Every designer needs an ethical framework.

Here is how I got mine.

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash

In April 1992 I returned from living in Barcelona and got my first real job after design school with MenloCare, a medical products start up. My time there was enabled me to grow from a green design grad to a competent journeyman product designer. Among the many things I learned there, the two stories from that time that I tell here became the basis for the ethical framework I have used to guide my career ever since.

Do the best you can to protect people’s wellbeing

At MenloCare, product designers also designed and built manufacturing equipment. My most complicated project was a pneumatically powered robot that, on the push of a button, executed a series of automated movements to assemble product.

My robot: white to power on, green advances the cycle, red is emergency stop.

As I proudly rolled the machine out on the production floor for the first time, a senior manufacturing engineer glanced over and told me I needed to pull it until I had added a second cycle advance button on the side. Indignantly I asked why another button was needed? He patiently explained that two buttons, separated by more than a hand-span, that must be pressed at the same time to advance the machine, would ensure that the operator had both hands out of the way of the moving parts.

This was the precise first moment I had the thought that my role as designer had an ethical aspect, and that I needed always to consider the health and wellbeing of those for whom I was designing.

As I was standing there, having this deep and powerful epiphany, the guy gave me a wink and said “of course, the technician will immediately tape down one of the buttons, but that’s best you can do.”

When a good decision has a bad outcome your responsibility is to learn from the mistake

Another of my projects was a medical procedure kit. The requirements for this item specified a sterilized internal plastic tray containing product, wrapped by a surgical drape, placed inside an outer plastic shell with a peel-off Tyvek cover.

I was so proud of that recycle logo!

The quality standard held that the inner tray contents and everything inside the drape was sterile. The outer plastic shell served only to protect the drape and facilitate stacking so my thought was it would be a fine and socially responsible thing to manufacture it out of recycled plastic.

I did the research, sourced recycled material, arranged for a sample to be sent to the vacuum former to produce test product that I ran through our entire, FDA-approved, battery of quality tests. I found no detectable difference in quality between virgin and recycled plastic, made my case to my boss and the head of product, got their approvals and kicked off a manufacturing run using the recycled material. Then I left on a long — and I felt, well earned — vacation.

I returned to learn that an entire lot of product had had to be recalled during my absence when the recycled plastic outer shells were found to crack spontaneously in storage. The plastic supplier claimed the vacuum former had used too much heat, the vacuum former claimed the supplier had delivered defective material. MenloCare ate the entire cost of the recall and took a hit to its brand.

After my boss told me this story, I asked if there would be consequences for me. He said no, first, he and his boss had approved the recycled material and second, that no one blamed me for trying to do the right thing.

And this was the precise moment when I realized my responsibility for people’s health and wellbeing extended beyond the direct users of my designs to include my employer, my suppliers, my colleagues, and maybe someday, a young designer who had made an honest mistake.

The question of ethics is very much in the air today. Our president [reference to #45 — Ed.] hasn’t got any, of course, which is a problem, and also a symptom. We live in turbulent times with respect to the social compact to do with how we care for each other. This turbulence confronts us daily as terrorism from abroad, terrorism within, and shocking reminders that racism, sexism and xenophobia separate our country into haves and have nots.

And then there is the problem of design ethics.

Raising the possible horrors of “immoral design” against a backdrop of misogyny, political corruption and racial violence might sound tone-deaf but I honestly believe that in the age of companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Netflix product design is serious business. These companies deliver to — literally — billions of people digital products that are super engaging and have measurable outcomes on really important things like how people feel and the outcome of national elections.

I’m not judging. I am saying that when business models are based on screen time, digital product designers need to develop an ethical framework.

If you could use a starting point, here’s the one I use:

Ask yourself, every day,

Am I doing my best to protect people’s health and wellbeing?

Am I learning from my mistakes?

If you find this framework is helpful , please share and applaud for it below.

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models, methods and patterns used by the effective designer

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Tim Sheiner

Tim Sheiner

System thinker, story teller, designer, husband, father of 3, San Franciscan, Bernal Heights neighbor

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