Perspectives to Consider When Building the Case for a Code of Ethics in Design

Today, most professions have a guiding code of ethics.  Some of the quickest to come to mind for you may be law or medicine, but even human relations, realty, and nonprofit fundraising have a standard code that has been agreed to and is easy to reference.

Designers are in the middle of a movement to better understand the role of ethics in our own profession. While the act of designing has been around (arguably) since the beginning of time, its sophistication and broad impact has begun to grow exponentially. This growth is due in large part to the explosion of computers and, therefore, information.  Humans are looking for ways to make sense of everything, and designers are here to help.

But, are we really helping? And, who are we helping?  Designers use our understanding of human psychology to influence and persuade the actions of a user. Part of the formula, however, comes from the fact that users have absolutely no idea it’s happening.

Lawyers abide by a code of ethics because it is assumed that clients may not be as sophisticated as their lawyer. The code is intended to protect that client from potentially devious actions of the lawyer. Put even more simply, it prevents lawyers from maximizing their profits at the expense of the client.

It is for that same reason that I believe we should all be advocating for a formal code of ethics in design–to prevent designers from maximizing their profits at the expense of the user.

In the image below, I’ve ranked five thought leaders based on how important I believe their perspectives are when building a case for the need of a code of ethics in design. Bernays is ranked most important, because as a result of his work, our world has seen how dangerous unbridled freedom of persuasion can be. We now know that Hitler’s minister of propaganda used Bernay’s exact playbook when building affinity for the Third Reich. An individual using such powerful tools should be bound by a code of ethics.  Vitta is next, because he teaches us that design is pervasive and has much more influence than was once thought. This influence needs to be handled responsibly.  Papanek explains that designers have the power to solve problems, and it is our responsibility to use these skills to address “the true needs of men” instead of wasting them.  Postman describes a world where people are inundated and overwhelmed by information.  He explains that information alone solves no problems–if anything it causes more.  The tools of a designer can help humans make sense of it all.  Dewey sees everyone as a designer, because every interaction any human ever has contributes to their overall experience. Dewey is ranked as least important when building the case for a code of ethics in design, because if everyone designs, regardless of their formal profession, a code may not have a strong impact.

A formalized code of ethics would give designers much needed guidance on how to be responsible, and how to treat users with respect and dignity.