Ethics and Responsibility in Design

Over the course of two weeks, I have been exploring the topic of ethics and responsibility in the world of service and system design. During this time I’ve read six articles. The Articles included:

  • “The Meaning of Design” by Maurizio Vitta
  • “Design For the Real World” by Victor Papanek
  • “Rebel with a Cause” by Victor Papanek
  • “Experience & Education” by John Dewey
  • “Informing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman
  • ” Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How” by Edward L. Bernays

The topics of technology, experiences, manipulation, and consumption all play a role in the world of systems and service design. The results of our actions endure long after we are gone, we have only a squishy sense of the notion of ethics and responsibility to help guide those actions in the hope that that the results will be virtuous and not insidious.

Each author presents an insightful perspective on the results of design creations and their interaction with mass consumption, mass production, technological advances, and humankind’s natural defenselessness to manipulation, information surpluses, and the resulting experiences that change people from this complex interaction over time. The thing created, and the influence it has, often survives it’s creator, taking on new purpose and impacting those that use it. Despite one’s intentions and efforts, the reality stands that we are limited by time, while the things we make endure. With time being the critical factor limiting one’s abilities, the positions and ideas that each author takes can and have been ranked in the face of this question “What do we do with the time we have, which ideas are more or less critical?”

In, Figure 1. Author Positions, I have ranked the ideas that I view as most important to be cognizant of when designing software, services, and systems for humans. The ranking is not a reflection of the value of the idea. Instead, it is my opinion of what should be top of mind when designing. Each position was ranked based on the elements of consumption, experiences, technology, and manipulation.

Figure 1. Author Positions

Author Positions By Kim Nguyen

A design’s worth can be measured by how it is consumed. In the world of continuous mass consumption and mass production design, an idea can be deemed as not valuable and quickly replaced by a replica. While this effect does have esoteric implications on the value of a designer, and quality of the human experience it is less impactful an idea to the question of “What do we do with our time?” It is an idea that designers must be cognizant of when trying to create something with a purpose, which in turn adds to the value and purpose of the designer. Thus, Vitta is ranked on the less important side. In Papanek’s “Design For the Real World,” he summarizes quite boldly that we must avoid making things and technology which only serves to clutter, and usurp people and resources. These harmful things have a negative impact on the human experience in the long run. As it is in a similar spirit to Vitta, this piece also lands on the less critical side.

Dewey’s argument is ranked in the center of this line because he brings to the conversation the importance drawing from past experiences and knowledge when one works to be progressive. The Nature of experience is a dynamic one. It can serve to motivate and discourage, as well as change the individual or a group of individuals. The thing to be aware of here is the degree of impact. Because change impacts the whole, we must invite history into the design process to help guide our choices.

Papanek’s “Rebel with a Cause” earns a higher ranking because it speaks to those that are ready to act. It offers a solution for how to avoid purposeless designs and calls for design with a cause. The ideas from this piece should be at the forefront of designer’s minds.

Postman ranks higher still thanks to the nature of technology. Technology, unlike most human inventions, has a global quality about it. Since technology can have such far reaching and instantaneous influence, we must take extra caution when designing such things.

Finally, Bernay. I have ranked his position as the most important because manipulation is an element of which we have poor understanding, little defense against and the an inability to see clearly. This element can act alongside technology and consumption habits to have detrimental and far-reaching impact on people and the world around us, if the idea or thing made has the intent or potential to be insidious. We must be cognizant of this element at all times.



  1. Vitta, Maurizio. “The Meaning of Design”. Design Issues, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 3-8.
  2.  Papanek, Victor (1971). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, New York, Pantheon Books.
  3.  Papanek, Victor (2005). “Rebel with a Cause”. pp.60-69.
  4.  Dewey, J. (1938), Experience and Education, Toronto: Collier-MacMillan Canada Ltd.
  5.  Postman, Neil. “Informing Ourselves To Death”. Speech was given at a meeting of the German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft fuer Informatik) in Stuttgart, sponsored by IBM-Germany October 11, 1990.
  6.  Edward L. Bernays. “Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How”. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 33, No. 6 (May, 1928), pp. 958-971

Week 1 Fin.

