Design ethics for designers who give a toss

Lucy West
Lucy West
Aug 6, 2019 · 6 min read

Most of the designers I know call bullshit at work on a daily basis. But calling out bad behaviour doesn’t make you an ethical designer. Times have changed, and designers need to learn to think differently. The good news is that Speculative design and Reflective practice can help designers escape the noise and find their ethics with integrity.

As human-centred design grows and becomes ubiquitous in our workplaces, the need to design ethically has never been greater.

Yet ethics can just feel too big. It’s hard enough to work within the shifting contexts of everyday design without adding ethics into the soupy sludge of day-to-day design practice.

But as designers, we shape the world around us so we have a moral imperative to take a good look at design ethics however hard or impenetrable it might seem.


What are ethics?

Being human involves making choices. And whenever we make a choice, it means that we could have made a different one. Out of all the choices we can make at any given time, which choice should we make?

This is what ethics are. Ethics help us work out how to act.

What do we mean by design ethics, then?

Design ethics is an extension of our personal ethics as applied to our work.

Like ethics, design ethics are the choices we make daily, just at work. But unlike our personal ethics, design ethics impact our teams, clients, customers and society.

But the way to design ethically doesn’t start with them or what they believe is ethical rather it starts with us as designers. Before designers can identify, share and scale ethics at work, they need to firstly seek out where they stand ethically.

Understanding where our moral compass lies is the first step toward identifying where we might be going wrong at work.


How my design ethics journey began

In early 2018, I conducted research to discover how designers can find their own ethics.

But my interest in ethics started six years prior as I began to notice questionable practices happening at work, so I started to compile a list of the ethical dilemmas I had faced.

Of the twenty-nine I recorded, some major dilemmas were:

  • Work being rehashed across different clients;
  • Jargon being pushed to cause confusion for clients and stakeholders;
  • Dark design patterns in the sketches of my colleagues;
  • Tech consultancies selling themselves into organisations as Service Design or Digital Transformation experts, with no knowledge of design process or practice;
  • Doctored customer research findings;
  • Human-centred design firms who did not practice human-centricity in their internal processes or practices;
  • Not getting paid for three months for three months of freelance work;
  • Job titles including the word ‘design’ or ‘designer’ when the individual has no design experience;
  • The right design solution ignored because it’s ‘too hard’ to solve for; and
  • Large tech firms insisting on producing first world technology we don’t need, instead of producing technology to help those in need.

They all seem unethical to me because they challenge the foundations of what I believe is right; where my ethical compass lies. This process helped form the basis of my own ethical design practice and process.

You might empathise with some of them or maybe none of them and I’m sure you’ll have your own set of ethical dilemmas.


Research insights

Reflecting on these dilemmas I wondered if there was a framework (or process) for ethics that would help me (and others) land on the ‘right’ decision.

To that end, I talked to 30+ designers at different stages of their careers across corporate, government, not-for-profit, those who had studied academically and those who hadn’t. I was fortunate enough to speak to luminaries in the field, as well as newbies. I held meet-up’s, had one-on-one chats, and created prototypes to test my growing hypotheses.

The key outcome of all of this was that it was apparent there wasn’t a simple framework to solve for design ethics. That only by reflecting on our practice could we make personally more ethical decisions.

Insight 1: Ethics are different for everyone

A designer’s cultural background, experience and values are the foundations for the role ethics plays in their professional practices.

Every research participant had a different view of what facing an ethical dilemma at work might mean, such as:

  • Driving design outcomes in a direction relevant to the problem and the organisation, even if it is not the job they were hired to do;
  • Spending less time on how we use technology for the solution and more time giving the client the appropriate context for the technology;
  • Following procedural process when it opposes your values;
  • Being biased toward your own ideas or process;
  • Designers being the ‘go to’ people in the organisation as the gatekeepers of good ideas/process improvement; and
  • Navigating the design process with integrity when the organisation is new to the methodology, and only want results.

This is why we avoid ethics; it is so hard to pin down. We all have completely different motivations and incentives and we think about process, impact and responsibility in different ways because we all come from different places.

So, if we’re all unique, how do we work out where ethics makes sense for us? It’s easy to say that everyone else’s way is wrong and ours is right. But, how do we know?

If we’re not tuned in to what annoys us ethically speaking, then how can we know when and how to bring it out in our conversations and take action?

We need to discover where we stand first, and we can do this by reflecting. Remember the list of twenty-nine ethical dilemmas?

Insight 2: Reflecting helps designers ethically ‘tune in’

Designers who engaged in Reflective practice were the designers who felt more ethically ‘tuned in’.

Reflective practice is the ability to reflect on one’s actions in order to engage in a process of continuous learning. Taking the time to think or reflect on the moments that annoy us ethically speaking help us figure out what to do to kick-start ourselves into ethical gear.

A good chunk of the 30+ designers I talked to engaged in some kind of reflection about their jobs and how they saw their role in design practice, and they did things like:

  • Meditation;
  • Practiced mindfulness;
  • Set boundaries for themselves at work;
  • Shared feelings openly with colleagues; and
  • Kept a log of their project process.

Finding your ethics: Ethical experiments

Before designers can bring ethics into their practices, they need to identify where their ethical boundaries lie. Designers have values and my aim was to help turn those values into actions. I wrangled a few ways to help designers begin and came up with a series of ethical experiments.

Experiment 1 prompts designers to discover their own ethics through reflecting on how they respond to future scenarios.

The scenarios are based on Speculative design as a means to focus on what could happen in the future so as to help us take more considered action in the present.

Experiment 2 is a Speculative Ethics Canvas which takes designers through a series of questions to help them begin Reflective practice and identify their ethical dilemmas.

Both experiments aim to help designers become more ethical by serving up ethical conundrums and proposing a series of ethical questions. The experiments leverage the designer’s responses into actions they can customise for their own practices.

Additionally, the data generated from the experiments will enable us to analyse the responses of designers of different levels of experience and across different industries and see what (if any) patterns emerge. This data will be shared with those who choose to participate.

So, try it and see what you think. What does your ethical compass tell you?

Try the Speculative Ethics Experiments at DesignEthics.com.au | An experimental platform for gathering perspectives on what ethics means for design practitioners.


Lucy West is a Melbourne-based design practitioner with over ten years’ experience working across the design spectrum. She gets her kicks exploring new forms of design practice with a focus on ethics, leadership and strategy toward creating sustainable futures.

Lucy West

Written by

Lucy West

Design Nerd | Ethics, Leadership, Speculative, Service, Strategy | Founder of Design Ethics Australia | designethics.com.au | eyelovelucy.com

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