Design topics — 1x3, Design ethics: knowledge, wisdom, and identity. Once more with Phronesis

Emiliano Carbone
Dec 18, 2018 · 9 min read

The connection between design and ethics is immediate and very prolific, a discourse in which the most profound strings of the designer’s profession are touched. In the intro of Design topics I started to reflect about ethical issues within the conventional and popular qualitative-work “snap-shot”, in which designers ‒ sometimes too mechanically, or without critical thinking ‒ involve users in design processes. Given the nonsense the latter may run into, it is possible to bring out ethical components which can be classified as conceptual, communicative, participatory and proactive. And such ethical components must be addressed firstly and of course for the value created within the subsequent results, and secondly for the responsibilities connected to unforeseen consequences of the designs itself. And the match to achieve results, sensitive to ethical components, is mainly played with oneself. So, when dealing with ethics, a plethora of weak questions (embedded in morality, psychology and philosophy) should be tackled before, during and after designing. The problem-framing, the decision of the reasons why people should move, the communication of outcomes and processes, privacy and identity, all these issues account for the overwhelming presence of ethics in design practices. As Peter Lloyd, directly from the Design Research Society, wrote: “The process of any designing contains within it episodes that can be construed as ethical in nature”. Ethics starts from knowledge. It requires a great deal of information research and strong reflection rooted in “phronesis”, i.e., what the ancient philosophy referred to as practical wisdom, that is the will and judgment that guide our projects for the future, and their intrinsic ends. I add, the more radical/incremental innovation methodologies become successful, the more ethical reflection must be enhanced. Hence, the boom of designing makes us swing between the fatigue of our current inertia and the uncertainty of alternative possibilities, which allows us great and powerful freedom, but also an equally great responsibility. The comprehension of the future and its impacts is terribly difficult, and the present “digital” design-age is a peculiar time to reflect on ethics. By diving this reflection properly in design practices, three main “relationships” have to be considered, all of which involving, I believe, deep ethical issues concerning the designers’ free-will: the relationship with reality conception (that is, our interpretative capacity), the relationship with designing itself (as practice), and finally, the ‒inescapable ‒ relationship with technology.

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The first relationship considered, the one between design practices and reality conception is actually (as I previously emphasized in the Topic about our interpretative capacity) the inception of our behaviors and actions. Within the interplay “sensemaking/action”, a pivotal role is played by the way in which designers interpret people and reality, and inform its designing accordingly. As explained by philosopher Maurizio Ferraris: “Interpretation does not entail the understanding of a fact, a saying or a writing, but rather the historical existence of humankind” [ndr]. In this light, in a design perspective, the risk of ignoring how to value oneself in one’s own history and habit clearly emerges. By digging up the wonderful tradition of hermeneutic studies, it is possible to highlight other important aspects to further heighten interpreting activity, such as Rorty’s ethics of “re-description”, and the Gadamer’s notion of “continuity” which both point out the importance and centrality, for humanity as a whole, of transcending present dominant values and maintain the human “vital-world” alive and creative (without opening here, the theme of the current market-logic dominance). Hence, within the interpreting activity, phronesis, as a kind of knowledge, still suggests to put close attention to history, culture and contexts, which are all keys to an ethical understanding of circumstantial interests of people. Yet making a comparison with the so-called “certain knowledges” (which certainly have their great value), a scholar like John Dewey also strongly suggested the importance of reaching “concrete judgments…about ends and means in the regulation of practical behavior”. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz also argued that what is important was not “certainty” as such, but rather the power of a “better map of reality” which, in the case of the designing, de facto allows to have a more reliable action guide. Therefore, the importance for designers to recognize the centrality of the interpretative, rational and critical accretion, corresponds to producing designs that emancipate science and humanity equivalently. In the end, considering the purpose of design research, as a synthesis of information suitable for the production of concrete and practical insights, it once again reveals the overlap between design and ethics.

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Beside this enhancement of interpretation, it is natural to proceed within the relationship with design itself, where the ethical discourse disclose a double face. In the first place, the formation of the designer’s identity and morality, which occurs, as sketched out within interpreting, by the reflective circularity established within their work of “questioning” the world and its artifacts, shows that ethical maturation can only take place through routine. Now, bearing in mind the aforementioned user involvement, a “best-practice” these days necessary (and desired), psychologist Carl Rogers’s considerations regarding his work Client-Centered Therapy are particularly fitting: “In every organism, including man, there is a constant flow aimed at the constructive realization of its intrinsic possibilities, a natural tendency to growth”. Thus, the designer, in front of this third-party “tendency”, not only has to sculpt his identity and worldview, but, in second place, he is also the creator of their conditions of growth. In line with this crucial viewpoint, teacher and historian Damon Taylor correctly conceived that: “since the focus of research has moved from the nature of objects to the behavior of people, it is suggested that design for use has become the design of use.” So, the summa “identity” + “tendency” is obviously critical, and is perfectly improved by the reflections of professor Tony Fry: “designing ethically is not just a matter of the appropriation and application of ethics but rather, and essentially, the designer becoming ethically constituted”. As he explained: “To become an ethical designer means to become accountable to Being by what one brings into being”. This is a job that requires, not only extreme knowing, carefulness and seriousness, but also an extraordinary cognitive and behavioral expertise, especially since the introduction of new affordances and meanings into reality comes to instruct, as a “legislation”, our transcendental possibilities of behaving and consume. Thus, how can the designer (despite is not alone), recognize and take full responsibility for this challenge? Drawing on Sartre’s ethic perspective, professor Philippe d’Anjou noticed the individual value of “authenticity”, which proves to be a crucial point in this question. Sartre, indeed, is well known for thinking that “man is condemned to be free”, which entails the impossibility to avoid the act of choosing. Hence only an “authentic” designer will be able to criticize the reality and himself, to fully measure with its own generative freedom. Thus, the ethical core of being/doing the designer, is shown as a whole. If on the one hand it is measured by being master of oneself (the homo faber of the 21st century), on the other, it demands practical wisdom for the production of alternatives that facilitate, without obstacles, the transcendence of people. And therefore, “delivering” respect, transparency, and protection, for their future interests. Just this kind of reflection makes possible the formation of their true ideal and value, and it is essential especially for their positioning as professionals (a higher purpose with respect to the “creative” management which they are too often pushed into).

