Five Positions on Ethics: The Role of Design in the Society

What ethics mean when talking about design?

What ethics mean to me? What products I allow in my life?

The following principles are important to me when considering ethics in design:

  •  well researched, user-centred design that has a purpose.
  •  provides an optimistic promise to solve the problem.
  •  does not have hidden business goals to influence behaviour and make the profits from addiction.
  • considers eco-system in which it exists and all involved parties. (inclusive design)

Here are my reflections on five author’s positions.

Ethics and Responsibility DiagramWhen considering ethics in design, Bernay’s position was rated least favourable in my diagram. His idea of manipulating public opinion has many downsides that he did not see in his time. He never considers the end-user, he looks at the influence from the top-down and states that “in the era of mass production the technique of distribution can be applied to ideas”. He assumes that ideas are at the core to make a positive social change.

In his opinion “at the core of public opinion is a tenacious will to move in the direction of ultimate social and individual benefit.”  Though history has shown us that it is not enough to have will for a positive future. Bernays’ position does not give us insights on how to deal with a profit-driven agenda of big corporations, political autocracy, etc.  His position would make more sense if he shifted his focus from forming public opinion around ideas towards end-user needs. He does not clarify the ethics of an influencer assuming he knows what he is doing.

 As designers of future products we need to be responsible and foresee the possible negative consequences of our actions.

 Vitta’s position is much stronger when it comes to ethics in design. He sees the crucial role of a designer to create and translate cultural meanings. Every object that the designer ships to the world has consequences. There has to be a voice and ethical stand for what he does. The designer’s reputation is at stake every time.

Vitta describes a reality where the social value of an object is the most important and defined by the parameters of prestige, brand, gadget character etc. He never elaborated on how a producer of meaningful products (designer) can help a user have a healthier relationship with reality.

Postman warned future IT professionals (engineers/designers) to be fully aware of the downsides of their creations. Every technological breakthrough has its winners and losers.  He is pretty pessimistic about the future. He highly doubts that “through more conveniently packaged, more swiftly delivered information, we will find solutions to our problem…all of this is monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy”.

Technological advancements give the illusion that we are solving our problems, but they are just tools to help us get there. Designers need to treat technological advancements as vehicles. There is need to put our core values as humans above IT.

V. Papanek’s position is that the role of design in our society is to bring about change. This position resonates with me. Papanek is one of the first design educators who made the shift towards design research and serious study of end-user needs. In his opinion, designers have a great knowledge when it comes to creation/delivery of new products but their blindspot is to identify the “true needs of men”.

According to Papanek, a designer needs to learn how to think freely and get to the core of a complex problem by using techniques of ideation, synthesis, analysis of the system etc.

Dewey’s idea of incremental practical learning through experiences that have positive reinforcements resonates with me. I think this principle is fundamental for good design practices.

Dewey recognises the need of a student to be included in the educational process. He suggests that not only the external metrics of success are valid but also the internal factors. They trigger the growth of an individual. The idea to design with and not for is similar in nature. In Dewey’s model, a student develops his expertise through building multidisciplinary connections that form structured basis for knowledge that can be easily applied in the real world.  Similar processes uses a designer during synthesis and sense making process. It helps to get insights, ideate and innovate later on. I gave Dewey’s position the highest rating  because a holistic approach to the user experience creates a positive outcome in any given system.