By Tobias van Schneider Published November 25, 2016
Let's talk about ethics in design.
//EDIT: I've updated this article after the 2016 US presidential election. I believe now more than ever we should talk about ethics as designers. Please share this with your fellow designers and have active conversations around this topic.
This article isn't about what's right or wrong, but about the fact that we need to start asking more difficult questions.
The role as a designer, or even as an engineer has become more influential and powerful than ever. The work we do makes an impact and naturally brings up the discussion around ethics, responsibility and accountability.
It’s something I’m thinking about almost on a daily basis and today I’d like to invite you to think about it with me together.
I like to take the recent 2016 presidential election in the USA as an example. Millions of americans supported a candidate that stands for racism & sexism more than anything else.
Yet, many people who voted for him also said that they do not agree with the horrible things he said, but they support him for his other opinions.
Now the question is, do you think this is how it works? Can I, as a designer for example work on a campaign for a presenditial candidate that supports racism & sexism while distancing myself from it?
Where and when do we draw the line?
First of all, let’s try to answer this question first:
Should design by definition always be good from an ethical standpoint? Or can there be “good” design, even though what’s achieved with it has a clearly a negative impact on humanity?
Let me give you an example.
The AK47 is being praised as one of the best designed guns in the world. It’s was designed in 1948 and is still in use today. Those who use it praise it for it’s simplicity, the ability to maintain & modify it, and especially it's ease of us.
The AK47 is cheap, rarely breaks and does what it’s supposed to do really well.
Now the question is, do you think the AK47 is a well designed product despite the fact of it being a killing machine? Or would you say, everything that is not making the world a better place for everyone, is automatically bad design?
Before we answer this question, lets look at another example.
A lot of you might know the widely known German fashion brand Hugo Boss, originally founded in 1924. But what few know is that Hugo Boss designed & produced uniforms for the Nazi party during World War II. Specifically uniforms for the higher ranking SS officers. Even until today, these uniforms are being praised for their good design & aesthetics.
The same goes for the graphic design of Nazi propaganda posters. Clear typography, simple messaging and bold colors. From a pure graphic design perspective, you could almost say they are inspiring and well designed.
But then again are they? Ultimately, they’re being used to promote something far away from what we believe is a better world for all of us.
It’s a difficult question to answer, because from an ethical point of view you don’t want to like it, but from a technical point of view, you might?
Can we say that ethics and design are the same? Some might say design is a practical activity, where ethics is more of a system of beliefs. Ideally they work hand in hand with each other, but they could be evaluated seperately.
I believe ethics in design is more important today than ever. It’s important to have this dialog with ourselves and question the work we do on a daily basis.
Whatever client or company you work for, we should try to be informed and educate ourselves to our best ability. Because, as designers we’re supposed to improve upon brands or products, it’s our job. But is it possible to truly improve something we don’t believe in? We often tend to be in love with the technical challenges but forget about the bigger picture.
Defining your own set of values as designers is important. Even though it might be easy to be accused of hypocrisy nowadays. Some of your moral standards or beliefs in one case might be not compatible in the other, at least from other peoples perspective. And maybe that’s okay, not everyone is perfect. But the question is, where do YOU draw the line?
Some might think working for a tobacco company is as bad as working for a soda company such as Coca Cola. Others think you can’t compare those two.
And honestly, lines will always blur. I won't tell you whats right or wrong, it’s up to you to define for yourself.
Let’s say the social network company you work for asks you to design censorship tools. In most cases, as designers we wouldn’t think much of of it and get to work, because ultimately we believe in the company we work for. We're part of the bubble and the internal briefing we've gotten didn't sounded too bad anyways.
But are we asking questions such as WHY? Why are we doing this, and is this how I like to see the world? Are there any other particular reasons other than monetary goals or more power? Is that the answer?
The thing is, few of us ask these questions. Most of us blindly execute, trying to make it as slick & fancy as possible. And I don’t take myself out of this and my intention is not to judge anyone but myself.
Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do. ― Potter Stewart
This is why ethics in design are now more important than ever. It’s important to think twice and build up your own belief system, not just following the one of your client or employer. Ethics are a process of learning & understanding, there are no pre-defined rules.
For me it means asking the right questions, such as:
- Would I use it myself?
- Would I like it if someone else designed it for me?
- Can my design get misused?
- Do I really believe this is helping someone?
- Is my work helping one group of people, but make another suffer?
These questions might be different for you. Every human being decides for themselves what they find morally acceptable and what code of ethics to live by. Ethics are something for every human being, but I also believe that we as designers especially should acknowledge the responsibility we have been given.
The products & services we design today reach more people than ever. It’s easy to fall in love with big brands, technical challenges or prestigious work. But knowing what we stand for, and WHY we do WHAT we do is what makes the difference.
Thank you for reading! And as always, for questions and comments I always appreciate you tweeting at me @vanschneider
Have a fantastic week,
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the founder of DESK, nice to meet you!