A note on ethics in design

BUILD modular shelves.

BUILD modular shelves.

I recently posted about a really shitty product on Google+, and one of the comments on that post put me in mind of the question of design ethics.  I almost just replied to the comment within G+, but then thought it might be better posted here.

Briefly, the product (described further here), is a highly modular and asymmetrically styled containers that can be “assembled” into many different configurations.

I don’t like this product because it interferes with the primary purpose of shelving: to safely store and organize books.  The organizational problem is quite self-evident: the geometry and location of the spaces in these units makes it virtually impossible to organize one’s library in any conventional, sensible way.  The safety problem is a bit more subtle, because you have to know a little something about books: they don’t like being kept for long periods of time at odd angles.  If you look at the bottom right container in the image, you’ll see a collection of books leaning to the left.  This puts stresses on the spines that were not designed for in bookmaking processes.  Over time, the spines will become damaged.  Also, when books are kept at odd angles, their covers will tend to warp.  Both these effects will cause long-term and possibly irreparable damage.

Admittedly, these units do look cool.  But what’s the point of a product the purpose of which is undermined by its own coolness?  How can it appeal to no one but the most shallow and superficial of people?  That is, if you don’t care about the books themselves, then your primary interest in stacking books ‘n stuff on these shelves – which you’d have to invest some time in arranging – is purely aesthetic.  That is, you just want to feel good by either seeing pretty things or by impressing others with your pretty things.

That may sound harsh, but it is what it is.  If you don’t care about books but keep them on display then you’re a superficial person; not to mention that you don’t appreciate the knowledge and wisdom in those books.

Now, the question arises: Why would a designer design something under such circumstances? Should designers be designing products for superficial people unappreciative of good things?

One may argue that the designer’s responsibility is to give form to the needs and wants of their clients and users.  How, after all, can a designer truly know whether the ultimate goals of a client or user are good ones?  Designers are, in a sense, a tool of society – they can do something very well that others cannot do.  As a subsystem of a society, designers need to trust in the other subsystems charged with developing, propagating, and maintaining ethical norms in the society.

I disagree with that argument, however, for two significant (I think) reasons.

Firstly, ethical behaviour is everyone’s responsibility.  Every individual in a successful society is responsible for acting ethically.  With great power comes great responsibility, and all that. The kind of organization needed to run a truly successful society requires everyone to hold up their end of the bargain.  That goes for designers too.  If a person who happens to be a designer does something for or to another person that the one honestly believes is wrong, then that person is acting unethically.  And all such behaviour must be called out and denounced to maintain the successful society.

Secondly, there is the matter of ethical professionalism.  An engineer or a medical doctor who knowingly behaves in a professionally unethical manner will likely lose their license to practice – and possibly even face prosecution.  But designers get a pass when they do the wrong thing.  The world is full of horrendously designed things, things that are at least a waste of money if not downright dangerous.  But how many designers do you know who suffered for their terrible mistakes?  I can’t think of a single one.

Should one do things that one knows are somehow “wrong,” or poor, or weak, or destined to fail, or pandering to base instincts, or whatever?
Of doctors and engineers, we require an answer of “No,” but of designers we don’t even ask the question, even though the acts of designers can affect thousands or even millions of people.

Society’s lack of interest in the ethics of design is woefully unacceptable, for two reasons:

It results in many shitty designs.  It has been estimated that 80% of new products fail in the marketplace.  Every one of those horrible designs embodies a significant amount of time, money, effort and resources that could have been more productively spent doing something else.  It’s not just that useless lemon juicer now gathering dust in the back of your top kitchen cabinet.  It’s the dozens if not hundreds of people who were paid to design, manufacture, pack, ship, store, display, and sell the lemon juicer.  The money they were paid.  The environmental footprint of all their activities.  All for a useless lemon juicer.

It undermines the public’s confidence in the design community. The more shitty designs get out into the public, the more the public – on whose behalf designers work – will feel betrayed by them.  The public will lose trust in the design community, and they will look at designers as charlatans and duplicitous con artists.  And when important design tasks of significant societal impact are undertaken, the public is that much less likely to be able to distinguish between good and bad design.

Together, these two effects turn “design” into a non-discipline on par with astrology and other Woo.  And that’s exactly the wrong thing to have happen.  There is a body of knowledge of design, and it’s knowledge that is useful and beneficial in the service of society.  But it’s useless knowledge because designers aren’t obliged to do the right thing.

What we need is a serious re-envisioning of the responsibility of designers.  Just as the terms “engineer” and “medical doctor” have legal implications in many nations, so too should the term “designer.”  Only then will we be able to get a handle on all the crap and harmful products that keep surfacing every year.

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