Moral Design, Part 2

Design that is honest about its intentions

By and large, the designers I know are kindly people. We seem to care deeply about the world and the humans in it. As a professional class, designers are some of my favorite people. We’re thoughtful, curious and sensitive.

We also make a lot of assumptions. Our optimism can make us gullible. Our idealism can, over time, cause us to tune-out dissent. “Look, I’m just here to solve problems and make beautiful things,” we explain. “I don’t need that noise.” The same sensitivity that informs our work can be crippling in the face of the worst sorts of problems. It’s easy for us to express acute concern for the sanitized suffering of perfect strangers thousands of miles away and all the while show callous indifference to the mess just around the corner. Designers’ good taste and creativity can give us a bit of a superiority complex, undermining our ability to know, love and serve others.


“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

— Elie Wiesel

A valid criticism of the design profession is that we, along with our clients, are often far too hurried at the beginning of a project to honestly articulate our intentions. What is the purpose of what we’re setting out to make? Who is it for? What are they like? What is good for them? We shouldn’t just ask these questions to uncover strategic insights or check a “discovery” box but to further our own accountability and growth—as individuals, and as a profession. How can we pursue moral design if we can’t compare our plans to our products?

When we begin looking seriously at what we intend, it has the potential to completely recast our imagination for projects, our process and even our vocation. When Adam Werbach, then-president of the Sierra Club, drilled into his true intentions, he quit preaching to the choir and went to work for Walmart. “I thought they were the devil,” he recalls. But what he found were good-hearted humans working within one of the world’s largest design systems. “I was training a million people on what green is, on what a carbon footprint is, on energy conservation. It was unheard of, and they loved it.”


“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

– Friedrich Hayek

What is the intention behind the design of Google? Why did they set out to index the world’s information? We all know that Zuckerberg’s design for Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp is to sell personal information to empower marketers. Do designers care? Is it okay that “Designed by Apple in Cupertino” really means mined in Cerro Rico and assembled in Foxconn City? That sort of probing is pretty easy. More difficult is the work of examining true intentions within our own work.

Are we crafting glossy layouts to make people long for a life they’ll never have? To expand a hollowness our client’s product can temporarily fill? Do we as designers have any culpability in our growing discontentment?

Are we designing mobile applications to be increasingly addictive? To pull “users” deeper into a world in which we can manipulate them? Do we share any responsibility for our generation’s loss of focus and impulse control? Does your app distract me from my kids? Was that your intent?

Intentional design certainly isn’t limited to magazine spreads and mobile apps. My own tiny city of Charlottesville, Virginia, is experiencing a modest tech boom. As host to the University of Virginia, we enjoy a disproportionate amount of entrepreneurialism and investment. Local companies have the wonderful problem of needing to grow, and I’m privy to lots of conversations about new offices and rounds of fundraising and the attendant hiring and importing of talent. Designers stand (and intend) to make vast fortunes for owners and shareholders. But unfortunately, I hear almost nothing about the carrying capacity of the actual place: Charlottesville. There seems to be a willful ignorance around the ecological, cultural and sociological costs of such rapid growth.


“A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.”

— Albert Einstein

Of course we start with what we assume are good intentions, but we know where that sort of road leads. In my experience, the forced discipline of honest articulation often leads my team to adjust what we intend. It’s easy to just get excited about a vague direction and move ahead. The moral designer writes her intentions in permanent ink and comes back to it early and often. A few easy questions to ask: Who stands to benefit most if this design is successful? At what cost? Who is willing to sponsor or fund your project? Why? What stories are we telling about people? To them and to each other. Are we intimately involved in creating the problems we’ll be hired to solve tomorrow?

Quite often, I hear professional designers lamenting that they aren’t taken seriously within their organizations. They suspect they may be pawns in some game, designing beautiful cogs for hideous machines. When we decline to be honest about intentions, we reduce our ability to be serious about our work. Any small fiction—an idealized persona or carefully manicured analytics — sends us down the path of designer-as-decorator. We convince ourselves that the aesthetic or functional value we create outweighs the intended purpose, whatever it might be. That the form excuses the content. I think that’s bullshit. To be taken seriously, start treating design as the serious work that it is.

What shadowy corners exist in your design practice? Let’s talk about putting our individual talents to work asking the harder why questions. Let’s be a thorn in the side of indifference. Let’s scale our attention to our influence.

And let’s be honest about what we intend.