Monday, April 20, 2009

Doing the Right Thing - Beyond Ethics in Design

I have just read the legendary Henry Dreyfuss’s Designing for People and am enjoying having my eyes opened further in so many ways. It’s really amazing that of the struggles we have in design, so many were already encountered and thought about and we’ve just managed to ignore resources like this until recently. At least on a broad scale. But maybe that’s another post. One of the things impacting me greatly right now is the professional ethic Dreyfuss recounts working by, including flatly refusing work.

I also recently watched Changeling and was equally struck by the fantastic amount and depth of corruption and disrespect for people displayed by the Los Angeles police department of the time. (Historical accounts of the same events appear to indicate that the movie did not exaggerate much.) I imagine a persistent and unchecked growth throughout the organization that perhaps could have been halted early by clear-sighted and disciplined intervention.

Thirdly, I came across this post from last year on UXmatters regarding the issue of whether our customers trust us and how little we directly address that question. Think about that. Do we even stop to think about whether the people at the company paying us trust us? Think about the ramifications of both “no” and “yes”.

These things, along with some of the causes of our economic crisis, caused me to think about how we as people and designers do or don’t keep ourselves on the straight and narrow and thoughtfully demonstrate our trustworthiness. And while I could discuss oaths and codes of ethics used in other disciplines, I really am wondering what we designers can and will do in this regard. Certainly we care very much about this, right? Our focus is to produce effective experiences that benefit both organization and individual. Yet there are, of course, opportunities for a designer to act unethically or even criminally, whether by fraud, negligence, incompetence, or harm. I doubt much of that happens now, but there is sure to be greater opportunity for temptation as our profession grows beyond a relative handful of idealistic practitioners.

As a loose, non-regulated community made up of individuals and small groups, can we prevent succumbing to temptation? If so, how? Dreyfuss had his rule of “inside out” design and a high ethical standard, but he evidently self-enforced both. We have our mission statements, peer reviews, etc., but these are generally quality-oriented and some things are only part of processes. AIGA has had some discussion of the topic, but even there it is acknowledged that “just having…a statement that we may agree with is not enough.

How do we prevent ethics problems before they need to be detected and acted on, especially when we don’t even have enforcement ability? Lawyers can be sanctioned and disbarred, but not only is the design community unlikely to be desirous of or successful at finding a similar construct, I’m asking my questions in hope that we can go beyond that and find something more far-reaching, immediate, and preventative. Some means of openness embedded in all design processes that keep us in line and from taking the easy way out.

The times we are in tell us clearly that the best and brightest can be blinded by and blind to their own selfishness. And that this selfishness and self-centeredness hurts us all, including many who have no power in the hurtful situations. How can we prevent the worst in our designer selves? Not in shackling, designers-are-five-year-olds ways, but with mechanisms that make us go beyond just doing it for the money. I think there are multiple facets to the sense of doing the right thing in design and engendering the trust of our customers, such as:
- Committing to a standard of excellence in our service and product.
- Advocating for the best blend of designs that are good for people and business.
- Lobbying for the right technologies to be used.
- Being willing to draw lines when high standards cannot be met.

Is this possible? What are other considerations, other components? Can we find or create such mechanisms beyond merely agreeing to a code of ethics?

What will we do as a community to make sure we do the right thing?


I have ideas, but I’d like to hear from you while I work on them.