Become an Ethical Web Designer

Samantha sits on her heels smiling, there is a pink background.
Samantha Shea
May 14, 2024

I’ve been a web developer/designer for nearly a decade. Along the way I’ve seen an opportunity to create overall more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable digital spaces. But I’ll be honest, figuring out how to do this job ethically, on all levels, was intimidating.

These days it isn’t what it was like 10 years ago. Anyone can decide to be a web designer thanks to the multiple DIY web builder websites that don’t require you to know any code or UX/UI theory. You can even press a button to have an AI generate a website for you. While this is great and lowers the barriers for people creating online spaces - I find that a lot of new web designers don’t bother learning any technical skills. They also assume that the platform they use will take care of making their websites adhere to certain standards, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

As freelance web designers, we focus on crafting beautiful, functional websites. But in the rush to meet deadlines and wow clients, it's easy to overlook the deeper ethical implications of our work. Ethical web design encompasses accessibility, privacy, sustainability, and it's not just the "right" thing to do – it's a powerful business strategy.

When we talk about ethical web design, we're moving beyond technical skills and aesthetics. It encompasses a set of principles that ensure the websites we build are inclusive, responsible, and minimize their negative impact on society and the environment. Here's a breakdown of the core areas:

  • Accessibility: Designing websites that can be used and understood by people of all abilities, including those with visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive disabilities. This means using semantic HTML, providing alternative text for images, and ensuring compatibility with assistive technologies.

  • Privacy & Security: Protecting users' personal data is paramount. This includes collecting only necessary information, employing secure storage practices, being transparent about data usage, and complying with relevant privacy regulations (such as GDPR and CCPA).

  • Sustainability: The internet has a significant carbon footprint. Ethical web design considers ways to reduce this impact through efficient coding, optimizing images and videos, and potentially choosing web hosting providers with a focus on green energy.

  • Social Responsibility: We have a duty to ensure our websites don't perpetuate harmful stereotypes, promote misinformation, or exploit vulnerable populations. Ethical design involves thoughtful content choices and considering the broader impact of our work.

Why it Matters

Ethical web design isn't just about being morally responsible. It's about creating a more inclusive and equitable digital world where everyone can participate and benefit. Plus, potential clients are increasingly aware of these issues, making a commitment to ethics a major selling point.


Embracing ethical principles isn't just about feeling good – it translates into concrete advantages for your freelance business. 

  • Attract Values-Driven Clients: A growing number of businesses prioritize social responsibility. Demonstrating your commitment to ethical design attracts clients who share your values, leading to more fulfilling projects.

  • Competitive Advantage: Many web designers still focus solely on the technical side. By highlighting your ethical expertise, you stand out from the crowd and position yourself as a thought leader.

  • Reputation Enhancement: Clients who experience a truly accessible, secure, and socially responsible website will be vocal about your services. This leads to positive testimonials, referrals, and builds long-term trust.

  • Charge Premium Rates: Ethical design takes additional skill and care. Clients who value this are willing to pay more for a website that aligns with their principles and makes a positive impact on the world.

  • Personal Satisfaction & Growth: Dedicating yourself to building inclusive, sustainable websites brings a sense of purpose to your work. This combats burnout and inspires you to continuously learn new ethical web design practices.

Investing in ethical design skills is an ongoing journey. Whether you are a new web designer simply using templates to build for clients, or you are a seasoned web developer looking to integrate more ethical practices and maybe start attracting clients who value this kind of work.

 Here's how to get started and continue learning:


Skill Building

  • Accessibility Testing Tools: Familiarize yourself with screen readers (NVDA, VoiceOver), color contrast checkers, and automated testing tools like WAVE.
  • Privacy Regulations: Gain a basic understanding of key regulations like GDPR (Europe) and PIPEDA in Canada
  • Sustainable Coding: Learn techniques for optimizing images and videos, choosing efficient fonts, and minimizing unnecessary code bloat

Continuous Learning

  • Follow Industry Leaders: Check out thought leaders and organizations specializing in ethical design for the latest news and insights.
  • Make It a Habit: Dedicate time each week to reading articles, exploring new tools, and experimenting with implementing ethical practices in your projects.

Actionable First Steps

  • Choose One Focus Area: Start with accessibility or privacy, and do one deep dive. This is less overwhelming than trying too much at once.
  • Website Audit: Analyze a current project or your own website through an ethical lens. Identify areas for improvement.
  • Join a Community: Find online forums or groups dedicated to ethical web design for support and sharing knowledge with like-minded freelancers.

In the end whether you choose to become a more ethical web designer is up to you - but as time goes on it will become less and less of a choice as businesses look to reduce their environmental impact and increase their social impact. Why not get a head start now and separate yourself in your industry?

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