A quick primer for ethics in design
The following list of questions and subjects helps a designer to
orient herself to the problem of ethics in design. The list is by no
means exhaustive, but illustrates what kinds of problems may be
embedded in design process and propositions from a point of view of
ethics. If a designer wants to act in an ethically responsible manner,
it is imperative to put forth personal effort in understanding ethical
conflicts rather than trying to follow any predefined safe rules.
Ethics is a process of learning – not a process of obedience.
What are ethics?
Ethics is a (rational) study of moral dilemmas in (human) action.
Morals are shortly defined as codes or guides of conduct (implicit or
explicit) that are based on personal long-lasting beliefs and values
or those of surrounding society. A personal act can be considered
moral, immoral or amoral from the point of view of ethical studies:
- Moral - an act or though that is in line with personal and
societal moral codes
- Immoral - an act or thougth that is against personal or societal
- Amoral - an act or thought that does not reflect choice based on
It is very easy to understand that almost any act or thought can be
considered both moral and immoral at the same time, if one considers
proper points of view. However, this does not make the study of ethics
(i.e. The study of moral dilemmas) any less significant: just like in
design there are no single right solutions – only choices that have
pros and cons attached to them.
To prepare yourself for the multitude of ethical considerations you
can start by examining your own stance as a designer, your own values,
who you are designing for and what kind of values are you trying to
embed in your design solutions and why?
Ethics in goals
- Do you think it creates a better world?
- To who?
- Is someone's good someone else's bad?
Designers as shapers of users
- There is no such thing as a user, except in your mind
- Humans use things, but that does not make them users (i.e. they
are much more complex in scope than the idea of “user” conveys)
- Beware of the user image that you conjure up in your mind – it is
a limited image of a human being
- What we shape, shape us afterwards. You can't design into a vacuum
- Build a kind of user that you think would be ethical from your
point of view
- Be ready to reflect upon your user and compare your own ethics
towards those of others
Needs and wants
- Serve needs not only wants
- Learn to identify what people really need instead of what they
want, because of external influences
- Do not get slave to needs, appreciate wants as well
- Practise the balance between the two
Ecology and environment
- What is ethical in terms of ecology?
- Are you solving the problem or merely contributing less to it?
- Are you promoting ecological preservation or just paying lip
service to it?
- Beware of 'greenwashing' (appearing to be ecological just for the
- Are your goals bound by cultural imperatives?
- Which and why?
- Should you change them?
- Should you make your design solution local (works for specific
cultures) or global (works in as many cultures as possible)?
Ethics in practise
- Would you like the design be done to yourself?
Means and ends
- Ends may not justify the means (nor vice versa)
- Practise is part of what makes the solution
- Designing ethically is not just about making solutions that are
ethically sound, but exposing the practise to ethical scrutiny as well
Methods and tools
- Adopt methods and tools to local, national and other cultures
- Do not obey methods mechanistically if it ethically unsound
- People and group-based methods involving conversation offer a
better hope of achieving results with ethical considerations in mind
Ethics in design propositions
- Would you use it yourself?
- Would you like everyone to have one?
- What would that mean in practise?
- Can your design be easily misused?
- Can and should you even try to prevent that misuse?
Design for all
- Can you avoid the common pitfall of “designing for a 25-year old
university educated healthy caucasian single male with a tendency
towards new and technical”
- Who is “all”?
Individual and collective
- Design solutions are not used in a vacuum – they have influences
beyond the scope of a single user (or a group of users)
- Does the need of the many outweight the need of a one (or vice
Form and function
- Both need to co-exist – if one dominates at the expense of the
other, problems may arise.
Innovation and tradition
- If you innovate you force people to change traditional ways
- Imposing change vs. introducing alternative ways of using
- Should you bow to tradition just because it is?
Ethics of aesthetics and design in housing
Victor Papanek: The Green Imperative, Ecology and Ethics in Design
Gorman, M. E. (1998). Transforming nature: Ethics, invention and
Putting Environmental Ethics at the Center of Design
Teaching Ethics to Scientists and Engineers: Moral Agents and Moral
Online Ethics Search
Design Ecology Ethics and The Making of Things