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, issue 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’s 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).