NCIDQ News: Stretching Your Ethical Muscle

March 1, 2008

When faced with ethical dilemmas, design professionals should consider some of the tools available to help with the decision-making process.

By Jan Bast

Ethical behavior is a necessity in the design world. Whether choosing sustainable products, implementing universal design principles or writing fair contracts, ethics are a central component to the work of interior designers.

Recently, I reviewed proceedings from litigation against interior designers, which led me to believe that there are some designers who have no concept of ethical practice, and who are missing a moral chip in their personal conduct codes. I was certain I knew how I would react when confronted with an ethical dilemma, but then I had an exchange with a colleague that made me realize two things: opportunities to practice ethical decision making occur more often than I realize; and, making ethical decisions is easier to preach than practice.

A friend of mine, Joy, recently contacted me and asked for my advice about a prospective client.

Joy explained that he (the prospective client) first contacted another designer who had worked for him on another property, but that another designer said she would not be able to look at his project for several months because of her current work load.

"He cannot wait; the architect is nearing completion on the plans and he wants an interior designer to immediately review the architectural plans, draft furniture plans and continue detailing the space," Joy wrote in an e-mail. "He asked the other designer for a recommendation, and she refused to give him one. He then found me and would like me to do this project. The thing is, I know the other designer and consider her a friend. Do you think I should take this project?" she asked.

I could understand Joy's concern; I have many designer friends and those relationships are as important to me as my work. I called Joy and we discussed the elements of the situation and both agreed that if the client had no contract in place with the other interior designer, then it would be okay for her to take on the project.

The issue with ethical dilemmas is that they occur suddenly and usually need a fairly quick response. A couple of days after my initial conversation with Joy, I decided to give my ethical muscles a workout using NCIDQ's new Ethical Decision-Making monograph. The monograph contains several tools for evaluating an ethical response and considering a dilemma from a few different angles. I decided to stretch my ethical muscles and see if my reaction was appropriate. After all, our ethics are as critical to our work as our eyes and ears.

I chose to view Joy's dilemma through two of the many ethical models discussed in NCIDQ's monograph. The Rotarian Model uses a four-step course of action. It asks,

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it legal?
  • Is it fair to all parties?
  • Is it beneficial to all parties?

I also considered another model, proposed by Donald Jones of Drew University, which helps develop a procedure for resolving ethical problems and provides a way to form policies to prevent problems from recurring. His "Rational Model of Ethical Analysis and Decision Making" requires the following six steps:

  • State the ethical dilemma in plain language.
  • Identify relevant facts, ranking them in order of significance.
  • Identify relevant values/principles.
  • List alternative courses of action.
  • Rank values in preferential scale; rank predictable consequences in terms of certain harmful or beneficial effects; make your decision.
  • Adopt a proactive posture and propose a policy or institutional arrangement for preventing this kind of ethical dilemma from recurring.

The interesting thing about applying these models to Joy's dilemma was that it shed light on options that neither Joy nor I had considered. Not every decision is black and white, and surely this situation is one example of that. It may seem like more of a luxury to have the time to apply a few different models and consider the benefits and harm of an action before making a final decision. However, not taking that time could cost more in terms of emotional turmoil, damaged friendships and monetary loss.

As interior design regulation continues to be passed in legislatures across the United States and Canada, professionals' ethical practices will be under even more scrutiny. As interior designers, our obligation to protect the public's health, life safety and welfare requires us to take the time to reinforce our ethical decision-making skills. Stretching your ethical muscle before having to use it in a real-life situation may be a great warm up exercise for
making choices in your day-to-day practice.

Jan Bast is a past president of NCIDQ. She currently teaches interior design studio classes at the Design Institute of San Diego. Prior to that, she spent 15 years as a partner in Bast/Wright Interiors, providing programming, space planning, contract document and project administration for both commercial and residential projects. Bast is an NCIDQ Certificate holder and a certified interior designer in California. For more information on NCIDQ's monograph, visit

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