What About Ethics in Design?

Ethics and design should be looked at in context. Despite many claims to do so, this actually happens rarely.

Looking at the G20 riots, each of us has an opinion right away. “They’re to blame.” “No, them.” “You can’t do something like that.” “Yes, just like that.” Trump tweets out odd sentence fragments. We have an opinion on that.

But where are all of these ethical thoughts when we’re sitting in front of our design projects? Who creates services like Tellonym or Uber? Who thinks about Facebook’s strange abilities? Right now, in design, it seems like anything that’s possible from a technological standpoint is just fine and can be done.

Typical Consequence of Modern Design Creations.

On our customer’s website, we also present them as if they were top notch entrepreneurs worthy of gaining tons of customers. You do that even if you know that your client works with mini jobbers 80 percent of the time, and also pays his employees poorly and not in time.

After all, your customer is king and always right. In that regard, us designers are a part of the phenomenon of self-censorship. We’ve done that for so long that we don’t even realize it anymore. Instead, all of this is normal, everyone does it, and nobody does it differently.

Maybe we should remember good old ethics. That could surely open our eyes. Regarding our profession, we need to look into the following dimension of ethics.

The Formal Aspect of Design Ethics

Similarly to the Hippocratic oath in medicine, designer organizations have looked into creating an ethical guide for their related occupational groups. In contrast to the highly valued Hippocratic oath, the ethical codes of our organizations are barely known and contain nothing more than matters of course.

Let’s take the “Code of Professional Conduct” of the Academy of Design Professionals, as it’s a pretty one. It deals with a pretty good variety of topics. However, the actual focus is on the more formal, easily objectifiable aspects.

For example, designers are obliged to strive for progression. They are supposed to keep pushing up the standards while improving the entire branch, rather than the individual design. This includes publicly sharing your knowledge and abilities. Of course, they are supposed to make sure to observe the human rights.

When it comes to the basics of dealing with the public, commonplaces come into play. For instance, designers should always stick to the law, and act in a way that makes the potentially positive effects of design on the civil society transparent to the public.

Dealing with customers, designers should be loyal and honest, and explicitly voice any conflicts of interest. Contracts should be concluded in a way that they correctly mirror the extent of the project, while including regulations for all significant actions.

Towards their colleagues, designers should be fair and honest as well. Free work shouldn’t be provided. Employees should be paid appropriately and supported in their further development.

In between all of that, there are rules saying that designers shouldn’t take part in deceitful projects, take false credit, or speak badly of their colleagues.

Don’t get me wrong. This code of conduct is definitely better than not having one at all. In the end, it only contains things you could find in the code of conduct for petrol attendants, though.

The massive influence of design on the evolution of our information age is left out entirely.

The Moral Aspect of Design Ethics

Would you create Donald Trump’s new website? Here, you can probably figure out a clear position for yourself. However, I know a lot of people who simply follow the motto “Pecunia non olet”.

So, How Much For Your Morale?

Would you help create a trojan used by the government, or face detection technology? Why not, is what you might think, it’s not illegal, thus it’s legal, and thus it’s okay and accepted. If I don’t do it, someone else is going to do it.

Do you know what the client does with the information that your technology collects? Do you know how many teenagers kill themselves because they can’t handle the anonymous comments that Tellonym, that you helped design, confronts them with?

Do you know how many people have lost their job, and how many people will lose their job because you helped designing great services like Uber, Fiverr, or 99designs?

As long as it doesn’t affect you, it’s not a problem, right? Design is as popular as never before. Maybe, visual design won’t be this popular for long, but developing dialogue based systems will still be needed in twenty years from now. The medium may change, but the skills remain in demand.

I’m sure you have a political view. Does it affect your working ethics? Do you refuse to work for certain parties? Like, in general? I’m almost tempted to bet. Here, the world is still small and assessable, and it’s easy to be indignant.

But when it comes to a radical shift in the basic public order, purely fueled by commercial interest, it is not that simple to take an opposing stance. People are quick to talk about progress, and call critics progress deniers and stick-in-the-muds.

I assume that the progress is so rapid, that our moral sensors can’t keep up. Additionally, it’s great and fascinating to see what’s possible.

The Political Aspect of Design Ethics

I’ve already addressed Trump and the parties. Here, opposing camps are forming quickly. Even among friends, this can happen very fast. Everyone has their orientation, although they often don’t know what exactly is behind it. Doesn’t matter, just gather in a group and feel safe. You’re not alone.

Together, You’re Less Alone.

Actullay, politics, and design are pretty similar. Both create conditions for coexistence. The question is who benefits from that. The politican claims the well-being of the public was the goal. Most of the time, it’s all about personal power, though.

Facebook was originally created as an expanded contact management and has turned into the largest data kraken of all time. Hand out five likes and Facebook can calculate the size of your underwear. This is all about power as well, in the form of influence and money, mostly in the form of money.

When design becomes political, things will become tight. We might as well talk about religious implications of design. You don’t think that exists? It most definitely does.

So What? It’s the Same Everywhere Else.

One might find all of the above said true, but still think that it doesn’t matter. Because this type of influencing can be found on all levels, and in all occupations. Will all of that not balance itself?

However, that would underestimate the significance of design for our lives. The design of dialogue-based systems is at the core of the modern society, and the modern economy, It’s what is referred to as digitalization.

Our profession needs the same discussions that have been around for a while, like which type of stem cell usage should be allowed, and how far science should go in general.

It takes designers with the balls to not only chase the money. Maybe, we should start by actively demanding the discussion in the first place.

Dieter Petereit

Dieter Petereit is a veteran of the web with over 25 years of experience in the world of IT. As soon as Netscape became available he started to do what already at that time was called web design and has carried on ever since. Two decades ago he started writing for several online publications, some well, some lesser known. You can meet him over on Google+.

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