand, the work in the portfolio is a representation of the skill of the entity. If the designer that did the work is on staff, technically the entity can pull off anything that would be in that portfolio. However, following that logic, agencies would have to remove all content from a designer when he or she leaves the company, which, frankly, is silly, and not something that would logistically make sense for the industry .

Alright, now that I’ve regaled you with my background, bs, cop-out, neither-choice answer, I’ll give you a straight up one, bearing in mind that I am bearing in mind all of the above, and I’m not 100% for the decision.

Unethical, based on erring on the side of caution. Not that both the designer and agency couldn’t both be totally on board with the idea, mind you. However, I believe transparency is of utmost importance to business, so anything on the fence, such as this clearly is, should just not be done simply for the risk-factor involved. Any outward-facing operation done by the company should be free of any potential taint, no matter how small. It would potentially be construed as unethical because the agency did not handle the entire process from start to finish, thus the agency did not do a substantial portion of the work, all of that pesky admin stuff. Mostly because of the whole ‘baggage’ thing. Because isn’t that the ‘important stuff’ when it comes to working on a design project and all that? That’s what I’m told, at least.

Grant Friedman

I’m not sure the question of ethics is all that relevant in this situation. If business is slow, you should be doing everything you can to support your employer and to save your job.

Mike Garrett
Graphic Design Student

Ethical. Unless you’re trying to get another job I don’t see any reason not to show off your skills to potential clients as long as the company cites it as such. A good example would be a showcase of the work some of the “star designers” are doing at a company and on their own to clients.

Anca Foster
Freelance Graphic Designer

I think it is unethical for a company to pose that question to their employees. Even though at first it might not think so, considering that that designer does work for them, and the personal portfolio proves the quality of work that the agency’s clients will get.

Why I think it’s unethical is because it is basically lying. The dynamic within an agency is a lot different from the environment in which a designer creates his/her own portfolio, meaning that it’s a lot more strict. What that means is that even if a designer has great capabilities and talent, the agency’s requirement on how to treat projects will definitely change the way a designer creates on his/her own.

Basically it’s like borrowing your best friends’ red iPhone and bragging to others about it belonging to you, just for the sake of impressing them. First of all – you are lying about it being yours, and second of all when people will see that red iPhone in your best friends’ hand, they’ll think she stole it from you.

A designer should keep his/her portfolio for themselves, to benefit themselves. If they let others use it to get clients, it’s like selling out. Not ethical.

Chris Rossi
Interior Designer/Graphic Designer

Well, I am not a web designer, but have had similar experience in interior design. My previous office asked to use images of designer’s past projects to show clients that the “agency” had the experience and expertise needed to get a project. I think the problem lies in that it is somewhat of a misrepresentation to the client about the agency’s work. However, it does seem fair if the company is just showing the work to show the skills of their employees. (with the employees approval)

In my mind, an office hires a designer based on their portfolio and because they believe the designer’s experience and skills will benefit the company. If you are working for a company, you are a part of the company and I think you are somewhat of a marketing tool for them.

It gets a little tricky with the “personal” site, however. I ask why can’t the agency have the designer design or update their own site to showcase talent? (not using the designer’s personal projects, just their talent and skills).

Also I think that by posing the question to the employee, they are indirectly requiring them to allow it because if they do not, it looks poorly on the employee and their dedication to helping the agency attain work.

Paul Stevens
Student Graphic Designer/Artist

I think it would be a great oppertunity to get more hits on your online portfolio, more chance to get you work out there, a good way to improve your chances of having a company to work for. On the downside, its your own portfolio, and people have a life outside of work. In summary, it might be unethical, but there are many advantages on both sides of the coin.

Kyle McCabe
Web Designer

As a web/graphic designer currently working for an agency, I would refuse such a request. My personal work is a result of my own personal efforts in client and project management as well as design (assuming it is made up of freelance work and not agency work). My personal work does not reflect the efforts of the agency, and certainly would have been different had I produced it in my current position.

Plus I figure if they can’t generate sales by using their own online portfolio, they need to replace their sales team!

Calvin Lee
Creative Director | Media Ho

You have no incentive to do this. They are using your hard earned work to make money for them. I think it’s totally unethical, deceptive and dishonest to potential clients. On top of that, the ownership issues of the design projects which you own on the work. It just gets really sticky.

On the other hand, if they offered you some kind of percentage or partnership that would be different. Maybe rework or make up projects that are similar as their selling point to potential clients.

