Judging Ethics and Responsibility in Design

Over the past two weeks, we have been tasked with reading five prominent writers’ perspectives on design:

  1. Edward Bernay’s “Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and the How” (1928)
  2. John Dewey’s “The Need of a Theory of Experience” (1938)
  3. Victor Papanek’s “Design for the Real World” (1970) and “Creativity vs. Conformity” (1971)
  4. Maurizio Vitta’s “The Meaning of Design” (1985)
  5. Neil Postman’s speech “Informing Ourselves to Death” (1990)

As any good theory should, these writings have truly withstood the test of time. Arguably the most relevant for today was the oldest — Bernay’s piece on propaganda. 

Our ultimate goal with these readings is to identify how each writer views the role of design in society, and then determine which is the least or most important. Before diving deeper, I felt the need to define a) “what is design?” and b) “what does it mean to be important?”.

What is design?

For the purposes of this assignment, I found myself attracted to Papenek’s broader definition of design that focuses on pattern finding and themes, rather than products or consumables. Papanek defines design as “the planning and patterning of any act toward a desired, foreseeable end…” (Victor Papanek. Design for the Real World, 1971). 

What does it mean to be important? 

Rather than focusing on how each writer views the importance of design in society, I wanted to develop my own perspective. Which writer’s principles do I want to hold top-of-mind (most important) as we embark on this challenging mission to become designers? Through which writer’s lens can I start to draft my own opinions? What should drive me as a designer?

From this point of view, I plotted each writer from least important to most important. With the top writers being the ones I want to keep in my ear (cheering me on or scolding me) as we interview users, come up with ideas, and become true designers. 

At the bottom is Bernays. While I think he’s deeply important to read and understand, he views the public as holding all the power which dissolves designers of their responsibility. Although a nice sentiment, power is not equal and we need to be conscious of inequities when designing. 

Vitta again does not take enough responsibility for what designers create. I wholeheartedly agree that individuals are overwhelmed with goods and the act of consumption is really a process of communication. But ultimately, he lacked a call-to-action that I want to drive me as a young designer. 

Postman and Papanek, on the other hand, have equally urgent pleas for the public to break free of the patterns and distractions that bind us and focus on what truly matters: bettering humanity. Society is broken, and rather than “creating” using worn-out traditions or researching more information for information’s sake, we should use design as a powerful way to enact meaningful change. 

Dewey ultimately builds on all of this by saying not only should designers consider ethics and what’s best for humanity, but we should also create experiences that are unique and foster growth.

These readings have already provided an interesting reflection into the goals of AC4D; some are radical, provocative ways to think about design — a seeming core tenant of the school. I chose AC4D for a reason — a huge part being ethics and social impact — and I’m happy to see that both are incorporated in every step from the start. 

As I’ve heard a lot over the past two weeks, we get a major mulligan as students, so we should experiment and use it to our advantage. With the freedom to flex and get weird, I got hope to keep these principles top-of-mind so I don’t accidentally flex in the “wrong” way.