Is ethics bad for (the design) business?

When designers look at themselves in the (ethical) mirror and don’t like what they see

It dawned on me soon into my first design job:(gasp) designers might not save the world! However, — and many years down the road, — I realised that they can play an important role in helping the businesses they work for from inflicting harm to their customers. It’s actually a part of their duty. It‘s a win-win: your clients will earn people’s trust and you will sleep better at night. Sounds simple, right? Well, truth is, it is a little more complicated than that.

Article originally published on Medium.

The events of the last three years in the tech world brought upon the design profession the realisation that if designers don’t pay attention and own up their share of responsibility, terrible things will happen. Unethical design can cause harm to people. And yet, most of us, — I’d like to think — are in this profession for the very opposite reason: we want to design for the good, we want to help people. So how could this happen? Partly because, afraid of being problem-focused, I believe that many designers may not have been tackling the issue well enough.

The question has become inescapable for individual designers and companies as a whole. While we are growingly faced with important ethical choices in everything we do, it is often hard to acknowledge the apparent conflict between doing the right thing for users (and society at large) and meeting the objectives of the business that hired us in the first place.

A designer’s code

One of the reasons why it’s hard for designers to deal with ethical issues is because we are still poorly equipped to handle the ethical questions that may emerge in our work. Unlike many of the design methods in our toolkit, many designers still don’t learn about ethics at school. A glance at the design curriculums in the top design schools (at least in Europe) exposes a simple fact: apparently, ethics is not so relevant. Meaning: either most of them lack ethics as part of the syllabus, or they’re doing a poor job at saying so (if you are part of an educational institution and feel the statement is unjust, I trust you will come forward).

This is not about morality (which is of a social, cultural or religious nature), this is about how we should guide our professional decisions as a community.
Rui Martins, Creative Leader Digital Design, EGGS Design

Adding to that is the simple fact that, unlike engineers, doctors or lawyers, designers don’t necessarily abide by a code of ethics, even though, as recent history has shown, they can assist in inflicting tremendous damage to society. This is precisely the point Mike Monteiro makes in his book “Ruined by Design”, where he shared an open-source Code of Ethics (thank you, Mike!). The issue of a code of ethics is not trivial: the whole point of ethics is to have universal, fundamental principles on what it means to act for the common good, to live better. This is not about morality (which is of a social, cultural or religious nature), this is about how we should guide our professional decisions as a community.

There's an elephant in the room. Or rather - in the design studio. We are in dire need of becoming better equipped, by defining and applying an ethics' code in design. (Illustration credits: Monia Nilsen:

As designers expand their influence beyond craft and into territories such as creative problem solving and strategic transformation, they’re getting seated at the table where important decisions are being made. While this transition brought them influence, it also highlights the need to face new and heavier responsibilities. In order for their voice to be heard, they need to do more to stay relevant: they need a deep understanding of the technology they’re dealing with and the implications of their choices towards users. Being technologically savvy is now imperative for a designer. And yes, an ethical framework needs to guide those choices. If you think otherwise, you’re being naïve.

After twenty years in the business, I feel that the design profession is still relatively immature on the ethical front. In my view, the reflection is still too quiet, too marginal, too little, when compared to other professions with impactful, social significance.
Rui Martins

Heard it all before?

Sure, this isn’t new. The issue has been troubling designers for decades. Ken Garland led a group that put out the “First things first manifesto” (originally in 1964, and renewed in 2000). In 2007, the Designers Accord aimed to “advance the conversation around the ethics, practices, and responsibilities of the creative community.” In 2009, David Berman put out the “Do good design”, urging designers in its “Do good pledge”: to be true to their profession; be true to themselves; spend at least 10% of their professional time helping repair the world. There are probably many more examples, including the already mentioned “Ruined by Design”, which Mike Monteiro published in 2019.

However, after twenty years in the business, I still find the design profession relatively immature on the ethical front. The reflection is still too quiet, too marginal, too little when compared to other professions with impactful social significance.

It doesn’t matter whether you set out to do wrong or not — it’s the consequences that will matter in the end.
Rui Martins

Why is this even a question?