This week went by in a haze.  Today marks the completion of my first full week of AC4D.  The expression ‘drinking out of a water hose’ certainly applies.  Between taking in new information, adjusting my schedule to the coursework, due dates, meeting with businesses, setting team meetings to ensure the project has traction, the first few days pass by like a whirlwind.   By Day 3, I had lost track of what day it was given everything I have already completed the two days before.

Among the things I learned this week, my favorite class was definitely Studio.  After, an intense thought provoking week, learning about how to rapidly and effectively communicate ideas through images was the best form of decompression and learning. Through just a few techniques and attention to details, you can convey the idea of conversation. A few of the techniques that were surprisingly simple where:

  • The direction of a person’s nose indicates the direction of that person’s attention.
  • Small details like a background or a border make a world of a difference to transform a basic single image into one that captivates the eyes.
  • A few key things to make an image ‘good’ are intentional smooth lines, a contrast between line thickness, cross-hatching for shading, attention to proportion.
  • Don’t start by drawing the details, start with the basic shapes of an image and work on their angles and proportion relative to one another to quickly get started with a clean well-outlined image.
  • You don’t need the details to get an idea across.

The earlier part of the week took me through a fantastic emotional, mental and physical rollercoaster.  One I’d rather not retell in too much detail. The last day of this week was a rewarding end to my first week.

It’s All In Your Head

We have finally come to the end of our first mock/mini sprint of design. The entirety of it was INTENSE, another understatement.  Today, as my team and I went out to do research on our MVP, so many interesting pieces of information and ideas came up in conversation.

It made sense for us to be out in the field validating out ideas against real work voices. Continuing from my last blog’s theme, that “Ideas are dangerous” one way we reduce the risk it is testing the ideas in the real world. We went out and shared our ideas to see if it was viable, easily adopted, can cause more problems than solving them.  At the same rate, it was clear in a conversation with a teammate why innovation is so challenging to come by! For ideas to take, it needs to shaped, sharpened and packages in a way that gradually introduces innovations, while adding a REAL value for the user, and still include elements of existing reality.

Each element of a successful idea requires so much attention to detail, maintenance, modification, and revision to be just right for

After just a handful of Q&A sessions with complete strangers, I was knackered. We had to take 5 minutes to sit in the sun, and bask. In that time, there were some really hard introversive questions and ideas. “Why did we chose this? What makes this all worthwhile?” and  Etc.

It is not an accident that wicked problems remain wicked problems. Tough problems are very challenging to see, pick apart, look at face to face. The conclusion we came to after enjoying a bit of beautiful sun, and smog-free breeze, was we just need to keep on keeping on.  At this point in the day, all I would allow my brain to hear was Ellen’s voice singing “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming….swimming…swimming.

For today, we decided that way to face problems head on it just keep heading onwards.  While I never verbalized this, I would also say internally, ALL OF THIS is a choice. We all choose to see, hear, believe and feel what we want.  In the words of a one very handsome and brilliant Trevor Cords, “Happiness is a choice dear.”

Ideas are Dangerous

Have you seen the movie Inception? In one sentence and in the of Catherine Woodiwiss,  ideas “are so DANGEROUS”.  They absolutely are.

On day four if an intense business week-long orientation. We explored the world of ideas, and how to come up with them.  When I look at the plot of Inception, or in our real work the ideas that generate such strong feelings of hate, and even love I get the sense that humans are incredibly susceptible to ideas. I use the word susceptible in the medical sense. As in ‘infants and the elderly are more susceptible to the illness and disease’.

