Jen Figueroa had Some Power

What is even the point of me being the oldest person in this class if I don’t share my wisdom?

Me, at Hamilton on Broadway on my 40th birthday last fall.
Me, at Hamilton on Broadway on my 40th birthday last fall.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve read articles on ethics and power: who has them, who should have them and what are they doing with them? As we did these readings I thought about things that had happened in my life and I wanted to share them as they relate to these themes.

Mike Monteiro writes about ethics in design and he says, “You can’t help Uber build Greyball during the day… and then buy ethics offsets by doing a non-profit side hustle. We need you to work ethically during that day job much more than we need you working with that non-profit.”

But that is what I was doing in my 20s. I was working as a designer at a print shop during the day and at night, once a week, volunteering at Texas Children’s Hospital.

I was also going to ACL.
I was also going to ACL and had just started dating this guy.

The print shop job didn’t normally bring up questions of ethics for me until I got one particular project. I had free creative rein on a brochure… for a defense attorney who bragged about [getting clients off] who were accused of murder, child abuse, domestic violence, DWIs, etc.

I felt sick. I told my boss I couldn’t do it and he said, “Yes, you can and will.” Mike Monteiro also writes, “I get that you don’t want to lose your job. I get that you have rent to pay. But earning your living at the expense of someone else’s livelihood is not a good way to live.”

Did I quit my job? Sure didn’t! I designed that brochure (in hindsight I should have made it uglier) and my concession was that I made my boss enter the copy I was uncomfortable with. That way I didn’t have to “touch” the parts I was uncomfortable with. He said I was being ridiculous. Possibly, as ultimately my feelings about it changed nothing; it got printed, thanks to my work on it.

(And yes, I realize people need defense attorneys and yes I realize people also get unfairly accused and the defense attorney’s job IS to clear those accusations but there was something about this particular defense attorney that creeped me out and I didn’t get any sense that he was fighting for social justice.)


Fast forward a bit and I was working for a national grocery chain that rhymes with Shoal Moods.

Accidentally dressing like twins is a thing that can happen!
Accidentally dressing like twins is a thing that can happen!

I was leading a team of six designers and my boss told me that the company was doing layoffs and my team was being cut down to two. She emphasized that I was safe, but they were going to lay off my entire team and post two jobs they could apply for. Jobs they were currently doing, I might add.

I was told not to tell my team, that I had to keep this a secret while also asking the remote team members to fly in for this meeting where they’d be laid off. And they would have to decide on the spot if they wanted to take the severance or reapply for their position. This was highly unethical, in my opinion, and no way to treat an employee the company supposedly cares about.

So I told all of my team members, one at a time because they needed time to process what was happening and they needed to prep resumes and think about next steps. It was unfair to blindside them and I refused to be a part of it.

That story isn’t about visual design but about user-centered design in that I put my team’s needs ahead of the company’s policies. George Aye offers these three principles to anyone practicing at the intersection of design and the social sector:

Good design honors reality

Good design creates ownership

Good design builds power

I utilized these principles because I assessed the reality of the situation (my team was about to lose their livelihoods), I gave them a bit of ownership over their future (a week’s notice is better than no notice) and I gave power back to them (they were able to walk into their layoff meeting with dignity and state their informed decision calmly).

Fast-forward again, to the nearly present, to Q3.

How I stayed sane during the school year.
How I stayed sane during the school year.

Margaret Gould Stewart said in a talk at SXSW, “We always want to push the envelope, explore the ways in which science and technology can solve problems and amplify human abilities.”

And this was true for me. For my Q3 project, I wanted to create an app that could tell me which of my fellow students were at school. That’s all I wanted from it; no location tracking or data selling or messaging. Just, who’s at school right now? The real goal was to minimize stupid communication: Are you there yet? – Hey, is anyone at school because I think I forgot my jacket/laptop charger/water bottle?

But the truth was that I couldn’t prevent people from using this app in ways I didn’t intend. My privilege was that I felt safe at school and didn’t mind any of the 17ish people on my app MVP knowing my comings and goings. If this got out into the world I couldn’t keep bosses from “spying” on their employees and tracking their time at the office. I couldn’t keep people safe if they were the only one in the building and someone on the shared app wanted to harm them.

So I quietly stopped pursuing it. I did my homework assignments but I did not want to let this out into the world and I didn’t pursue it after the quarter ended. And I’m glad, especially when I read this sentiment, also by Stewart, that we should be “Designing just as much to combat misuse cases as we design for use cases.”

But someone else did create it and it’s not well-received. Hopefully, everyone else can learn from my mistakes after reading these stories.