Mike Monteiro: “If you’re waiting for someone else to do the right thing, you’re doing it wrong.”
Mike Monteiro has built a reputation as a powerful public speaker and a force for ethics in design practice. In advance of his talk for DC Design Week on How to Fight Fascism he talked with me about DC, being in the room, getting fired, and fucking up.
AIGA DC: How many times have you given this talk? Has it changed?
Monteiro: At least a dozen. It changes every time I give it. It gets updated or I add a little bit of local flavor.
AIGA DC: So given that you’re going to be in DC, what do you think you’ll change for this time around?
Monteiro: Well, how close are we going to be to the White House?
AIGA DC: Not terribly close, but it’s never far away from where we are.
Monteiro: I was figuring we could all leave the talk, and go chain ourselves to the fence.
It kind of sucks to be out here in San Francisco because you feel like you’re in the Republic of California, which is kind of adjacent to where all this shit is happening. Every time I go back East there is a protest and I can just walk right into. It feels so much realer out on the East Coast than it does here. Decisions get made on East Coast time.
We’re all kind of too high to give a shit out here. You have proximity. We have weed.
AIGA DC: Have you changed your behavior since you started giving this talk?
Monteiro: I cry a lot more. I think everyone does. I eat a lot more ice cream. I throw the lid right in the trash. Like we’re not even going to pretend we’re only eating half.
AIGA DC: So I work for the federal government, and I know there will be other federal folks at your talk …
Monteiro: How are you holding up?
AIGA DC: It’s been tough. Lots of people are asking themselves if they should stay or go, and how do you decide if you’re doing good or supporting the system?
Monteiro: I think the baseline needs to be “am I helping people by doing this.” If you feel like you are helping people, and you can stomach I’d say keep doing it.
Now the minute you’re asked to do something that goes against what you believe is helping people then you need to stop.
AIGA DC: What is your definition of success of the talk?
Monteiro: That every designer who sees this talk at least pauses when they’re told what to do and asks themselves, what’s this thing going to be used for? Who’s it going affect? Is it going to screw somebody up? And if the answer is yes, letting them know that they don’t have to do that. They could say no.
And that getting fired ain’t the worst thing in the world. I’ve been fired lots. I don’t trust anybody who’s never been fired.
AIGA DC: What have you been fired for?
Monteiro: Oh lots of stuff… doing bad work. I think we all should have one of those under our belt. And insubordination. Talking back to my boss, saying “I’m not going to do this.” “Well you have to do it.” “You’re going to have to fire me.” …BOOM. Stuff like that.
Since starting my own agency we’ve been fired by clients for standing our ground on things. And we’ve also fired clients a couple of times asking us to do things which I’m ethically opposed — dark web patterns, we’ll trick people so they give us the data, shit like that. No we won’t. Not with my name on it.
AIGA DC: Reading about your company your your approach and ethical standards come through very strongly. I think a lot of people, when they’re courting client work tend to keep that in the background until the situation arises.
Monteiro: I think it attracts the right people to work with us. Nobody who has hired us lately has been surprised when I said no we can’t do that because it’s unethical. They want to know why, so we can change it.
That’s the shingle that I want up outside the store. Ethical design done here.
AIGA DC: Part of doing ethical work is being able to see how it’ll screw over someone who’s not you. Are there ways you think that people can develop that sense of empathy that leads to ethical thinking?
Monteiro: I think most people have it, honestly. You know all kids believe they can draw. And then at some point some idiot tells them they can’t. So no adults believe we can draw.
I think most of us grow up you know out how to be ethical human beings. And then it’s beaten out of us by stupid jobs and stupid bosses and working in horrible places.
And either you start buying into it and the money starts feeling real good. Or it just never fits right with you. And I’ve been lucky enough to find the people who it doesn’t fit right with.
AIGA DC: When bad decisions happen — like a company making an ad that comes off as racist — the designers aren’t always in the room. What happens then?
Monteiro: No we’re not in the room a lot of the time. But how often do designers ask to be in those meetings?
When I got my first web design job I was the last person to know that anything. They would call these meetings, and nobody invited the designer and because the designer was the person you told to move the pixels around. So I asked to come in, and I had to sound really fucking smart when I started speaking up. I had to have some really good ideas. And they let me back in.
And how often do we opt out of being in the room? Being in the room is hard. How often have I seen a designer trying to sneak out of a strategy meeting because we’d rather sit and listen to something on great big expensive headphones and push pixels around.
But even if you’re not in the room — those decisions need to be executed. It moved down this whole production line. Did they say anything? Did they feel like it wasn’t their job to say anything?
The message and I’m trying to get out to people is if you’re anywhere within the chain of production of something like this being made, it’s your responsibility to stop it in any way you can.
I never want to hear designers tell me this is just the job put in front of me, and this decision was made way above my pay grade. It’s sitting in front of you now. You have an opportunity to make an impact.
AIGA DC: The posters around your Designer’s Code of Ethics are going to be on display at the event. Is there anything you would add to your list at this point?
Monteiro: Nope. But there may be. They very purposely say version 1.0 on the front page. The way I see it’s an open source piece of text. If somebody wants to add to it I hope they do. If somebody wants to tell me what I fucked up on I hope they do.
I know I fucked up on the posters — know how? They’re all by white people.
I was so fucking smug when I when I published those because I think there’s like 11 posters and like 6 were by women. And then one of the very first comments on Twitter was “not a single person of color.” And I’m like fuck you. Also you’re right. You’re totally right.
If anything that just reminds me that you know no matter how hard you think you’re trying to do something you’re only as good as your own experiences. A person of color saw that immediately.
So why isn’t your design team the most diverse looking group of people in the damn world?
It really needs to be right? Because you’re trying to building things for the entire world. And you got a team full of 10 white dudes and they all look at something and say “looks great Mr. Weinstein, I don’t see a problem.”
You get a group of people who grew up in different places, went to different schools, had different different things happen to them when they walked out their front door and you know somebody will see something immediately that you totally missed. They’ll say “Hey maybe don’t put my place of employment on my Tinder profile where my stalker will see it.” And the white dude says “Stalkers, do those still exist?” and every woman in the room hits him.
AIGA DC: But there probably aren’t any women in the room.
AIGA DC: Do you think that there’s fear? That if you can’t be perfectly representative in everything that you do that it’s that you shouldn’t even try?
Monteiro: Well you’ve got to fail, and you have to be OK with failing. Every time you fail you learn something.
Like with the posters, I got the race ratio wrong. But I learned something. You think I’m ever going to do another project like that without getting a person of color on board immediately? Hell no.
And I don’t care if you print this, if this is a public mistake. I think people should be making their mistakes public so that other people aren’t trying to hide them all the time.
AIGA DC: Any last advice?
Monteiro: Tell people to keep fighting for something. Tell people that if you’re waiting for somebody else to do the right thing you’re doing it wrong. That person is probably waiting too.