Are design ethics useless?

Have you worked in digital design for a while? I bet you’ve been under pressure to apply deceptive design patterns and weaponize design against users. With so many companies disrespecting the needs and rights of users, a lot of it has become sort of standard practice.

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Considering a lot of environmental pollution is the direct result of the production of consumer products, there’s something very off with the user-centeredness of industrial design too. I mean, the impeding mass extinction and the effect that it will have on our natural environment and food supply affects everyone, including the users of the products which production caused it. The benefits of a product being short-term and the bigger drawbacks long-term, doesn’t balance anything out.

So yeah, especially if you work at a design studio where you design many different products, it may feel like a good idea to learn something about design ethics and use that knowledge to change something about that. I sure felt that! This post is about how I tried and found that’s a waste of time. I’ll break it down into three short sections:

  1. Designers are not that special
  2. Everyone has an ethic already
  3. Good design requires design organizations

1. Designers are not that special

A pervasive design meme is that designers can change the world. Everything that’s been produced by humankind has been designed, meaning design and through that, designers, are in charge of everything. Or should be, because sometimes there are non-designers who design and they better leave it to the pros. I used to feel like that, but now that I write it down like that, it looks really quite silly.

Designers are the group of people defining what engineers have to implement. In a way, we’re their bosses! Except, most of the time we aren’t. In fact, we designers rarely set the goals and requirements for a product. Sure, we get a say in the details. But the rough it’s-gonna-be-a-bicycle/car/train-locomotive decision usually comes from managers higher up. And these managers rarely are designers. Even if they are, design managers often are designers only by name, having entered our profession only at a late stage in their career.

So, in the end, we designers are just a few links in a long chain of responsibility. There’s even a concept for that kind of situation: chain responsibility. But these chains actually act more like networks.

Anyway, with designers rarely being at the inception of a product idea or at the final construction and distribution of it, we’re definitely not controlling the world.

Okay, but what if designers collectively decided not to design, say, fossil-fueled cars? Then we’d be making quite some impact to protect the climate, right? Maybe, but I’d argue that the people who could get us organized like that, would be the main force behind that. And they could just as well try to get engineers, procurement managers or lawyers to start such a boycott.

Ethics specifically for designers as professionals seems to ignore our position in organization and society. There’s really nothing special about our location in the decision-making network of organizations. And other people don’t expect designers to do anything other than making things slightly nicer even if the things can’t be made good.

2. Everyone has an ethic already

Criminal organizations usually have strong moral codes, as they can’t formalize them like others can with rulebooks and laws. Some examples are: don’t rat, the family comes first and disobedience must be punished.

I don’t like being pedantic about the difference between morals and ethics, but ethics are usually considered more systematic and based on values. The rules of criminal organizations actually work as a system. And they are based on values—even if outsiders don’t agree with them. So I don’t think it’s a stretch, if I say even the most criminal minds have ethics.

Arguably there are exceptions, like the psychopath crime bosses leaders who actually don’t adhere to their own rules. But that’s not the point. What I’m trying to say is that having ethics doesn’t make you do good things. Some of the worst atrocities in history were performed under the pretense of doing good.

Everybody already has an ethics, even criminals. The things we do at work shouldn’t be incompatible with our ethics. Better even: our ethics should drive what we spend so much of our time alive on. Our ethics should be the primary factor in deciding what we work on and whom we work for.

And they probably are already. If you’ve spent any time thinking about what you care for the most, your values, your vision and mission on this planet, then I expect that design isn’t even that important there. A means to an end, perhaps.

Ethics is about forming ideas for how to live. Once you have some sense for that, I don’t think you need separate ethics for work. Let alone for design work.

3. Good design requires design organizations

If design is human-centered design and thus design should be good for people in the long run, why do we keep messing up? Maybe it’s unfair to blame it on individual designers.

Bad design is often not so much the result of designers delivering bad work, but organizations hiring the wrong people. As Scott Berkun argues in How Design Makes the World:

If an organization is bad at making decisions, they’ll be bad at making design decisions, too.

