Should Designers Adopt a Code of Ethics?

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Welcome to Business x Design, a new newsletter on the power of design. In this email, we discuss whether designers should adopt a code of ethics. What else would you like to see from us? This newsletter is a work in progress supported by you, our readers. Reply to this email with your suggestions and feedback. 

Last week’s Business x Design concluded that designers have a responsibility to add values as well as value. I noted that, while design can boost profits, it also has potential for more profound contributions to a company’s mission, identity, culture, and obligations to stakeholders.

To those from other specialties, this broad claim might smack of hubris. As a data scientist put it to me at Brainstorm Design in Singapore this year: “What makes designers think they have a monopoly on truth and virtue? Why should designers have any greater expertise in ethics than somebody from sales or IT or accounting?”

I don’t have a good answer to that. But it’s clear that within the design community, “design ethics” has become an urgent debate, raging across books, blogs, design websites, and TED Talks.

At issue: Many designers fear that they’re aiding and abetting business models that manipulate users into surrendering personal data, buying stuff they don’t need, and engaging in socially destructive behaviors. They also feel complicit in the rise of digital platforms that have polarized politics and systematically discriminated against women and minorities.

This angst is new. For years, designers’ favorite lament was that executives who controlled corporate resources refused to grant them a “seat at the table.” Now that they have that seat, many designers worry they are being coopted for unethical purposes.

A chorus of designers is urging the industry to form a design code of ethics, similar to those adopted by doctors, lawyers, priests, and even computing professionals. The Design Vanguard, a group of influential business tech and design leaders including Google Venture’s Kate Aronowitz, IDEO’s Tim Brown, Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia, IBM’s Phil Gilbert, and urbanist Liz Ogbu, has adopted a 10-point Design Pledge.

Mike Monteiro, co-founder of San Francisco-based Mule Design, supports such a code. (Here’s his mockup of one.) He argues designers need to learn to “just say no” to clients. “When you hire me as a designer, I do not work for you,” he writes in a new book, Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It. “I may practice my craft at your service, but you haven’t earned the right to shape how I practice that craft… I’m not there to do your bidding, I’m there to solve a problem or reach a goal that we agreed upon.”

London-based designer and writer Cennydd Bowles is skeptical of codes. In Future Ethics, a thoughtful book published last year, he writes: “Ethical conventions don’t themselves solve ethical problems: thorny moral questions still pervade medicine and engineering despite the fields’ prominent codes of ethics. Codes can offer some structure to ethical debate, but are usually to vague to resolve it.”

Still, I think it’s a debate worth having. And as design’s power becomes more and more apparent, some structure is almost certainly better than none.

More design news below, curated by my colleague Eamon Barrett.

Clay Chandler

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