What is the designer’s responsibility to society?

At AC4D, students are taught to design for social good. The ethics of designing in practice, however, can be complicated.

To learn more about ethics, we read the work of five theorists. Not all practiced in the field of “design,” but all expound design principles and their impact on society. Edward Bernays wrote about manipulation of public opinion, for example, while John Dewey wrote about education. Both discuss the importance of shaping attitudes and behaviors and techniques for doing so, and their theories are critical to the practice of design. Both also wrote about the importance of working for social good, although they touch only lightly upon the subject.

These theories have been incorporated into the field of contemporary design and are reflected in the writing of designers like Maurizio Vitta. Vitta takes the conception of design and melds it to the theories of Jean Baudrillard to discuss the importance of the object for mediating social relations. Objects are not just used for practical purposes, he writes, but are used to convey status and convey meaning that undergirds societal interactions. Vitta expands the scope of design and accordingly expands the sense of responsibility for the designer. Therefore, he holds greater importance to the study of design ethics, encompassing a broader understanding of the ramifications of the work.

The final two theorists we read were Victor Papanek and Neil Postman. These two represent two polarities of our understanding of design’s impact on society and the designer’s consequent responsibility. Papanek understands design to be all-encompassing and the designer’s responsibility therefore to be of utmost importance. He believes ultimately in the power of design to improve society. Postman, on the other hand, believes that design creates winners and losers and that our focus on relentless improvement has led to an incoherent society that does not actually make people better off. He does not seem to believe that design improves society.

Social responsibility scale

I have created a social responsibility scale to capture each theorist’s conception of the scope and ramifications of design and their explicit commitment to social responsibility. At one pole is Papanek, who believes most in design’s power and most understands the designer’s responsibility. At the other pole is Postman, who, through his cynicism, advocates a near abdication of responsibility. In between lie Dewey, Bernays, and Vitta, who each present different components of design theory, with concomitant commitments to social responsibility and, consequently, importance.