Moral Design, Part 1

Wherein we define our terms

Photo by Mario Ho on Unsplash

In the time I’ve been working as a professional designer, the seeds of modernism have borne much fruit.

The tools of design are free and ubiquitous. Design language has become the language of business. We make expensive decisions based on design critique from strangers on platforms like Amazon. Everything is designed. Such seemingly disparate disciplines as marketing, data, urban planning, agriculture, sociology, humanitarian aid, energy and education are converging in substantive ways. And in the minds of many, the Rosetta Stone for understanding and translating these disciplines is design.

But these emerging models are not neutral in the ways the mid-century modernists might have asserted. The questions we ask as designers and the potential answers that we, along with our clients, choose—our designations—have consequences. Do we have the means of observing, evaluating and changing current systems and processes for our collective good? Those proffering solutions abound: the Academy promotes ever-better frameworks, Silicon Valley regards itself as the pattern to emulate, Big Data gets bigger, Government becomes more ambitious.

Meanwhile, public intellectuals like Ed Ayers at Bunk and Josh Yates at Thriving Cities implore us to slow down and apprehend—perhaps fearfully—the incalculable connections between, well, everything. What, if any, is the role of the designer in this rapidly expanding universe of ideas and information?

“The word ‘studio’ is derived from ‘study.’ Our object is not to know the answers before we do the work. It’s to know them after we do it.”

— Bruce Mau

The creative community loves to hold up “good design” as a sort of cardinal virtue. An incoming tide that lifts all the boats. Increasingly though, it can seem like the adjective has become a forgone conclusion; as if design is, by its very nature, “good.”

It may be time to move past simplistic notions of good design and begin talking about something like moral design. Here, I’m using “moral” to mean concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character and “design” to mean the purpose, planning or intention that exists behind an action, fact or material object. I’m also thinking of morality as a bearing or vector, rather than a category. If design, because it represents decisions made by other people, tells us something about ourselves and our world, it seems plausible that those messages are either constructive or destructive. Can we, as designers, assume responsibility for the moral trajectory of our work?

Doing so would ask us to confront the possibility that some of our work—even when our intentions are good—is doing real damage. It would ask us to take challenge and critique far more seriously. It would push us into questions of right and wrong, a sort of whole-cost accounting of our own design decision making. And it would require that we contend with and become proponents of truth.

Recently, I was appreciating the work of a young designer who’d created a lovely sustainability report for an outdoor equipment and apparel company. His approach was fresh and he’d perfectly balanced the company’s careful positioning between conservation and consumerism. I asked him how he was thinking about sourcing, printing and delivering the small books in ways that would live up to the ideals he’d so meticulously typeset. His brow furrowed. He had not imagined that such a thing was his to consider.

I’m certainly not suggesting that this designer was behaving immorally, only that such a narrow focus (in this case on something called graphic design) allowed for blindspots. I would suggest that it would be more moral for him to have a fuller imagination for his vocation.

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

— H.L. Mencken

The pursuit of moral design asks us to cultivate at least three things within ourselves and our practices: True affection, rooted in respect, experience and specific knowledge; empathetic boldness to confront deep-rooted, complex failures in other designers’ work; and genuine humility in an industry that seems to celebrate hubris and seeing what we can “get away with.” And so it seems to me we must begin with honesty. Our work as designers must always be honest about its intentions, production, limitations and—perhaps most difficultly—its outcomes.

I’m hopeful but anticipate a difficult road. I agree with Dr. King that the moral arc of the universe is long but bends in the right direction. But I’m different from many of my colleagues in that I remain skeptical of central planning. I don’t think we need solutions from smaller numbers of smarter people farther away. I believe the principle of subsidiarity should be foundational to design thinking. My vision is that designers become partnered with, and embedded within, clients, communities and causes everywhere. That moral design is not a thing we do, but the way we get better at whatever we’re doing. That’s why this conversation matters, and why it belong to all of us. The affection, boldness and humility required to even begin moving toward moral design happens in long-term relationships with high levels of accountability.

We are lovers of order. Of progress. Can we also be honest?

Over the next several weeks, I hope to publish four more essays attempting to unpack ways designers can be honest about our intentions, production, limitations and outcomes. I’d be delighted to know what you think.