How I Will Be An Ethical Designer

This weekend, while I was reading some of the articles we were asked to read for class this week at a coffee shop, a man approached me and asked if his friend could use one of the extra chairs at my table. Of course. I wasn’t planning on anyone joining me.

After he returned to his table of friends, with chair in tow, I caught him attempting to make eye contact with me a couple of times and, the few times we did connect, giving me an extra big smile. It was not surprising then when he approached my table and greeted me again about 20 minutes later. As a part of his greeting this time though, he asked if I may have one minute in which he could share the gospel with me.

Immediately, my mind (and I am sure, subconsciously, my body) recoiled. But, I, then, quickly, considered the passion one must have for something to approach a complete stranger and share their beliefs on that thing, without expecting any sort of monetary pay off in return. I replied, “Yes, I do have a minute.”

I listened to his just shy of a minute worth of story about his parents divorce and his journey to Jesus. I was impressed with the narrative he was able to relay in such a short amount of time. I explained afterwards that I am Jewish and so do not believe in an after life but rather believe in being as great a human as I can be in this world, right here and now. I do not have much reason to be saved for the next life. But I told him that I enjoyed listening to his story and appreciated him sharing it with me. I was happy that Jesus had helped him find his place in this life. And I appreciated his concern for my after life.

This experience was a wonderful exercise in practicing the values we were asked to consider in our readings this week. I decided to enroll at AC4D because I believed (and still do believe) in the power of design to transform systems of inequity and have hoped to apply my learnings to developing products and experiences that reduce that inequity, specifically in the pubic education sphere. The articles we considered this week asked us to consider 3 main questions by each offering their own take on one.

Where does the role of the designer begin and end in the effort to create a more equitable society?

After I explained to the man who had just shared his gospel with me that I hoped to be a good person in this life, as a friend, as a family member, as a coworker. He asked what I did for work and I said, “I am studying to be a designer.” I could tell he was confused by my response (as if considering how a designer of any sort could have the ability to affect anyone’s life deeply) but he politely nodded in agreement. I understood his confusion. A designer is not providing any sort of direct or immediate service to others in the way a social worker, a teacher, even a community organizer might.

Many of the authors we read this week grappled with the question I imagined by new friend asking: what role does a designer play in making the world a more free or equitable place? Each author we read offered an answer. Pierce Gordon, in his article Radicalizing Innovation: Are Activists the Invisible Designers?, argued that activists are the best example we have of using design thinking for equity. He says, “the focus on end users as the main drivers of societal change distracts (designers) from the institutionalized systemic issues of society.” In his article, our very own Richard Anderson refers to a Jazmyn Latimer and Sarah Fathallah. He mentions their argument that there is a distinction between activists and designers. That “activists have committed to a solution to a problem and engage in a variety of activities to see that that solution is implemented. Designers, on the other hand, (are supposed to) approach a problem with no solution in mind, and, ultimately, (should) only advocate for whatever solution emerges from a design process influenced by a multitude of constraints.” Gajendar argues that designer’s power lies in their ability to be a change agent in the organizations they exist and work in. He says, “The truly adept designer of masterful influence knows how to be an effective force multiplier by pushing and pulling just the right levers upon people, problems, resources, and so forth—those pragmatic elements of everyday work.” And, Thorpe nearly agrees. He says, though “most design seeks to improve the conditions of life for people (…) good design (usable, profitable, beautiful, meaningful) doesn’t usually constitute activism on behalf of excluded or neglected groups.” Monteiro argues that to the question of where you can do good work we should always respond, “The answer is so obvious as to be painful. Right where you stand. That’s where you do good work.”