I fear that the elephant in the room is this: on one hand, parts of the business community might be looking at ethics in design as yet another limiting factor; and at their end, designers might be refraining themselves to raise the issue at the table, afraid of throwing yet another spanner in the works. But as James Williams put it very well (in Ethics for Design), “ethics is not a brake pedal, but a steering wheel”. Just like with other transformations (security, green and circular economy, supply chain responsibility, to name a few), the ability to demonstrate that a company has ethical guiding principles beyond the balance sheet, is something that can foster trust, build loyalty and attract investment. How much is that worth for your business?

The ethical gap is now so large, that it actually presents an opportunity for some. In the search engine world, for example, we see companies like Duckduckgo or Qwant with a value proposition based on user privacy as a differentiating factor with success. If you look beyond the business world, this is equally true for governments and institutions, as we have seen during the current pandemic: how effective can a health policy be, in countries where people don’t trust their government?

The ability to demonstrate that a company has ethical guiding principles beyond the balance sheet is something that can foster trust, build loyalty and attract investment.
Rui Martins

It’s true that the convergence of business and ethics should be a hygiene factor. But this is where consequentialism can come biting: it doesn’t matter whether you set out to do wrong or not — it’s the consequences that will matter in the end. And because choices are complex, it is a designer’s responsibility to help clients navigate this. Perhaps to get there we will need to deal with ethical-washing just like we did with other moments before. But at least the pressure is out to make it part of the design process. Explicitly.

Problems, problems! Any solutions?

In Europe, with regards to privacy, the legal implementation of GDPR was a major step. In Norway, universal design is legally enforced, punishing lack of compliance as an act of discrimination (which can have citizen-initiated litigation, without any cost). Sustainability criteria are driving consumer and investor choices, with more attention being given to the triple bottom line.

All of these are elements of ethics, of working for the common good. This will have an impact on how users, consumers, make their decisions. So these are some possible measures to file under the category “what can I do?”:

  • Adopt a code of ethics. A deontological code, like the one proposed by Mike Monteiro, is certainly a good start. If you want to adapt it slightly or develop your own, go right ahead. But the core principles of working for the common good need to be there. At the end of the day, a code of ethics will only work if shared at a design community level but it starts with every individual designer. We’ll never know if we do actually share the same values if we don’t state them out loud.

  • Make tech literacy a part of your design approach. Seek the knowledge, systematise it and make it part of your design process. Even better, share it with your colleagues. In EGGS, we have started developing methods for equipping any designer with much-needed tools in assessing what role can technology potentially have. We probe, we question, we explore the upsides and downsides of anything from augmented reality to artificial intelligence, questioning its relevance and potential gains and pitfalls, including ethical ones. We call it Tech as a Design Material.

  • Use ethical-thinking design tools in your projects. Tools like the ethics canvas, the data ethics canvas, Microsoft’s Judgement Call role play game or even a whole set of ethical tools for designers are being put out there, readily available, to assist with framing the important topics in a project. These can make a huge positive difference in the direction of a project.

  • Have systems in place to check how you are tracking with ethical indicators. These can be tags into your projects, or just a spreadsheet. There are many, potentially: SDGs, privacy, accessibility, transparency, inclusive design, to name a few. It’s important to set goals for how many projects you wish to cover on each of the ethical dimensions that are important for your company as a group. If, for example, your colleagues share the same sustainability values, that way you can see if you are “walking the talk”.

Intentionally, I did not title this article as “5 ethical measures you can take as a designer”, for three reasons: 1) I only wrote four, 2) I find those titles slightly provoking and 3) because I am skeptical of spoon-fed recipes myself. These are some of the good practices already adopted in the design community, but there will surely be many others. My aim is not really to put out a list of ethical commandments but to call for action when it comes to the ethical implications of our work, where user and business interests should overlap.

So feel free to challenge this, in your questioning process. If you think it’s rubbish, turn your head away. Just don’t pretend the elephant isn’t there.

Sounds interesting?

Rui Martins

Get in touch with Creative Leader Digital Design
Rui Martins
+47 416 31 178

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