If you’re employed, it’s because somebody believes that spending money on your salary will lead to more profit for its shareholders. Unless you work in government or at a non-profit. Of course, you’ll have to deliver good work (or at least give that impression), but to employers that’s a means to an end.
Often it works like this: good designs make products attractive and make customers return for more. That leads to a growth in users and revenue, so the business can grow. Ultimately, investors in the business get a return in the form of profits.
It may feel innocuous to add a nice UI to an otherwise awful system, but it is not. That nice UI will help that awful system grow.
If you’re a user-centered designer, you use the business to get new products to people to improve their lives somehow. But if your employer’s ultimate goal for you is to make the business grow and generate profits, I think it’s worth asking if you want that business to grow and who is getting those profits.
If you’re self-employed, it looks simple. You’re the one who benefits! You’re also the one who has to find, accept and refuse projects. In this situation you’ll likely find yourself in a lot of ethically murky situations. It’s difficult to get a designer to make a moral decision if their fees depend on it.
Figuring out who benefits from your work at a small businesses is straight-forward too. Do you like the owner, do you believe they deserve to earn good money? In this aspect, small businesses don’t differ that much from state-owned companies in dictatorships. Except there are many more purpose-minded business founders than benevolent dictators.
Family-owned businesses medium-size and up are interesting, as you typically don’t get to meet all the owners. But (at least here in Germany) they tend to be relatively sensible and have some long-term goals in mind.
It may get more complex in partner-owned agencies, where designers typically work for multiple owner/leaders. I noticed when they get bigger, these organizations tend to forego ethics, as anything that may jeopardize revenue requires agreement from the partner group. Getting that kind of agreement from what can be hundreds of partners requires dealing with internal bureaucracy, political influence and time from the initiator. Which is a bit like petitioning for something at a local government, but without the frameworks and structures you can expect there.
Companies with many shareholders, especially publicly traded companies are simple. There you work for very many wealthy (sidenote: More like endless layers of funds, banks and whatnot, but eventually their human shareholders. And some pension funds. ) , who have in common that they want to remain anonymous and make more money. If you want to work for a publicly traded company, you’re basically a socialist who wants all taxes to go to rich people. I mean, a cooperative would base salaries on whatever money remains from revenue after they’ve deducted costs and investments. But companies with shareholders try to pay as little as possible on salary and take a big cut of your added value to give to the shareholders.
Finding a good job is hard and considering the above can make it even more so. Still, the question of who benefits from one’s work deserves more attention than it often gets. I’m pretty sure that if you’re the kind of person reading this kind of blog posts, that with an awesome job at a company with obnoxious owners, you’re not gonna stay there happily ever after.
This was just one the reasons for why your choice of employer is so important. Read The most important question in design for more.