How Leave No Trace ethics can make us better designers

The ethical framework I use most frequently is Leave No Trace. It is an impact-oriented set of rules to mitigate human impacts on nature when camping or exploring the outdoors.

The six principles are:
-Plan ahead and prepare
-Camp and Travel on durable surfaces
-Dispose of wastes properly
-Leave what you find
-Use fire responsibly
-Respect wildlife


When I think about my natural orientation towards ethical questions, I can’t help but be influenced by my values and practices in relation to land use and sustainability, which is also largely impact-oriented.

A focus on impact is an ethical framework is in contrast to other lenses such as a focus on duty or virtue.

Duty: “It is my duty to not litter.”
Virtue: “It is morally wrong to take pine cones from the forest because they do not belong to me.”
Impact: “I must be careful to put out my campfire because a forest fire would be devastating to the plants and animals here.”

Impact seems like an important consideration in living an ethical life. A world of people all creating positive impacts feels like a world I want to live in, even more than a world of dutiful or virtuous people. However, impact is also the least ‘knowable’ aspect of an ethical decision. It is necessarily ‘post hoc.’ We won’t know how something is going to play out until it does.

How can we maximize positive impact given our naivete about the consequences of our actions?


Control for bias
We are bad at estimating negative impacts, we have a bias towards assuming good outcomes because we know our good intentions. We tend to overestimate the likelihood and magnitude of positive outcomes and underestimate the likelihood and magnitude of negative outcomes.

As designers, we can recalibrate our risk tolerance and our bias by being aware of these tendencies and making and effort to add in the possibility of negative outcomes to our planning. We can also practice the precautionary principle, by assuming negative outcomes until we have evidence to the contrary.

Do your homework
To better estimate the possible impacts of our work we have to do our homework. Sometimes this is in the form of prototyping and testing iterations of our designs with populations before releasing them at scale.

Sometimes it means investing in educating yourself about the struggles of marginalized people, fragile environments, unequal systems, and vulnerable stakeholders so you can better estimate the consequences of your design choices. Impact-oriented designers create a space for people with outsider knowledge or positioning.

Find your center
When thinking about our impacts we can be more intentional if we are deliberate about who we are centering when we are evaluating impact. In LNT the wilderness ecosystem is at the center. When striving to make positive change it’s easy to say that we are ‘human-centered’ designers, but what does that really mean in practice? And what other interests are at risk of stealing our focus?

It’s not enough to just center the entirety of human experience. Being more precise about who our technology is for and how it will help them allows us to more accurately estimate impact. We can’t be all things to all people when trying to orient design work to impact.


Through controlling for bias, doing our homework and finding a center we can apply lessons from decades of Leave No Trace ethics to design work.