Calee Himes
Graphic Designer

I think it’s unethical. Unless you are the sole designer at that company and your online portfolio represents mostly work you’ve done at that company, there is no reason to show your personal work to attract customers for your agency. None of my personal work looks anything like what I do at work, so I would never show my personal portfolio for that reason.

Stephen Olmstead
Graphic Designer / Production Artist

*DANGER, DANGER* Those are the initial thoughts that go off in my mind upon hearing this scenario. I would strongly urge designers presented with this question to steer away from lending their personal portfolio. If one were to do this: 1) Your work is no longer unique… as a freelancer you will be competing directly with your own agency and your own work… never a fun gig. 2) If you ever leave your agency, you run the risk of leaving them with your work in hand to use and display as they see fit.

Are there alternatives that satisfy both parties? Perhaps. One that I can think of off the bat is to tell your employer that you and you alone can present your personal portfolio when meeting with clients. This way you have control of your work and you can choose what to show and not to show. The work also never leaves your hands this way and you are not putting it out their with the agency name stamped on it. I have done this before to show a client what my capabilities were with the agency.

I think the key here is to just avoid making your personal work the same as your agency work. You can add agency work to your portfolio (providing you didn’t sign a non-disclosure) but not the other way around.

Jason Armstrong
Web Designer

I’m not sure I really see the ethical issue here. If everything is completely disclosed (which it would have to be to explain the use of a third party portfolio) there is nothing wrong with this scenario, that is unless the potential customer approached the designer directly about the same work. Then there would of course be a conflict of interest.

Andrew Taylor
Graphic Designer

My first thought on this issue: “Hell no. If I’m putting out my personal portfolio to attract clients I should just be doing freelance design. What are you, as an agency, doing for me that I can’t be doing on my own?”

Is the question ‘ethical or unethical’ being posed towards them asking you to do this or towards you actually putting up your portfolio to help draw a crowd towards them?

I don’t necessarily think that it’s unethical for them to ask this of you, nor does it seem unethical for you to comply. I can totally understand where the agency is coming from to ask you to do that during a slow period and I could understand complying and putting up your portfolio to help the agency. But that immediately makes you the star of the agency (whether they recognize it or not). That makes the entire agency ‘look what your designer has done and can do!’ instead of ‘look what we can do as an agency!’. The agency has singled you out and put you on a pedestal and relationships from there on out are going to be different.

Dan Denney
Web Designer

Ethical – As a designer for an agency, you agree to release your work under the agency’s name and as their virtual property. The agency is selling you and your abilities to clients to perform the tasks that they seek.
As an aside, the overall success of the agency should have a high priority. Allowing the agency to show off your creativity and what you can do without past client restraints is one way to help drive that success.

Homer Gaines
Sr. Flash Designer / Developer

I don’t think it’s unethical but it is unfair. Often the employer does not allow the employee to use company work to land side jobs so why should the employee use their personal portfolio to help the company land clients? What’s good for the goose is not good for the gander?

If the company so chooses to showcase their employee’s skills and promote their work under the company name then It could possibly work. But now they run the risk of conflicts of interest. What’s to stop the client from contacting the employee directly? Nothing. This is where honesty loyalty and trust come into the picture.

Now if the employer tried to force the employee to share their outside work and place the down turn in business on the employee’s shoulders, that’s where it becomes unethical.

Meroko Senpai
Creative Services Manager

omething similar to this scenario has happened to me. An ad agency I used to work for wanted to pitch a client to get their annual report project. I have done several annual reports, and they requested samples so that they can show them to the client. I think the “spin” they put on it was that they had individuals that have extensive experience working on annual reports, and these individuals would be working on their project.

Yes, I gave them the annual reports…sort of felt like I had to. Needed the job, and times were much like they are now. =(

To answer the question of whether or not it is ethical, I think it depends on how they present the work. If the company presents the work as their own, then definitely NO! If they show the examples as what some of their employees have done, it makes it a little better I suppose…but overall I do not believe it is good business practice.

I think the company should be able to pitch the work with their own projects without having to use a designer’s portfolio of work done outside of the company.

If you would like to discuss with other designer’s in the community about this topic and more, I invite you to join me over at The Cause Is The Habit (@damienbasile) this Thursday at 6:30pm EST. The topic for this chat will be “Ethics and Design” and everyone is welcome to join.

If you would like to tweet about it please use the hashtag: #causechat


If you liked this article, please help spread the news on the following sites:

  • Bump It
  • Blend It
  • Bookmark on Delicious
  • Stumble It
  • Float This
  • Reddit This
  • Share on FriendFeed
  • Clip to Evernote