Did Hitler have great designers? Can good design be bad design?
Tobias van Schneider
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There’s a chapter in Matthew Crawford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction that recently had me thinking along similar lines. It’s about gambling and in it he draws on Natasha Dow Schüll’s work in Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. While I haven’t read Schüll yet, the title alone speaks to this design-ethics discussion, and for the curious sparks some haunting questions, not different from the ones van Schneider lays out here.

I say this to identify myself as one of those “passive aggressive”, questioner types that piqued Tobias’ interest in such an apparently obscure topic.

Perhaps I’m reading into things, and focussing too much on specific wording, but to assume that only “a few of us would ask questions” seems unnecessary, and tints the whole discussion with a vibrant hue of irregularity. These questions — I believe — are not so far from the ordinary as they appear to van Schneider, and to heed their call is to engage in something uniquely and deeply human.

Today, more than ever, we need designers who are willing to wade through these murky waters. As noted in the article, technology continues to creep into every corner of our modern lives and designers — whether we realize it or not — are taking on greater responsibility in the shaping of society, through our work done on various products that are commanding attention from millions of “users” around the globe.

If we take this responsibility seriously we shouldn’t treat such ethical questions like they’re secondary, a matter for each to have his own opinion about. No doubt there will be disagreements, but writing them off as matters of opinion almost provides an easy way out. We shouldn’t avoid the wrestle.

It seems to me that many designers do think about these topics (as is clear from the aforementioned “person at every event”), but not for long enough. Hence, a lack of good articulated thoughts in writing (which may be the impetus for van Schneider assuming such low numbers are engaging in ethical discussions).

Could it be that we’re subconsciously leery of thinking deeply about the ethics of design because it goes against the narrative we’ve told ourselves? You know the one. A tale that speaks of a mythical “table” which was once far beyond the horizon, but through the constant struggles of self-definition and speaking up for ourselves we’ve brought within an arm’s reach. This was of course all for noble purposes. Designers offer a different perspective on the world, so we tell ourselves. One that is more, well… “user-centric.” But could it be that in all our efforts to climb the corporate ladder we’ve been pushing down the ethical questions that come with any position of power, especially in the corporate world?

We can’t avoid the questions because there are no easy answers in sight or because they aren’t “useful.” No, they won’t help you lay out that perfect interface, and no they don’t really have any practical use, but they keep us human. And as humans we’re not (only) motivated by pragmatic, logical reasons. Mostly, we’re chasing after meaning, and that’s what these questions are searching for. Chew on them for days. If we don’t, we’ll keep our seat at the table, but it will be because we’ve become the perpetual yes-man at the mercy of capital to be had.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for this article. I’ve spent a good chunk of time putting down my thoughts. I just don’t want it to go overlooked because ethics isn’t “usable.” I see this as a contribution to the dialogue rather than a full-blown disagreement.)