Non-maleficence as an ethical guideline to design



Media & Communications Design


  • ethics, individualism, misleading advertising

South Africa finds itself in the difficult position of not having a truly representative voice for design practice. Furthermore, we find ourselves without an advertising regulator with legislative support or legal force with a view on ensuring ethical and non-harmful design practice. The closest we come to such a body, is our advertising self-regulator, namely the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASASA).

The ASASA requires that advertising messages be legal, honest, decent, and truthful and further advocates that advertisers must respect consumers, must conform to fair competition, and must not bring the trade into disrepute nor diminish the public’s confidence in advertising. These principles are likewise entrenched in advertising self-regulatory codes in most developed and in some developing countries.

Despite appropriate codes, some design practitioners still thwart the principles of honesty and truthfulness through misleading advertising practices. An analysis of ad alerts issued and breach allegations lodged with the ASASA indicates that some advertisers, despite receiving adverse rulings, continue to violate the ASASA’s code. Graphic designers knowingly or unknowingly participate in misleading practices by aestheticising harmful products through design. Whether a designer knowingly participates in promoting harmful products shifts the issue from the ethical to the moral, due to the maleficence of some of these products.

A critical review of codes of conduct developed by national as well as international design organisations indicates that not all provide moral guidelines when practitioners encounter design tasks which may potentially cause harm. There is no code of conduct for graphic designers in South Africa and no legislation to enforce honesty, decency, and truthfulness. It is for these reasons that this paper advocates for a South African ethical code of conduct based on the principle of non-maleficence in opposition to utilitarianism. Such a code must  harmonise  with  internationally  accepted  design  codes,  self-regulatory  codes  as  well  as legislation in order to provide guidance when designers are confronted with apparent or potentially injurious assignments.

DEFSA conferences

DEFSA promotes relevant research with the focus on design + education through its biennial conferences, to promote professionalism, accountability and ethics in the education of young designers

Design Educators of South Africa...

With your support & active membership, the Design Education Forum of Southern Africa can positively influence the young designer's formative training and promote all facets of design across Africa