Ideas are as natural an occurrence as breathing. While it is something that we can actively influence or modify, it is definitely NOT something that we can mute or prevent.  I would go as far as to say that ideas to our brains are like air for the body. You can’t mute it, you can’t prevent it. Once one takes root, you can’t stop it. You can try to tai-chi it. But there is not stopping it.

So how do we make sure we are being responsible with the ideas we come up with?

To be continued (on day 5)…

Mental Gymnastics

Designing, as we are learning it, is a tough feat, which is an understatement.  There are infinite contrasting concepts, feelings and ideas that you need to be cognizant and attentive to. You need to know and marinade in the details of stranger’s utterances, while still maintaining a peripheral view of all the data. You come up with provocative definitive statements while still being wary that there are risks and dangers in making biased definitive statements that will impact what will be made. And those are just two tasks among the many we have gone through while trusting this process.

Today I spent hours zooming in then out, out and in, considered and evaluated the thoughts of interviewees, mine, and my teammates, comparing ideas to one another and against what has been instructed and recommended. I tried to make statements that read as conclusive while still recognizing that nothing is, and all things written can be scrapped. Throughout all these activities, it was a very clear everyone was riding their own emotional rollercoaster, where each rider was not in sync with one another. This mental gymnastics is… exhausting. I am exhausted.

The last time I felt like this was when I babysat a 14-year-old, 5-year-old, and 2-year-old. Each child has different needs, style of speaking, mental limitations to what can and can’t be expected of them. Where I was the sole person to attend to, provide for, entertain, respect, and acted as a buffer between each child. Even in this scenario, I can say confidently that I did something right. Each child was sent home fed, well rested, happy, and in one piece.  

In today’s activities, I did not walk away with that sense of confidence because there is not a concrete measure of success or completion (other than numbers of insights and numbers of design ideas). I did, however, walk away with a sense of what felt wrong with the quality of insights. So maybe that is something worthwhile. Developing an instinct is an immensely organic process, and today was certainly an unnaturally fast pace to work at developing it. How do field researchers do this!?  Trying to maintain a handle on the emotions of things is an energy consuming feat, and that is just one of the many tasks that are required of you to complete the process. I am impressed that there are people with the resilience and tenacity to continue to do something that isn’t impossible but recognizably taxing on an individual.


Growing up, it has been instilled in me that education is a resource to be taken for granted or a topic to be treated with triviality.   One year ago, the word expectation would have made me extremely nervous. Today, however, has been quite nice. After speaking to several AC4D alumni, and working with a few I have reframed what I can expect out of my next 8 months here.

Expect a failure marathon.  Becoming an AC4D student has placed me in a very fortunate position to be able to try anything and everything that I am willing to set time aside for.  As part of the natural progression of learning, I expect for all of my first attempts to be just bad. And I have heard that if I am proud of what I have delivered then I delivered too late.

Expect to cry at least a handful of times.  Among the many reasons that have drawn me to social entrepreneurship is the space that this work makes available for anyone working in the field to become close to and understand the feeling, motivation, obstacles, frustrations, and concerns that enter their subject-matters’ mind. If I don’t walk away feeling something that moves me, then I haven’t dug deep enough.

Expect to be humbled. As I discover, learn, explore and investigate the world around me, I expect to learn that the only thing I really know is that I know nothing.  In the past, that realization would have dented my ego and confidence. Over the next several months, I will remind myself that this realization should be a source of pride and real-time evidence of my personal growth, and even cooler, an outward projection of me developing brain plasticity.

Expect to be poor. Let’s face it. If this program is going to have me drinking out of a firehose, there will be an excessive amount of gummy bears and coffee to get me through the tough times. Best I buy some stocks in SBUX now to try and come out even.

Lastly. Expect to come out the other side changed and improved.

It’s impressive how one word can one day be a source of anxiety, fear, and insecurity then the next become a source of hope, excitement, and symbol for improvement. But that is the nature of ideas isn’t it, the impact of the words and idea are all dependant on the lens one CHOOSES to wear.