Moral Design, Part 5

Design that is honest about its outcomes

A freelance fashion designer in Chelsea stares at a computer screen. He’s making final adjustments to color swatches for a clothing line two seasons hence. The traditional hues of pink and yellow in the design are just so… boring. He gazes idly at markers and pens strewn beside his desk lamp and his eyes find a wayward highlighter. Eureka! Design inspiration strikes.

Seven months later, the eye-popping textiles are manufactured, but not in U.S. mills as they have been in past seasons. Because of the hot colors—chosen on a computer by a man who has never set foot in a textile mill—the line is being produced in Shandong province in China, where lax regulations allow for a greater variety of toxic chemicals to be used.

Over the next decade, multiple major river systems are destroyed, contracts are canceled, workers are fired, mills are closed and entire communities in my native Virginia collapse.


“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

— Wendell Berry

Sadly, stories of our déformation professionnelle are easy to find. Real estate developers and homeowners associations work with designers to minimize unsightly forest management practices in northern California with catastrophic results. A heartbreaking rise in rates of depression and suicide among teenage girls correlates with designers at web-based social platforms creating new channels for comparing, ostracizing, and bullying. We’re eager to throw away “old” technology for its replacement, willfully ignorant of the costs—both human and material—for the upgrade we’ve “earned.”

I suspect that a great many people working in design professions do not wish to see these connections to their work. I can certainly understand that. Often, we’d prefer to be bit players—speaking up about aesthetics and not much else. If we as designers specialize in form, perhaps we can wash our hands of everything upstream and downstream of our singular contribution. But design is not simply a means for expressing an idea or an emotion. Nor is it to be understood as a marketing discipline. Design is not, as modern maestro Massimo Vignelli might have reminded us, merely styling.

In response to the new American Airlines brand identity, Vignelli stated, “As you know, one of the great things about American Airlines was that the planes were unpainted. The paint adds so much weight that brings an incredible amount of fuel consumption. For some reason, they decided to paint the plane. The fact is, weight is weight. Design is much more profound. Styling is very much emotional. Good design isn’t — it’s good forever. It’s part of our environment and culture.”

Whether or not he’s right about the economics of painting jets, you can hear Vignelli pleading for moral design—for a holistic approach. He is advocating for honesty. It is not enough for him only to conjure emotion and sell tickets.


“The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.”

— Susan Sontag

Moral design requires far more of us. What do we intend and how will it be evaluated? How will it be produced and at what cost? What are the known limitations of our solution and how will we design for what we don’t know? How will we, as designers, understand the full outcome of our work? And how will we ever learn if we don’t?

Here’s some good news: The same industrial forces that make it fearfully possible for a seemingly innocent decision upstream to wreak havoc downstream also work in the other direction. The democratization of process and proliferation of tools enable hundreds of small, local design decisions to have an immediate and outsized impact. When something works in one place, it can be quickly copied, tailored and applied in other contexts.

How can designers adjust their habits and focus—and really, their imagination for their work—given the seemingly high stakes of working in a fast-paced, interconnected system? Where to begin?


A charming Irish web developer named Jeremy Keith recently introduced me to Stewart Brand’s concept of Pace Layering. He was using it in relation to emergent web technologies, but this twenty-year-old idea has also lent helpful form to our conversation about moral design.

In Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Brand argues: “Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multitasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed — some mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘the long term’ is measured at least in centuries.”

Many designers are actively fueling this pathologically short attention span, but we can also be part of the balancing corrective. Could moral design expand into the “mechanism or myth” Brand longs for?

One further insight from Clock of the Long Now speaks to the need for designers to finally shake off the modern animosity toward inherited wisdom: “Starting anew with a clean slate has been one of the most harmful ideas in history. It treats previous knowledge as an impediment and imagines that only present knowledge deployed in theoretical purity can make real the wondrous new vision.”

Design and designers are not objective. Instead, we are agents of memory and metaphor—both highly subjective. And while we can offer much-needed perspective in any context, so-called Design Thinking must always remain rooted in conservation and care.

I would suggest that the principal work of the moral design practice is to perpetually move between pace layers with the objective of better aligning what is honestly good for culture and nature with what is explored in fashion and commerce. This means cultivating a deep understanding of each layer and then doing our most important work through the mediating layers of governance and infrastructure. It means focusing on exchanges.

Medicine and manufacturing increasingly mimic nature. Communities debate their own local cultures. Institutions try to make sense of big data and disruptive tech. Companies want to be seen as responsible. Designers—trained to understand and accept the moral weight of making decisions for others—must be deeply embedded in each of these conversations.


“The only way to communicate is to understand what it is like not to understand. It is at that moment that you can make something understandable.”

― Richard Saul Wurman

If you’re a young designer getting started and trying to find your niche, look up the chamber of commerce and ask about the institutional patterns in your local economy. What courses are they offering at the community college? What are farmers and factories producing? You can make a meaningful dent as a designer just by understanding as much as you can about each layer and facilitating meaningful exchanges between them.

Imagine for a moment that our “hot color” designer had lived in Henry County, Virginia, instead of Manhattan. What if he’d been friends with master craftsmen whose families had worked in textile mills for generations? And imagine if, together with shareholders, manufacturers, conservationists, labels, and retailers, he’d used his career to coordinate a resilient design vernacular for textiles in that place. Over decades, he could have designed in ways that reduced costs by understanding the economic and ecologic heritage of his home. Too far-fetched? Okay. So, even if he still lived in Chelsea, imagine if he’d picked up a phone and asked a question.


“This is our moment to acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable, but also to respect the resilience that has always been ours.”

— Sherry Turkle in The New York Times

As we discussed in Part One, pursuing moral design means cultivating true affection, rooted in respect, experience, and specific knowledge. This means belonging to a place and its people. It means developing empathetic boldness to confront deep-rooted, complex failures in other designers’ work and genuine humility to acknowledge and attend to the many failures in our own.

To design is to make decisions for others. Because this involves a transfer of power, however slight, to design is best understood as a moral pursuit.

We design systems in which people live their lives. We design research that produces data they trust. We design stories they believe, tools they use, and industries in which they work. We broker their attention. We amplify their desires and their fears. We implicate people in supply chains and opaque markets, often without their consent.

It is time to embrace a new design criticism rooted in whole cost accounting. We must slow down and stay put. We must know and be known. Only then, when our diverse design practices are situated within and accountable to the broader narrative of human progress, can we begin to pursue moral design.


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