I agreed with most all of these arguments. Like Gajendar expresses, I imagine the role of the designer in affecting change to be very dependent on their ability to affect change within the organization they work within. The more influence a designer has within their organization, the more capacity they have to create an impact. And I would agree with the arguments expressed in Richard’s article as well as Thorpe’s article, that it is the role of the designer to create products and designs that offer solutions to problems they uncover in their research. Activism, as understood in these articles is meant to be operating with less constraint but aiming for just as genuine change and equity. Gordon argues nearly the opposite. And while I agree there is much to be learned from activists by designers, I do not believe that designers should seek to be activists in the same way, but should see to make an impact on their product within their organization. I believe impact is most effectively made from within one’s sphere of influence, akin to Monteiro’s point.

How does creating technological products complicate efforts to be equitable?

After my conversation, I consider the form that most design solutions take today: digital. How does the digital format of a solution affect its ability to make an impact? A number of the authors we read this week sought to explore answers to this question.

Hubert argues that people are spending too much time connected to technology and that designers are part of the reason why. She suggests that in order to create things that are actively improving people’s lives rather than overtake them we should ask four questions: Do our outputs support conscious actions? Can we change the types of businesses we work with from those that take advantage of end-users to those that don’t? Can we stop supporting UX tactics that are aimed at hijacking the end user’s brain? How can we be more aware of how out work affects the world around us? Carr talks about how technology can be used to manipulate people, how the use of smart phones can become a compulsion through tactics used by companies to consume people with their products. Wu talks about how convenience is the most important factor is much of what we make today (especially from a digital perspective) and says it can lead to a lot of negative consequences for the user. He argues we should aim to make things more inconvenient to really best serve the user. Cugelman also talks about the way technology can be used as a tool to nearly manipulate people. He talks about how designers, unethically, play off emotions to draw people into technology products. And finally, Martha Gould-Stewart, the VP of Facebook, talks about how with the great power of technology comes great responsibility. She says that the great power that we have in creating digital products affects things socially, culturally, environmentally, economically, etc. and we has designers have to consider the implications of our designs in these spaces. She says, “In a sense, it is a new kind of digital urban planning.”

In short, most of these articles argue that technology always complicates ones ability to truly make things more equitable. And I agree. Technology is just recently being considered a mode by which people’s social, cultural, political, etc. experiences can be affected and yet we know that these arenas of life can be very affected by technology. Though, as I stated above, designers should seek to create impact in their own work and through their own designs and that they should not feel they need to incite large social change with all of their designs, they must consider the implications of their designs and acknowledge the ability of their designs to unintentionally cause large positive and negative social change.

How can we ensure that we as designers are being equitable in our designs?

This conversation left me wondering how I hoped to make a positive impact on the world through my work. As I enter the last month of school and look forward to embarking into my career as a designer, I started to think about how I may ensure that I am creating designs that are equitable and have a positive impact on the users my designs will serve. Another set of authors we read this week had opinions on how to measure equitable design.

Aye spoke about the popular trend of design competitions. He spoke about how he had judged a number of design competitions himself and felt surprised by the lack of criteria. He said there was plenty of criteria by which to judge is something had good contextual or physical design and barely any to judge if a design had positive impact. He offered a set of criteria that may help us determine if a design will make a positive impact. Buchanan shared with us the four ethical dimensions to design because he says, “Most important, from an ethical perspective, is assessment of the consequences of the product’s creation on the lives of individuals, society and the natural world.” And our own Richard says that ethical design is designing with, not for. And that in order to design with you should ask people what they want, counter to what many in business will tell you is best practice.




As I left my conversation with my new friend at the coffee shop and got back to work on my readings, I began to take a closer lens to how my opinions and beliefs might sway the ethics of a product I am creating. How might the fact that I do not believe in an afterlife (a belief I do not reference often or consider top of mind) affect my designs in the future?  How might other beliefs I hold, subconsciously affect my designs in the future? And who will be the judge of whether the design decisions I make are ethical or not?

As a designer, I plan to operate from a place of understanding that I am a biased party and an imperfect human. I hope to learn as much as I can about people different from myself and be able to create designs that respect varying experiences. I plan to do this by soliciting feedback as frequently as possible in the design process and allowing my designs to be challenged and recreated as many times as they need to be in order to be empathetic and equitable to the populations they will impact.