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As for the relationship with technology, a perfect bridge to encompass today’s “reach” of tech-penetration, is provided by Callon and Latour’s lesson. Nowadays, we talk about “hybridization” or “socio-technical systems” on account of the huge amount of technology is integrated in our everyday life. In other words, people and their devices co-produce societies. As Bruno Latour explained: “I have sought to offer humanists a detailed analysis of a technology sufficiently magnificent and spiritual to convince them that the machines by which they are surrounded of are cultural artefacts worthy of their attention and respect”. And this leads us to a first point, with respect to this “relationship”: although technologies too often are conceived as something exploitable and passive, they effectively and intangibly influence our behaviors and attitudes (this being the case of designing for designers), and this is why they are not “value” or “moral” free. A thorough insight by Louis Althusser may elevate this reflection. The philosopher conceived ideology as a whole “apparatus” of people’s everyday practices, thus acquiring material “existence”. Likewise, technology, as a part of that apparatus, is one of the agencies among the many we use to conceive ourselves and our social actions. In fact, technology is, first of all, the materialization of our rationality. Using technology is like using the intrinsic rational critique of our theories about the world. It can elevate us, make us emancipated, but it can also limit us and stifle our transcendental capacity. Another great thinker, Karl Popper, in his studies on mind-body relationship, highlights our ability to evolve just through the transformation of our inner knowledge into outer ones. He correctly underlined: “instead of developing a better view we develop glasses and binoculars” [ndr]. Thus, this powerful hybridization leads us to a second point: it is not enough to pull out a new technology just because it is possible, it is also important to control human responsibilities in this “playing” with robots, especially within the current positive-scientific world. Finally, as for the digital-dynamics, within interconnectivity, informatization and interaction, it is worth mentioning Luciano Floridi’s work through which emerges the digital-user, i.e., the “inforg”, as a proactive individual: “A world owner, a game designer or a referee”. And the dynamics users comes to identify with, should be configured as a space for the growing of a “mature moral agent”, due to the very fact that internet, is by now a true “space” where individual and societies produce and develop themselves. Hence, even the “digital”, needs serious ethical criteria. Our own experiences, as mentioned so far, are based on this entanglement. Technologies are part of it. As Andrew Keen, author of the book How to fix the future, strongly advocates: “Technology is never the answer. It is part of the solution”. Moreover, by stressing the importance of understanding the history of technology, he maintained: “Technology just doesn’t happen. We create it and it reflects our values, our thinking and our priorities.

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In conclusion of this Topic, an immediate answer to such multifaceted issues is to integrate the popular “design thinking” — without mentioning the “little ethical” mistreatment it is passing through — (another Topic previously treated) with the ethical one. Although it may seem trivial as a final consideration, if we take into account Phronesis as a step outside our impressions, but a direction rooted into competing people’s values mitigation, and rationality and moral imagination as the overcoming of our inert behaviors, a “liberation” towards more positive and profitable alternative possibilities, it is not so simple as “implementation”. Clearly, information and knowledge are always at the heart of any of our regulations. Bernard Stiegler, around his latest work, stated firmly: “knowledge is a therapy”. He compared knowledge to a medicine, which can “limit the damage of the pharmakon we assume” [ndr] in our everyday life. Although the speed and flatness of digital-dynamics are against the calm pace of reflection, designers should aim to allow people, especially those involved into design practices, to understand properly what is happening and so to produce the entire habitat equally well. So I ask myself: am I serving users ethically? Do the conditions allow me to understand and foresee the possible implications of my design? For these reasons, designers should not be scared of being pedantically critical and curious, grasping the complex idea to not follow a fix-identity, or only a good/bad terms evaluation of their designs, due to the concrete variety of people’s worldviews and problems. Already in the early 1970s, Viktor Papanek, in his Design for real world, posed with a certain urgency the ethical and social question of being a designer, especially in terms of “responsibility” and “awareness”. Thus, design culture (as in the case of technology) cannot be transformed only into a neutral “facilitation” process for innovation. When designers intertwining “circularly” with reality, the search for feedback which defines inevitable and unintended consequences is probably only the first part of the ethical challenge. Therefore, through this circle, to develop the responsibility inherent to their ethos (which not only forms itself), but requires to embody forms of Being that are more contextually desirable and possibly less humanly harmful.

Design topics

“Design topics” is a free column of deep reflections…

Emiliano Carbone

Written by

Senior Business Designer @ Tangity — an NTT DATA Design studio #strategy #business #customerexperience #servicedesign #researchdesign

Design topics

“Design topics” is a free column of deep reflections concerning crucial issues within the design, especially regarding its humanistic elements.

Emiliano Carbone

Written by

Senior Business Designer @ Tangity — an NTT DATA Design studio #strategy #business #customerexperience #servicedesign #researchdesign

Design topics

“Design topics” is a free column of deep reflections concerning crucial issues within the design, especially regarding its humanistic elements.

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