In the last couple weeks I’ve attended a couple Q&A events where I basically answer questions in front of an audience. I love doing these and usually there is nothing that surprises me. But I also noticed that at every event, there is always this one person asking some sort of passive aggressive question about design ethics. Rightfully so.
At first, I didn’t think much of it. But now, noticing the pattern I understood that it is not a question, but rather a provocation to inspire a dialogue. A dialogue we need to have, but one we rarely talk about and doesn’t fit into a 15min Q&A session.
The role as a designer, or even as an engineer has become more influential and powerful than ever. The work we do makes an impact and naturally brings up the discussion around ethics, responsibility and accountability.
It’s something I’m thinking about almost on a daily basis and today I’d like to invite you to think about it with me together.
First of all, let’s try to answer this question:
Should design by definition always be good from an ethical standpoint? Or can there be “good” design, even though what’s achieved with it has a clearly a negative impact on humanity?
Let me give you an example.
The AK47 is being praised as one of the best designed guns in the world. It was designed in 1948 and is still in use today. Those who use it praise it for its simplicity, the ability to maintain & modify it, and especially its ease of use.
The AK47 is cheap, rarely breaks and does what it is supposed to do really well.
Now the question is, do you think the AK47 is a well designed product despite the fact of it being a killing machine? Or would you say, everything that is not making the world a better place for everyone, is automatically bad design?
Before we answer this question, lets look at another example.
A lot of you might know the widely known German fashion brand Hugo Boss, originally founded in 1924. But what few know is that Hugo Boss designed & produced uniforms for the Nazi party during World War II. Specifically uniforms for the higher ranking SS officers. Even until today, these uniforms are being praised for their good design & aesthetics.
The same goes for the graphic design of Nazi propaganda posters. Clear typography, simple messaging and bold colors. From a pure graphic design perspective, you could almost say they are inspiring and well designed.
But then again are they? Ultimately, they’re being used to promote something far away from what we believe is a better world for all of us.
It is a difficult question to answer, because from an ethical point of view you don’t want to like it, but from a technical point of view, you might?
Can we even say that ethics and design are the same? Probably not, because design is a practical activity, where ethics is more of a system of beliefs. Even though, ideally they work hand in hand with each other.
I believe ethics in design is more important today than ever. It is important to have this dialogue with ourselves and question the work we do on a daily basis.
Whatever client or company you work for, we should try to be informed and educate ourselves to our best ability. Because, as designers we’re supposed to improve upon brands or products, it is our job. But is it possible to truly improve something we don’t believe in? We often tend to be in love with the technical challenges but forget about the bigger picture.
Defining your own set of values as designers is important. Even tough it might be easy to be accused of hypocrisy nowadays. Some of your moral standards or beliefs in one case might be not compatible in the other, at least from other peoples perspective. And maybe that’s okay, not everyone is perfect.
Some might think working for a tobacco company is as bad as working for a soda company such as Coca Cola. Others think you can’t compare those two.
And honestly, lines will always blur. There is no right or wrong, it’s up to you to define for yourself.
Let’s say the social network company you work for tasks you to increase the average time users spend on the social network. In most cases, as designers we wouldn’t think much of this tasks and get to work, because more is always better, right?
Only few of us would ask questions. Questions such as WHY? Why should the user spend more time on this social network? Are there any particular reasons other than monetary goals such as more ad revenue or the fact that if the user spends more time on our products, they spend less on competitors products?
The thing is, few of us ask these questions. Most of us blindly execute, trying to make it as slick & fancy as possible. And I don’t take myself out of this.
Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.
― Potter Stewart
This is why ethics in design are now more important than ever. It’s important to think twice and build up your own belief system, not just following the one of your client or employer. Ethics are a process of learning & understanding, there are no pre-defined rules.
For me it means asking the right questions, such as:
- Would I use it myself?
- Would I like it if someone else designed it for me?
- Can my design get misused?
- Do I really believe this is helping someone?
- Is my work helping one group of people, but making another suffer?
These questions might be different for you. Every human being decides for themselves what they find morally acceptable and what code of ethics to live by. Ethics are something for every human being, but I also believe that we as designers especially should acknowledge the responsibility we have been given.
The products & services we design today reach more people than ever. It’s easy to fall in love with big brands, technical challenges or prestigious work. But knowing what we stand for, and WHY we do WHAT we do is what makes the difference.
Thank you for reading! And as always, for questions and comments I always appreciate you tweeting at me @vanschneider
Have a fantastic week,
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Tobias is a Designer & Maker + Co-Founder of Semplice, a portfolio platform for designers. Also host of the show NTMY — Previously Art Director & Design Lead at Spotify & Board of Directors AIGA New York.