And:

People in power often prioritize their own interests, which means good design to them is that which helps them protect their power. The concerns of the people who will deal with the consequences, perhaps citizens, are secondary at best.

If people in such organizations decide that hiring (sidenote: Not even making this up: I’ve been in an organization like that. It was really exciting to have so much opportunity. It was also very frustrating to meet many smart decision makers who did really dumb shit. ) is the way to go, we can’t blame the designers for bad design.

As a discipline we can still improve though. We should:

  • Develop concepts for what a design management career track looks like. Even you’re not (yet) a manager, that could prevent your managers from making mistakes there.
  • Demand long-term career growth perspectives from our leaders
  • Stop calling ourselves product managers as soon as we level up from doing hands-on design.

But then still. Because entrepreneurship has been so glorified in our field, many believe unions are uncool (as entrepreneurs typically don’t like them and unions usually don’t have charismatic, autocratic leaders). Only few of us are actually part of a design community beyond their organization’s design team. Most of us just try and do what we can at our jobs. But like with any global problem, an individual can only do so much. By definition, an individual in a non-managerial design role is not going to change an organization on their own. And an organization that doesn’t value design, won’t put their designers into management.

So if you find yourself in a low-level design position in an organization that puts out badly-designed or even user-hostile products: don’t blame it on yourself! But also: don’t fool yourself and believe that a personal design ethic is going to change anything about it.


So are design ethics useless?

As I’ve argued, there’s little a design-specific ethic can do to optimize a designer’s impact. To answer the titular question: design ethics are mostly useless to designers who are looking for guidance to make tactical work-related decisions. That’s not really a catchy title, so I hope it’s okay if I leave it like that.

I do think design ethics are useful for some purposes though.

Civilizational or national progress is often quantified by economic growth. Economic growth is tied to growth in consumption. Which in turn is tied to marketing and the choice for environmentally destructive production methods. Designers are very much involved in that. Doing things user-centered is essential to what we currently consider design. But we’re hitting multiple planetary boundaries, so we can’t continue like that for long. In fact, we should have started to redefine what the purpose of design is a few decades ago. And that’s what I’d consider design ethics.

But if you’re a normal, hands-on designer, not (sidenote: Please let me know who is redesigning design though! ) , that’s not going to do much for you.

Now I don’t want to discourage designers from studying ethics and perhaps developing their own frameworks and whatnot. But I do think we should consider ethics beyond design. Design is just too narrow and fuzzy a field. By focusing on it (sidenote: Focusing on your industry can be useful though. Although I initially confused it with a design ethics book, Cennyd Bowles’ Future Ethics does address how individual behavior can deal with broad societal issues around digital applications. ) , we’d ignore that much of what applies to design, also applies to engineering or product management. Spending a lot of time with design ethics can be a distraction preventing some to take real action too. It has been a distraction for me!

I also don’t want to discourage anyone from speaking up at work and addressing unethical practices. I just don’t think a design-specific ethic is going to help you much doing so.

Car companies want you to believe you can fix our climate by driving in eco mode. The powers that be want you to believe that individual action (including recycling, masking, eating vegan and studying ethics) suffice to structurally do something about societal problems.

Of course, your individual behavior (sidenote: Even if you’re not a very influential person, being a dick means you’re being a dick to people near you ) . But this kind of individualist, consumerist approach to doing good can only barely meet the requirements for being a decent citizen.

Already in 2017, Wired claimed the cult of the founder was ending. It’s not really over yet though. Even after Musk’s act of a barbarian trying to overtake the Roman Empire, there are still (sidenote: I really don’t know if these blue tick people are even real though. ) who admire him. I also have to admit that joining a union or works council doesn’t sound like an obvious thing for professional development. But if you want to be a designer rather than an entrepreneur, that may just be the kind of thing you should do. Especially if you want your professional development to match your personal development. And if you want to have real impact beyond what your employer asks you to do.