Ethics in Design

by Shelby Thompson

Here at Tomorrow Lab we approach design as a privilege. It’s a privilege to make choices about what we do and do not want to be a part of making. Along with vetting our potential clients to confirm they are ready to jump headfirst into hardware development, we also have the option of simply saying “no” if an idea proposed is something we do not see as relevant to the marketplace. This could be because it already exists in various forms, or more importantly, as our founder, Ted Ullrich, puts it: the idea does not support the “kind of world I want to live in.”

We don’t say no to a project because we find the idea “boring”; we say no because the idea does not bring us closer to the greater purpose of making things that mean something to us and to the world at large. While there is no fine line to cross when it comes to deciding if an idea is worth bringing to fruition; we still approach each potential new product with great seriousness. We want to understand from early on where we stand on creating yet another THING for people to make, buy, use, and possibly discard. This is the crux of understanding the ethics of design at Tomorrow Lab and ensuring the culture of our company is on the same page.

“I can’t prevent someone from manufacturing something that ultimately amounts to a waste of materials and processes, but I do have the option not to facilitate it.” — Joe Gonzalez, Industrial Designer

Defining Ethics for Our Culture

There’s always room to learn!

The Oxford Dictionary defines ethics as a set of moral principles, especially ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field, or form of conduct. Most people have a sense of their personal moral code, but how does that apply to the work place? We work hard to ensure that our culture at Tomorrow Lab is diverse, open-minded, team-oriented, and supportive. We value people’s opinions, no matter what their age or role in the company, and even if we do not always agree on them. Standardized staff meetings and weekly team lunches may seem like an epic waste of time to some companies, but for us, it means we can feel comfortable in each other’s presence and share what we have faced and learned from it, in and out of the work place.

We apply this same frame of mind to how we manage the ethical decision of bringing on a new project. Factors such as budget, timeline, a client’s team and business plan are preliminary challenges that we face; but getting into the proposed “problem” and “solution” is where we really address the issue of, “Yes, we want to be a part of making this product come to life.”

As an initial step to understanding how we approach product design, we make it easy to explore our portfolio to see the kinds of things we are most excited about creating. Is this product meaningful? Is it a marketplace breakthrough in the Zeitgeist? Do I want to be known for making these products? Will I be proud to have my name on this?

It’s not like we ask these questions every time a person reaches out to Tomorrow Lab, but they are definitely ingrained in our process. After all, what is innovation if not something new that supports the world we want to live in?

“It’s very easy for companies to get lost in their business goals (which is mostly to make more money) and forget what effects, negative or positive, their actions create.” — Dorian Fernandez, Product Design Electrical Engineer

Applying Ethics to Design

There are some ideas we strive to help create and jump on board with no matter what, such as products that reduce waste or water usage and do not further pollute the earth. Or new products for cyclists so that people may continue to change the way they ride (while decreasing our carbon footprint). Or tools to improve methods of education, new medical devices, and smart and connected homes, to make people’s lives better or easier. And of course, updating and securing online technology is always of great interest to us.

We have absolutes too. We say no to weapons of any kind. Making products that can be used against others or encourage self-destructive behavior are off the table. We want to make products that can help people grow and sustain a happy and healthy life.

We also understand that technology is ever-changing, and it can be hard to conceive how things may differ in the long-term if we put our talent towards making products that make us uncomfortable now. But we must also keep an open mind to things that may change as technology advances. Something as simple as the Bitcoin comes to mind. Remember when we thought that would never catch on? On August 1, 2017 it found new ground by splitting the blockchain and becoming a new digital currency called Bitcoin Cash (BCC) — currently trading at over $600. In this case, software needs to catch up so we won’t see the same pitfalls as the transaction verification issues of 2010. All in a days work, right?

“Guiding these decisions is a moral compass, formed from our collective experiences and mediated by our ambitions. Because society is ever evolving, it’s perfectly acceptable for our moral compass to wander over time. What we find unethical now, we may deem perfectly fine with enough exposure and time.” — Tan Tran, Product Design Mechanical Engineer

Ethics In Others

This isn’t about the ethics of the dark web, though it is also something we consider when making products that require WiFi and iOS components like Bluetooth, ZigBee, iBeacons, and fingerprint biometrics, for instance. This is about knowing that the products we stand behind are made to the best of our ability.

We are also interested in your thoughts on this topic. Do you have a standard of ethics you consider when approaching design? This can be for any part of the design process, including saying no to your boss. How do you consider your values when it comes to saying yes or no to a project that you may not consider part of your “moral code”?

“Design isn’t just about innovation, it’s also about authenticity. And it’s impossible to be authentic when we inhibit the very code that defines us.” — Sergio Marquina, Mechanical Engineer Intern

Feel free to reply in the comment section or reach out to us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @TomorrowLabNYC.