Do we need a code of ethics for design?

Designers have come under increasing pressure to consider the ethics and potential impact of their work. But what does this mean in practice – particularly if you’re working for a large corporation?

Lately, ethics has been a hot, if rather tricksy, topic for designers, and it’s only set to become more so in the future. Unlike many of the other Hot Design Topics—parametric fonts,VR, “acid graphics”, and so on—the role of ethics in contemporary creativity isn’t easily defined. By Oxford Dictionary definition, ethics are “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity”. As such, while there are a number of ethical issues we’d surely all agree on, they’re potentially fluid: what one designer might deem ethical in their practise, approach, outcome, or project might be far from it in someone else’s eyes.

Last June, we discussed exactly why designers need to be talking about ethics. We spoke with Lisa Lindström, CEO of Swedish and US design agency Doberman, which at the time had just released a film exploring the future of design. The piece set out the now widely accepted fact that good design—be that a branding project, service design, product, app or anything else—wields a hell of a lot of power, which can obviously be used both for good, and less good ends (sneakily making us buy things we don’t need, surreptitiously opting us in, silently mining data, and so on).

Lindström’s film found that designers weren’t blind to the fact that the more design is harnessed to drive business goals, the bigger the risk there is that they lose sight of the potential consequences of their actions or products. Many of the creatives she spoke to claimed that sustainability was a bigger priority than ever, and that they actively discussed ethics, social responsibility and “the importance of bringing humanity and personality into design.” But is that really the case?

Speaking to her again this month, she wonders if last year she was “slightly naive about how vocal you can be” as an inhouse designer. “It’s easier for outside designers or freelancers as you can pick your projects, but as an in-house designer there are more limitations. Maybe being vocal is a bit harder than I suspected.”

HOW TO ARGUE YOUR ETHICAL CASE

Cennydd Bowles, a former digital product designer at Twitter whose career now focuses on promoting ethics in design, has previously argued that design teams should “demand high ethical standards from themselves and their colleagues” by actively engaging in internal product development conversations through advocating for user needs, and “highlighting ethical concerns even at the risk of short-term unpopularity”. But how realistic is that? How can designers make their voices heard and not be fearful about doing so? Bowles reckons the critique phase presents the most opportunity for designers to speak up: “I quite like the role of ‘designated dissenter’ – a constructive antagonist who asks difficult questions during the critique phase. That person’s job is essentially to challenge and subvert the team’s decisions,” he says.

Tech workers are finally starting to realise that even though as individuals they might be quite weak, they’re collectively very strong.

Bowles acknowledges that being the person to suggest that a design decision may lie on the dicier side of the ethics scale isn’t easy. “It increases risk, it makes you more vulnerable if you raise these issues in a company—you might make yourself unpopular or get a reputation for being ‘difficult’,” he adds. The answer, he suggests, might lie in collective action, such as that recently demonstrated by Google employees in their 2018 walkout over sexual harassment claims. Earlier that year, a number of the company’s staff also exited over objections to the proposals for Project Maven, a Pentagon drone AI project. “Tech workers are finally starting to realise that even though as individuals they might be quite weak, they’re collectively very strong and can push these changes through and make their voices heard if they band together,” says Bowles.

While that’s all well and good for huge tech giants, it’s surely not as simple as writing mass-signed letters, or organising strikes and walkouts if you’re a designer in a small agency that has a niggling feeling that a project or process isn’t quite right. Bowles’ advice on tackling such situations is to ensure, when discussing the matter, that you “criticise the action, not the person and their moral character. Give them an opportunity to reflect”. Sometimes, he concedes, “you have to quit. Sometimes it’s not possible to make that kind of headway, but I’d be very wary of encouraging people to throw ultimatums around as they generally don’t go the way you hope.”

Bowles says that one of the major problems when it comes to design ethics is the way we look at who the stakeholders are in a project. For designers, they aren’t just the men in suits, or even the users, but society at large. He offers the example of AirBnB—“great for users, terrible for neighbourhoods”— and says: “We focus so much on the wellbeing of users that we often overlook the wellbeing of wider society. We have to broaden our perspectives to take into account wider societal, political and health issues.”

A CODE OF ETHICS FOR DESIGN?

Over the years, there have been several suggestions that the way around these issues may be to create a “code of ethics” for design. However, since none of these attempts have been too successful, it makes many question whether such a code is even possible. “A code is a little bit complicated because the world is always moving,” says Lindstrom, “and especially when it comes to ethics, maybe that’s an area you can’t write rules for—it’s more about values, which are also culturally connected. It’s not as simple as writing a manifesto and committing to it: it has to be a constant conversation rather than a quick fix. We have to connect to the fact we’re humans with ethical compasses and values.”

Bowles agrees that a standardised code isn’t the way forward. “If the previous 20 attempts haven’t worked, what good is the 21st?” he says. “I wouldn’t rule it out as a step, but I’m sceptical. A big concern is that makes ethics a checklist—something you do at the end of a project to tick the boxes and get it delivered. Ethics should be an ethos: it should be the way we see the world around us and an approach we take to all our work, not something we tack on on the end.”

ADVICE ON BEING MORE ETHICAL

A key tenet to being a more ethical designer, according to Lindström, is considering the potential long-term consequences of your work. She cites London studio Superflux, which uses prototypes to explore how today’s tech products and decisions might play out in future, as an example of how this can be done. To become a more ethical designer, Lindström says the first step is in recognising the power you have—perhaps to make people unnecessarily reliant on a platform or product—and actively bringing that up in client conversations. “One thing you can do in your everyday is just stop, reflect and talk about the consequences of what we’re designing,” she says, adding that designers should “continue to be extremely curious about people and your society and planet.”

Make sure you work on a diverse team with people who are different to you, not only culturally but in the type of work they do.

“Being open minded is really good for nurturing your own values, so make sure you constantly ask questions and be out there,” says Lindström. “Also make sure you work on a diverse team with people who are different to you, not only culturally but in the type of work they do: what if we could have more librarians or musicians or artist or philosophers on design teams? In art and philosophy those ethics conversations aren’t new, they’ve been talking about them for hundreds of years. How can we bring in that knowledge to design teams?”

EMPOWERING USERS

Ultimately, the success of the things that designers make is almost always defined by their users: how many of them there are; how actively they engage with a product, brand or platform; how they talk about it both online and among their peers; and how long they keep on using it for. In 2013, former ‘Google Design Ethicist’ Tristan Harris co-founded the Center for Humane Tech, which cites its mission as reversing “the harms created by technology platforms, and to re-align technology with humanity”. Alongside its work targeting government and companies like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft, it also claims to be “transforming public awareness so that consumers recognise the difference between technology designed to extract the most attention from us, and technology whose goals are aligned with our own”. Indeed, the issue with ethics around tech platforms is that as users, we’re still less empowered to discuss – or even recognise – the way they might be negatively impacting us. It’s hard to imagine, say, people openly having a moan at designers about having wasted yet another Sunday by accidentally binge-watching Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends simply because the Netflix algorithm didn’t stop us.

“It’s a slow process of culture change and erosion of harmful values,” says Bowles. “Corporate DNA is hard to change.” One of his current roles involves going into companies and encouraging teams to examine their approach to ethical issues; favouring bringing in ideas from speculative design to corporate environments to “help people think more intelligently” about the future potential impact of their designs and the tech services they create.

“Change has to come as both an individual and a collective journey,” he says. “We all have to hold the field of design to higher standards. We shouldn’t be afraid to be critical.”