What is the ethical responsibility of designers?

And where do we draw the line?

According to the UN, digital technology has been the fastest advance in innovation in history, 321 million people get access to the internet every year and on average a user spends 7 hours online a day. 5.11 billion people own a mobile phone and 3.26 billions of them use social media on their device. With this explosion of users comes the responsibility to ensure our products are ethical. But do we designers really understand the depth of this responsibility?

Where do we draw the line for unethical design?

During one of my first lectures as an industrial design student, one of our lecturers asked a question that has stuck with me ever since. What and who would we be willing to design for? This is something that I believe we should not just contemplate at the beginning of our careers, but consistently, especially as society and technology develop. He asked us to consider our personal ethical boundaries and what we would aim to bring into this world as designers.

Would we be happy to work for the military? How do we feel about designing weapons? Should we churn out plastic widgets for McDonald’s Happy Meals or cereal packets; destined to end up in landfill from the moment they appear on the drawing board? Image: Unsplash

There are many grey-zones and ethical dilemmas

Sometimes these choices are clear-cut, sometimes they’re in a foggy grey-zone. If I work for an international solvent company designing packaging for their consumer range, am I still ethically supporting their work in adhesives used for the military? Working as a UX designer for a ride-share app may revolutionise the transport industry, but have unexpected consequences for safety and work standards for passengers and drivers alike. These decisions aren’t only restricted to physical design but are also relevant in the field of digital design. I believe it is essential for us to ask these questions within the work we do - on a project or feature basis to an organisational level - and constantly evaluate and debate where our red-line is drawn.

Digital design is a double-edged sword

Dark patterns. Infinite scrolling and addiction. AI bias. There are many documented examples of the negative impact of digital design and the potential ethical implications that our design decisions may have on this expanding group of users. We are increasingly aware of the potential damage technology can have individually, societally, and environmentally.

Instagram, Facebook and other social media products build on our need for social rewards and affirmation, at the expense of users’ mental health. Gamification can encourage us to run more with Strava and learn languages with Duolingo, but it can also make us seek incremental rewards in mobile games or resources, resulting in levels of addiction for financial gain. Image: Unsplash

On the flip side, it also has the power to make our world healthier, more equitable, connected, and empowered. How can we apply psychological patterns and behavioural principles for good, without creating harmful consequences for our users or the wider society? Within EGGS, we have taken a lot of inspiration from behavioural economics and psychology to see how we can adapt behavioural patterns for good; from COVID-19 to sustainability.

One aspect is to map out and predict during the conceptual process what might be the unexpected ramifications and influences of what we’re working on. By brainstorming the potential issues, we can start to already react and adapt our designs to avoid harmful repercussions.

Look inwards and review your own bias

Within our teams and companies, we can start to explore our own opinions, bias, and diversity to explore how to safeguard ethics on an individual and group level. A source to play with is Digital Design Ethics, which created 10 universal principles written as User Stories for ethics in digital design, built on the UN charter for human rights. Ethics Litmus Tests is a card deck to practice tackling these grey ethical zones and ambiguous challenges with our colleagues.

Clear standards and regulations should apply for designers

In Canada, graduating engineers receive an iron ring as a constant reminder of their ethical obligations. A myth persists that the original rings were forged from a collapsed bridge, as a reminder of the weight of responsibility to maintain high standards, never compromise their work, or use faulty materials. Should the design field have an equal oath and symbol that can serve as a reminder of their ethical duty?

Frequently we see companies exposed to unethical behaviour, only for it to reoccur months later, without much changing. We should fight for and encourage better ethical standards for technology, both internally and within the legislation. Similar to the climate emergency, individual change can move the needle only so far. Organisations and leaders should be held to account, and legal policy is in place to stimulate change; in a similar way that GDPR has initiated a greater focus on data privacy and ownership. Clear standards and regulations should be in place for designers and developers to follow. Scientists, for example, have clear ethical standards and procedures that govern their conduct and ensure the rights, dignity, and welfare of participants. As a designer, should I not have the same?

Sounds interesting?

Kate Saunders

You should talk to Lead Digital Designer
Kate Saunders
+45 617 06 500

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. If you continue to click on this page, you accept the use of cookies. Read more about our cookie policy and our privacy policy.

Got it!