Have you ever worried about the real impact of your work? Done a project in an exploitive industry? Or worked for a company you actually didn’t care for?
I have! I used to think that learning about ethics in design would let me avoid problematic projects. But I found all of these questions and possible answers aren’t very important compared to the question: who’s gonna pay me? As in: whose projects do I accept?
Sure, every choice in design is preceded by the choice to accept a project from an employer or client. And with the engagement, you also accept the morals that come with it. I mean, it wouldn’t be very nice to your team to bail out mid-project for reasons that you could have identified before joining. But that’s actually not the reason I think the choice of employer is so important. It’s a bit of a long story—let’s go!
Most designers work in a commercial context: for a product company or a design agency. Most would avoid companies in certain industries, like tobacco, fossil fuels or single-use packaging. Between such obviously bad ones and obviously good, impact-driven organizations, there’s a gray zone of organizations that most consider normal. They are mostly harmless to users, not entirely sustainable, but make products and services that are often super desirable: the majority of consumer products.
Most likely, you’re working in this gray area, because most work and, with that, most designers are there.
I’m not trying to offend you there. I’ve been blessed with a diverse portfolio of design projects and got to see much of the spectrum myself. And (sidenote: Hannah Arendt’s famous Banality of Evil thesis deals with the difference between doing evil and being evil. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, but if you haven’t, I recommend this podcast episode. She made interesting observations on the trial of a WW2 nazi but allegedly missed that the person in question was actually some Jekyll & Hide-like sadist. Meaning I can continue to call myself not evil. ) because of that.
How I ended up designing for a dictator
One of my previous positions was in an agency environment. There I ended up joining a project for a corporation that wanted to sell more plastic. Some weeks into it, I realized the project’s profits would end up in the bank account of a dictator. Okay, that’s exaggerated, but only a bit. A large part of the project’s profits would, via state-owned companies, actually end up in the dictatorship’s treasury.
After I was pulled off the project, I was quite glad to hear that it failed because of the inept corporate situation at the client’s. The net effect was that we made some money off what otherwise would have become dictatorship treasury.
I don’t want to accuse my previous employer of taking on impossible projects (or of sabotage), so I guess we had some moral luck there. I still feel bad about the whole situation though. And during the project, it felt like I made a terrible mistake.
What got me there was:
- Too much trust in my coworkers (“it’s about recycling”)
- Wishful thinking (“just because the clients don’t live in a free country doesn’t mean they’re bad people”) and
- Neglecting to critically assess the project (“who are the shareholders of the client’s parent company?”)
What about my other work?
Most of the time though, I designed products that were anodyne. Proper user-centered UI design, where I thought we were doing something innovative, making life a bit better for others.
Then again, I wasn’t always so sure about my impact on the world. Like when we did this B2B SaaS project. I’m still convinced it was going to make things better for our users and the companies using it. But through our user research, we discovered that the industry we were designing for was deeply misogynistic, didn’t care about quality and scammed customers. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see the project clients’ businesses to be more successful.
I struggled with such issues. Is it really useful what I’m doing here? Or could I just as well design liquor bottles for teens? Or trick people into buying crypto?
These unresolved questions kept on coming. This is how I figured that if I’d learn enough about ethics, I could better answer them.
Design ethics, but simple
So for several years I picked up ethics books, had discussions with real philosophers and listened to philosophy podcasts (the latter definitely more than the former). I tried to make sense of things, but ended up with an annoyingly simple view on it all:
For a hands-on designer, these project-related ethics questions don’t matter so much.
It’s better to find a good employer, so you can focus on doing a good job instead of worrying about whether you’re doing a good job.
These three notions support that view:
- Good people at good organizations try to do good things.
- Businesses don’t hire designers for their good work, but to get help to grow.
- Your job defines you.
Let’s get into that a bit further!
1. Good people try to do good things
And evil people try to do evil things, I guess? If you’re not working at a purpose-driven organization, it may be difficult to surround yourself with purpose-driven people. And if your coworkers are indifferent about the environment, public health, social justice or civilizational progress, it’s going to be very difficult to make positive impact through your work.
2. Businesses don’t hire designers for their good work, but to get help to grow
To prevent this post from getting even longer, I’ve separated this part into a separate one: Businesses don’t hire designers for their good work.
The main point is simple though:
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.
3. Your job defines you
I gave this part its own separate post too: Your job defines you. The gist of it:
- Our experiences shape our sense of self.
- We spend a lot of time at work experiencing things and being with people sharing their views.
- We don’t have the capacity to reflect on every piece of information we get into our brains.
- Our world view is for a large part defined by all the information we store anyway.
- We define ourselves by how we see ourselves interact with the world.
Because we let us define ourselves by our jobs that way, it’s important to pick the one that defines you in the way you want to define yourself.
Does your job make you think about design ethics? That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you like that thinking, you have the time for it, and you can act on it, then it sounds like you’re in the right position. In problematic places, we need people with a clear purpose too. Otherwise there won’t be anyone to improve them!
But if that thinking leads to worrying and rumination, perhaps you’re better off at another employer.
The question remains: what kind of employer? All companies eventually get pressure from the economy to do things their founders didn’t set out to do. But jobs in government and non-profits often pay less. What if that “Do what you love, don’t do it for the money” is popularized by people who do the opposite? I really don’t want capital to flow away from people who actually want to do something useful.