How to Design With Ethics
Establish your values and find the design opportunities to match
If you’re looking for a proper definition of design ethics, then you’ll be disappointed. If you are, however, looking for the opinion of one particular designer (whom you likely don’t know from a bot) on design ethics then you are in the right place!
In all seriousness, this is a topic that every designer should care about. Ethics is a well-founded domain and is treated with legal certification in many industries. While I won’t be arguing for any such thing in this article, I will underscore why ethics are so important in design for technology. Technology has a unique ability to affect people at scale. Even more important than scale is the speed at which technology can affect that scale. One seemingly insignificant product feature can affect millions of people in seconds. Habits and ways of life can be impacted in the order of months rather than decades.
Ethics are required for designers working on technology.
Now there we’re all on the same page, let’s dive into what I really want to write about: understanding how to navigate the issue of design ethics in your design career.
When I entered the tech industry in 2007, I honestly didn’t about ethics much. It was something I read about and understood but I didn’t see much how it affected my job as a UX designer working on engineering software for Windows XP. Today, this is much more important to designers not just because we want to do something meaningful (that’s always been true) but because we are unclear how ethics should affect our work but we are much more aware of the negative impact of being unethical in tech.
Where the challenge in design ethics lies
As I see ethics in design, they start first with figuring out what your own values are as a person and how that translates to yourself as a professional. Then you see how those align to your company or product. And this translation between your personal/professional values and that of your companies is where the fuzzy area of design ethics begins.
The challenge with design ethics is often rooted in the myth that our work must do something world changing to check the box of being valuable. Sure, designing software to help optimize B2B sales process is probably categorically less important than designing a product to help people get access to clean water. But then again, you could say being a designer is less important than being a doctor. And then you can say being a doctor in a wealthy suburb is less important than being in a low-income area without access to proper health care.
This zero-sum game of valuing work is not unique to design and isn’t particularly useful in guiding your own work or self-worth.
Design ethics is not about the inherent value of the work itself, but whether the work you do choose to do aligns with your own values and a broader set of industry values.
For example, I have a professional value that any product or service I work on must serve people, not replace them. This is more relevant every year as robotics, AI, and machine learning advances exponentially. And even before the current exponential growth of these industries began to take shape, I was cognizant of the fact that all technology will lead to some amount of job loss on a large level. Whether it’s looming in 1800’s Britain, or semi-autonomous driving for today’s truckers; when technology is intended to help one person, it often does so at the cost of another. But with that in mind, I still try to abide by this personal value so that my work is always being driven by the perspective that I want technology to assist people and make their work more enriching.
Being agnostic in technology is no longer viable
There are some companies and products that at worst want to put people out of jobs, and in other cases are agnostic of those effects. And this is where ethics in design come into play. It’s obvious to know when to avoid a job when the values are in direct conflict with your own, but the real challenge — and why I’m writing this article — is understanding the fuzzy area when a company or product maintains no position on a value that you have.
Agnostic perspectives as a business can be worse than distinct philosophies particularly when it comes to your design work. When Facebook started, I don’t believe the company espoused the community-building values it does today (I actually still don’t believe in much of that, to be honest. But that’s for a different article). But it’s easy to see how if you were passionate about building communities, you could find a home designing for Facebook. However, if you had strong beliefs that screen time is bad for people, then taking a job at Facebook just because it’s a prestigious design job is hypocritical, and frankly unethical. Ethics starts with being accountable to your own values and being intentional with what opportunities you take as a designer.
Using ethics to create positive change
This brings another subtle nuance to understanding how ethics can affect a designer’s work. In the previous example of Facebook, it’s unfair to make a broad-sweeping judgment of the entire company. I’m certainly a vocal critic, but to be fair, that’s based on the little knowledge I have of what is truly happening on the inside. If you are passionate about helping changing the course of depression and social media, you can either view Facebook as the worst place to work, or the best opportunity to make real change. It all depends on what you’re doing for Facebook.
Often the best opportunities to make changes to systemic or massive problems can come from the inside (so long as you are given the proper platform or funding to make those changes). The point is, that finding opportunities that align to your own values can sometimes be hidden.
And with that, let’s dive into a few basic tactics to help designers maintain an ethical career.
Tactics for designing with ethics
I decided to write this article because I hear so many designers struggling to understand how design ethics fit into their work. Honestly, while I tend to feel good about my own work, these questions caused me to reflect on how I maintain my own design ethics. This is my best attempt at breaking down how I think I practice ethical design.
You cannot form your own value system, let alone ethics without reading (read my article on how to read!). And I’m not just talking about reading about ethics themselves. I’m talking about industry trends, research on human behavior, large-scale economic, climate, and political issues. In design and technology, the pace is fast and it requires you keep up with these macro-trends to understand how your day-to-day fits.
Take the previous example of Facebook. When it started, screen time and its effects on developing adolescent brains wasn’t well-known. Depression and linkages to social sharing was unheard of. 70 years ago we didn’t know much about the effects of smoking, but once they became known, I imagine people from packaging designers to tobacco farmers had personal reckonings. Reading — not just shallow internet articles — but actual books that compile scientific studies and well-researched perspectives will help you form better perspectives on your own work.
It’s no longer ok to bury your head in the sand or simply claiming ignorance. Keep up with trends and research and regularly assess how your own values evolve or change.
Understand how a business makes money
If you are worried about your own work, then learn how your own company makes money. This is the first step in understanding where a company’s underlying values come from. It’s one thing for a CEO to say they take screen addiction seriously, but it’s another when the company’s business model relies solely on increasing the amount of time a user spends looking at ads.
Understanding your company’s revenue model is just one piece of the ethics puzzle but it is a great starting point. If you’re looking for a job, it can help you figure out if you’ll truly be happy. If you’re re-examining an existing job, this may help you find new opportunities within the company. And in some cases, this might help you realize that your values simply don’t match up with the company and you might want to look elsewhere.
Embrace a position, but hold it loosely
Or the oft-repeated, “strong opinions, loosely held.” Earlier I pointed out what I see as the danger of being agnostic about technology when you work in it. Being uninformed is bad, having no informed opinion is worse. Think about your role as a designer working on something touching hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. It’s unacceptable that the work you produce — which is changing other people’s lives — is created by someone or some organization that doesn’t have an opinion. Features, button placement, workflows…these all require intentional design. Ultimately this is why ethics matter in design.
Design is all about creating change and you need an intentional set of ethics so that what you are changing is done in good faith.
For those designers wondering what it means to be ethical, the simplest answer is to simply have a perspective, establish the behaviors that reinforce that perspective, then find opportunities that line match.