Three important lessons I learned from AIGA Chicago’s Design Ethics Roundtable

Feb 26 · 5 min read
Image of panel discussion at the AIGA Chicago Design Ethics Roundtable event, hosted at Basecamp.
Image of panel discussion at the AIGA Chicago Design Ethics Roundtable event, hosted at Basecamp.
AIGA Chicago hosts Design Ethics Roundtable at Basecamp.

Last week AIGA Chicago hosted its first Design Ethics Roundtable. First, we’d like to thank all our panelists and participants who made the event a great success. Second, wow! What a great feeling to see like-minded designers come together to share their experiences, ethical dilemmas and thoughts around how to design with empathy.

One of my biggest takeaways from the event was so simple: Sharlene King, a Sr. UX Designer at Salesforce said: “Good design is ethical.” I know Sharlene wasn’t implying that ethical design is truly that easy but wouldn’t it be great if it was? At the event, I heard many designers share that they wanted to consider ethics more in their work, but didn’t know how.

To make the changes that we want to see in our industry, designers need opportunities to talk about ethics, which is why the Roundtable event was so impactful.

Nia Easley holding up a sign of her number one takeaway from the event.
Nia Easley holding up a sign of her number one takeaway from the event.
Nia Easley, MFA Graduate at the School of the Art Institute Chicago showing us her number one takeaway.

In our post-event survey, 100% of Roundtable participants said they learned something new — myself included. Here are three main takeaways I learned from the event that are already reframing the way I think about my career:

Ethical design is a choice.

“There’s no carrot and no stick,” shared Antonio Garcia, AIGA Chicago VP, Diversity and Inclusion.

This makes designing ethically a choice — and an important one, too. Essentially, every product you see or space you enter exists because a set of decisions was made. From product design to city planning, to UX design and beyond, designers play a critical role in how people experience the world.

It is on us to make those experiences the best that they can be.

As a group, Roundtable participants discussed how designers are often viewed as neutral or objective. In reality, we aren’t. We have ethics and principles that we bring to the table. It’s time for us to recognize this — and to talk about it.

It’s also time for the companies we work for to recognize the impact of designers and empower us to make ethical decisions. As much as designers have a responsibility to make better decisions, businesses do too. Businesses have a responsibility to create an ethical culture. An open culture of asking, “who is this intended to reach?” and “what is the impact going to be?” Until that culture is created, designers should feel empowered to bring these uncomfortable topics to the table for discussion.

Because ethical design is a choice, and until we start openly problem-solving these challenges, nothing will change.

Small decisions make a big impact.

It’s too easy for poor decisions to become normalized and once that happens, it’s hard to go back. From deciding when a user will opt-in or deciding what is an “edge case” and what isn’t, designers make important decisions that impact people every day. We do have a responsibility to speak up when we see something happening that we’re uncomfortable with. This is often easier said than done, but you can’t find the people who will stand up with you until you speak out.

That’s how change happens. Little by little.

You don’t have to do it alone.

Do you stay and fight? Or do you pack it up and find another job? Can you even afford to switch jobs? Maybe you can’t leave but now you’ve become the person who speaks up against what’s easy and pushes for what’s right — and in turn, that makes your day-to-day really miserable. These are the challenging issues that came up in our Roundtable conversation that we rarely have an opportunity to talk about in our day-to-day.

AIGA and the design community are here to say: you’re not alone. It’s important to talk about these issues, to build the courage you need, to hear stories similar to yours, and to know you’re not in this alone. As a community, we all share the burden of making more ethical decisions that will affect us, and our users, for the better.

Karen MacKay holding up a sign of her number one takeaway from the event: we are not alone.
Karen MacKay holding up a sign of her number one takeaway from the event: we are not alone.
Karen MacKay, Solution Principal/Experience Design, Slalom reminding us that we are not alone.

Remember, this is a learning process. It’s also a slow process. We’re not going to wake up next week and have all products and businesses making ethical decisions. So for now, connecting with your peers, creating space for this conversation, and talking about how we can use our power and influence as designers to make a change, is a great start.

I’ll leave you with one final idea from the Roundtable: one participant shared that instead of talking to his clients about “ethical design,” he framed this work as about “responsible business design.” All of a sudden his ideas were received much better by the client. Events like AIGA Chicago’s Design Ethics Roundtable are a great way to learn from others and get ideas for bringing ethical design decisions to your work.

So here’s to “responsible business design” and small victories as you bring your design ethics into your work.

See what else AIGA Chicago is up to or join us at an upcoming event.

AIGA Chicago

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