Illustration by Monia Nilsen.

Is ethics bad for (the design) business?

When designers look at themselves in the (ethical) mirror and don’t like what they see

Portuguese version available here.

A designer’s code

One of the reasons why it’s hard for designers to deal with ethical issues is because we are still poorly equipped to handle the ethical questions that may emerge in our work. Unlike many of the design methods in our toolkit, many designers still don’t learn about ethics at school. A glance at the design curriculums in the top design schools (at least in Europe) exposes a simple fact: apparently, ethics is not so relevant. Meaning: either most of them lack ethics as part of the syllabus, or they’re doing a poor job at saying so (if you are part of an educational institution and feel the statement is unjust, I trust you will come forward).

This is not about morality (which is of a social, cultural or religious nature), this is about how we should guide our professional decisions as a community.

Adding to that is the simple fact that, unlike engineers, doctors or lawyers, designers don’t necessarily abide by a code of ethics, even though, as recent history has shown, they can assist in inflicting tremendous damage to society. This is precisely the point Mike Monteiro makes in his book “Ruined by Design”, where he shared an open-source Code of Ethics (thank you, Mike!). The issue of a code of ethics is not trivial: the whole point of ethics is to have universal, fundamental principles on what it means to act for the common good, to live better. This is not about morality (which is of a social, cultural or religious nature), this is about how we should guide our professional decisions as a community.

After twenty years in the business, I feel that the design profession is still relatively immature on the ethical front. In my view, the reflection is still too quiet, too marginal, too little, when compared to other professions with impactful, social significance.

Heard it all before?

Sure, this isn’t new. The issue has been troubling designers for decades. Ken Garland led a group that put out the “First things first manifesto” (originally in 1964, and renewed in 2000). In 2007, the Designers Accord aimed to “advance the conversation around the ethics, practices, and responsibilities of the creative community.” In 2009, David Berman put out the “Do good design”, urging designers in its “Do good pledge”: to be true to their profession; be true to themselves; spend at least 10% of their professional time helping repair the world. There are probably many more examples, including the already mentioned “Ruined by Design”, which Mike Monteiro published in 2019.

It doesn’t matter whether you set out to do wrong or not — it’s the consequences that will matter in the end

Why is this even a question?

I fear that the elephant in the room is this: on one hand, parts of the business community might be looking at ethics in design as yet another limiting factor; and at their end, designers might be refraining themselves to raise the issue at the table, afraid of throwing yet another spanner in the works. But as James Williams put it very well (in Ethics for Design), “ethics is not a brake pedal, but a steering wheel”. Just like with other transformations (security, green and circular economy, supply chain responsibility, to name a few), the ability to demonstrate that a company has ethical guiding principles beyond the balance sheet, is something that can foster trust, build loyalty and attract investment. How much is that worth for your business?

The ability to demonstrate that a company has ethical guiding principles beyond the balance sheet is something that can foster trust, build loyalty and attract investment.

It’s true that the convergence of business and ethics should be a hygiene factor. But this is where consequentialism can come biting: it doesn’t matter whether you set out to do wrong or not — it’s the consequences that will matter in the end. And because choices are complex, it is a designer’s responsibility to help clients navigate this. Perhaps to get there we will need to deal with ethical-washing just like we did with other moments before. But at least the pressure is out to make it part of the design process. Explicitly.

Problems, problems! Any solutions?

In Europe, with regards to privacy, the legal implementation of GDPR was a major step. In Norway, where I live, universal design is legally enforced, punishing lack of compliance as an act of discrimination (which can have citizen-initiated litigation, without any cost). Sustainability criteria are driving consumer and investor choices, with more attention being given to the triple bottom line.

Creative Leader for digital design @ EGGS Design Oslo. Works with the cross-over between technology and design, for the purpose of helping humans.