Critical Dialogue in the Ethics of Design

When we first approach the idea of design, we view it through a narrow and often extremely subjective lens. Through design thinking, we widen the scope of our understanding to find not only new, but “good” design solutions.

But how do we know what the criteria is for “good?”

After reading selections from five prominent theorists on the role of design in society, one can see a clear delineation in how each author treats ethical constraints:

Victor Papanek, writing in 1971, believes that the current conditions of the world demands social conscientiousness in all design. He promotes thinking forward and pointing design toward moral outcomes and views industrial design as an inherently harmful practice as it has the capacity to do the most damage to people and environments.

John Dewey has a more abstract and less doom-filled prescription for design. He believes that anyone in the business of creating experiences should take an individuals particular circumstances into account when designing that experience and make sure to only promote personal growth and inner resilience.

Neil Postman, in a bid to influence how we think about technology, urges us to consider how ineffective science is at soothing a troubled soul. He cautions enthusiasts of tech to look at the unforeseen consequences of major scientific advancements and question if technology can do anything to positively affect the human condition.

Maurizio Vitta is a bit more middle fo the road with ethics. He believes that things designers create often become more of social symbols than meaningful or useful objects. A Casio watch, for instance, tells time just as well as a Rolex, but they have different social significance. Vitta encourages designers to be aware that they have some power to influence culture, but it is the nature of the creation of products for that power to become trivial.

And lastly, we have Edward Bernays, nephew to Sigmund Freud and father of the modern field of public relations. Bernays argues, perhaps disingenuously, that people are rational creatures with complete free will, and therefore, all tactics to manipulate them on a large scale are just fine. The individuals will gain insight from all kinds of ideas, and will be able to decide for themselves what is ethical and what is not. Therefore, a designer’s only responsibility is to be persuasive.

Below is a diagram showing how these five prominent thinkers view ethics as applied to design.
Ethical Boundaries in Design