With the rising complexity and reach of technology, the work of designers can have global consequences. We need to be open to talking about the dark side of design and prepare for some difficult discussions on responsibility and who do designs include, exclude and advocate for.
During the past couple of years, design and design thinking have engaged a growing number of people and gathered a lot of positive attention. Design organizations have expanded, design-driven organizations have been built, and success stories written. It looks like we have fallen madly in love with design, for many good reasons. In the middle of all enthusiasm, however, there is also a need for critical thinking and discussion on the dark side of design.
The questions of ethics and responsibility are becoming increasingly important as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and robotics play a greater role in our societies and everyday life. Smart devices that can listen to and watch everything we do in our homes or elsewhere can be used to help us – or they can be used against us. There is much discussion on the technical complexity related to these products. Unfortunately, that can lead professionals from many fields to ask themselves whether we can make something rather than whether we should. We need a lot more reflection around how ethically complex many of the systems being designed actually are, why we are designing what we are and what could be the consequences in the worst case.
Let’s face the fact: design doesn’t always make things better. It can also make things worse. Most of us have witnessed, engaged in or read about poor or unethical design decisions, all under the banner of human-centered design or design thinking. Either by action or inaction, through fault or ignorance, questionable products, services, and systems have been designed. They are not beneficial for any of us or they only benefit a small group of people. One could say that this is not only the designers’ fault. Leaders, engineers, and other professionals have a significant role, too. That’s true. For the purpose of this chapter, design in understood in the broad sense – if you play a role in designing solutions, you can be considered as a designer irrespective of your professional title. You don’t need to see yourself as a designer to be able to design something that can have a huge impact – positive or negative impact – in your community or society.
ALGORITHMS AND HUMAN ACCOUNTABILITY
Design and design thinking communities tend to celebrate small failures as a way to learn and develop. That’s great in many ways. However, not all failures are acceptable, even when “small”. In the digital era, even small failures can have enormous effects. Think about Facebook changing their code: the impact is immediate and global. Failures can be costly for the company behind them for sure. But we should be even more concerned about their impact on users or the whole society. Can we risk the mental health of young people? Can we risk democracy? Can we risk peace? As Victor Papanek said in the 80s, “You are responsible for what you put into the world. And you are responsible for the effects those things have upon the world.” He referred to designers as gatekeepers, reminding them of their power, agency, and responsibility.
When celebrating creativeness, innovativeness, and an experimental mindset, we often fail to pay enough attention to ethical considerations. Silicon Valley tends to value speed and growth, but are they something to be celebrated if they blur one’s purpose? When we talk about algorithms, it is easy to ignore human accountability. Even the most complex products, services and systems have been created by human beings. Someone has designed social networks without a way of dealing with abuse, harassment, and spread of disinformation. Someone allows hate speech on the platforms because it counts as engagement. Someone has designed all those features that trick the users into doing something they don’t want to in the first place. Someone designed and installed a software into around 11 million Volkswagens to detect and deceive emissions testing (yes, he was acting on orders, but still ended up in prison for it!). In the latter case, there was clear, intentional fraud within a highly regulated industry. That’s not always the case.
When you access Google, you are in dozens of experiments without knowing anything about it. In many other industries, involving human beings in experiments without asking their permission would be illegal. Furthermore, often the systems being created are so complex, that even the designers themselves are unable to consider the full ramifications of their work, and they certainly don’t know how to deal with the consequences, some of which may be far from intentional or manageable. Still, human beings cannot blame algorithms for something that they have designed. In the same way, most of us have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, no matter if it’s illegal or not.
DESIGN IS A POLITICAL ACT
One aspect of design is that it is unavoidably political and that’s why there should be more discussion about power in the design community. Important questions to be asked include what to choose to design and what to choose not to design, but also who to include in the design process, and equally importantly, who to exclude from it. Perhaps the most important question is who do you and your design advocate for? Politics are involved, whether we are aware of it or not.
Many successful products have been created by privileged white males, who are unable to see things from the perspectives of minorities. Would the products be different if a more diverse group of people would have been involved in their design? We don’t know for sure. But what we do know is that all human beings are affected by their own experiences, creating biases. If people designing a social platform have never been harassed, chances are that the possibility of harassment, abuse or threats doesn’t even come to their minds.
The work of designers has a direct impact on the individuals and families exposed to the products, services and organizations created. In addition, there are indirect impacts on many different levels. The power of designers goes beyond their own labor, or the company they work for, to the level of the entire ecosystem they are designing within. The scale of many products, platforms and organizations today is global. At the same time, the power of design is unprecedented.
CODE OF ETHICS FOR DESIGNERS
When you become a designer, you don’t have to take an oath, pass the bar, or get a license to practice, nor is there any regulation on who can call themselves a designer. Doctors, for example, take an oath before they begin practicing. This doesn’t of course ensure they don’t face constrains or make mistakes during their careers. However, in all circumstances, they are supposed to do their job as defined by the code, to the best of their abilities. If doctors violate their oath, there is a good chance they will lose their license. Designers, on the other hand, can create addictive products, collect extensive user data for unclear purposes, enable fake news or more. There is no oath or official ethical framework in place that would guide them. There is little external demand for making the ethical qualities of their practices more explicit.
Many designers have proposed ethical principles for their field. Mike Monteiro is one of them and he has drafted his version of a Code of Ethics for designers. Monteiro sees his code of ethics as a living document and invites everybody to contribute to it. A similar need for ethical principles has been discussed also amongst coders, who face the same challenges: building increasingly complex products and systems in a fast-changing industry without any ethical framework to lean on.
YOU GET WHAT YOU MEASURE
It’s easy to understand why speed, growth, and market share often matter more than asking difficult questions. It’s also easy to understand why asking “why” can cause problems at work, or even lead to losing one’s job. We all need money for living and most of us would gladly welcome big bonuses. However, there needs to be a balance between making money for ourselves, making money for those who hire us and doing work that delights the people who use it.
Doing unethical design just because your boss asked you to do it is a bad excuse, but we human beings are biased when it comes to our own work. Upton Sinclair wrote about problems in the meat packing industry over a hundred years ago and concluded: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” The same goes for business today, and in particular to the highly competitive, growth-driven, and venture capital intensive areas, such as Silicon Valley. Once you get funding, the investors start pushing. If you succeed, your reward will be enormous.
Designers carry a huge responsibility, but anybody having an impact on the products and systems created – especially leaders and investors – need to reflect on their actions and commit on building sustainable solutions. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but there are other, greater values. That’s why we need to measure more than profit.
Monteiro throws a challenge also towards design schools. Students are not taught enough ethical skills, neither are they trained to have difficult conversations around ethics in design. Many young designers confuse solving design problems with personal expression. They pay more attention to creativity than measuring the effectiveness of their own work. And effectiveness, of course, should be seen not only in relation to their employer or business growth, but in relation to the society at large, including those in need.
In the era of artificial intelligence and other advanced technology, the consequences of getting things ethically wrong are massive. Maybe the most important skill that young (or any!) designers can have is not linked to creativity or experimentation at all. Maybe it is seeing themselves as moral gatekeepers, just like Papanek proposed almost 50 years ago.
This blog post is an excerpt from a book chapter written by Hanna Maula, VP of Communications and Brand at UPM, in our recently published book ‘Design+ Organizational renewal and innovation through design’. Based on the interviews of over a hundred designers, design managers and design business leaders, the book showcases the key insights from two-year research project on design thinking in leadership, change management, and strategy work.