Moral Design, Part 3

Design that is honest about its production

How many years of sunlight did you burn to load this webpage? Do you feel any obligation to consider those costs? Do I owe the Earth—from which fossilized flora was mined and burned to produce the electricity you are now using to consume this glowing rectangle—anything in the quality of these words?


But first, a quick note about the name of this series. A handful of people have asked why I have chosen to call this line of inquiry moral design as opposed to ethical design. It’s a good question, especially since there’s already such a wealth of established thinking around the ethics of design and the word moral comes with baggage for most of us.

Here’s why: Lately, I’ve been feeling like ethics is mostly a way of establishing a shared baseline for acceptable behavior. We can talk about ethics in business dealings, financial practices or sex. It involves the very important work of drawing a line between what is ethical and what is not.

At the other end of this spectrum is a pursuit of something far beyond merely acceptable. It is concerned with something genuinely good for humans in a restless and comprehensive way. And increasingly, I suspect it is more of a bearing than a destination. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in a full accounting of how the things we design are produced.


Upon being invited to give the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, Wendell Berry delivered what very well may be my favorite assemblage of words. In it, Berry makes a case that the only sustainable medium for morality is affection—and moreover, he introduces a language for affection that is informed, practical, and practiced.

As designers, what if we adopted this framework? Permaculture, and more broadly the world of land-use which Berry inhabits, is committed to identifying and honoring the carrying capacity of a place. In service of this idea, we use the common language of inputs and outputs, appreciating that the land itself is the medium for production and any notion of productivity must be bound up in its rightful use. It is always a question of patience and balance, and it always defies mechanical and industrial models. What if we thought of humans and the things we design for them in this same way?


“Thrift is poetic because it is creative; waste is unpoetic because it is waste.”

― G.K. Chesterton

Design that is honest about its production is informed design. A moral designer is never satisfied with her current understanding of paper, inks, printing, glues and shipping—not to mention the tree farms, mills, mines, wells and refineries implicated in her practice. The myriad decisions she makes and influences require a relentless appetite for information yielding a process that generates less and less waste.

To be clear, I’m not talking about efficiency for its own sake. Designers ought to be the loudest and most insistent proponents for discovering new and better ways to produce goods and services. The deep, focused, informed creativity that uses the whole sheet, or shaves off a few kilobytes, or requires less water, is truly beautiful.


Much of current fashion, born in affluence and the ignorance it can afford, revels its own impracticality. Though, I suppose the most narcissistic cultures have always lauded consumer goods that are rare and absurd to produce. We delight in excess in our electronics, our outfits, our automobiles and our homes.

The Shaker communities of the 18th and 19th centuries—celebrated for their design of both architecture and furniture—had a mantra: Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful. This is such a refreshing counterpoint to the barrage of speculative and banal design flooding our eyes, minds and marketplaces. What if every would-be designer first asked themselves: Is this necessary? Is it useful?

Design that is honest about its production is practical design. It is critical of the superfluous and extraneous. Like the Shakers, it has a strong bias toward an aesthetic that is simple and elegant and desires quality in the way that it’s made. It dispenses with the entire notion of planned obsolescence as a ruse created to serve irresponsible manufacturers and obscure shoddy design.


“There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no independence quite so important, as living within your means.”

― Calvin Coolidge

Finally, Berry gives us the idea of an affection—and I think, a design—which is practiced. How should we model the perpetual evaluation of production in our own lives?

If data centers waste something like 90% of the electricity they use to power the internet, and I listen to a streaming music service throughout my workday (easily transferring a gig of data for my own personal, on-demand soundtrack), am I participating in, perhaps, the most egregious frittering away of non-renewable resources in human history? Surely not! Right?

It seems quite easy to seek more information, and many if not most designers like the idea of sustainability, but it is another thing altogether to turn this awareness and philosophy on ourselves.

How can we practice design that considers production? A simple way to start is to be more thoughtful about the images we select. They’re powerful. In our half-century of blindly helping corporations achieve greater market share, we imprinted the public mind with all sorts of unnatural and—I would say—harmful images: You should acquire and discard clothing at a rate that ignores the way garments are manufactured and their actual rate of deterioration. At each meal, you should ingest a massive portion of protein, preferably boneless and skinless, and it should be as cheap as possible. If you have a yard, it should be populated with a single plant species cut down to within an inch of its life. And if any other seeds dare to germinate, you should douse them with chemical herbicides. And on and on…

The images designers choose shape reality. Start small. Push back.


Moral designers reduce abstraction across the board—and especially in production. They want to know how things are made and where the materials came from. What’s in the stuffing? What makes it turn that color? What happens to the battery when it no longer holds a charge? Then, they weigh those production costs against the benefits in real human terms—the true, transparent benefit.

In closing, I suspect I do have some small moral obligation to at least attempt to make these words worthy of the energy they require. And having now used some energy to consume them, I think you might, too.