The Design Virtues

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

[Last updated 11th March 2022]

In an attempt to create more clarity around design ethics, I have been trying to answer the following questions:

  1. Is ethical design just good design?
  2. Can something be a case of good design without being ethical?
  3. Can something be a case of ethical design without being good (in the purely evaluative sense)?

It is important to remember that words can be used in different senses. In some cases, we might use the phrase ‘good design’ to mean ‘ethical design’. In other cases, we may not mean to imply an ethical dimension. However, for the sake of clarity I will keep these senses separate.

I believe something can reasonably be considered an instance of good design if it exemplifies certain features that I am calling ‘design virtues’. On the other hand, something can reasonably be considered an instance of ethical design if it exemplifies features that I am calling ‘ethical design virtues’. These are as follows:

Design virtues

  • Adequacy: the product solves the problem reliably, consistently and well
  • Usability: the product is easy to use and understand
  • Consistency: components of the same kind look and behave the same way
    (adapted from Michael N. Keas’s theoretical virtue internal consistency and Don Norman’s principle consistency)
  • Thoroughness: Every detail has been considered
    (taken from Dieter Rams’s Ten Principles for Good Design)
  • Fruitfulness: The product (or parts of it) can be adopted to solve other problems (adapted from Michael N. Keas’s Systematizing the theoretical virtues)
  • Beauty: The product evokes aesthetic pleasure in the people that use it (adapted from Michael N. Keas’s Systematizing the theoretical virtues and Dieter Rams’s Ten Principles for Good Design)
  • Simplicity: The product solves the problem in the simplest possible way, without redundancy or repetition (adapted from the principle of simplicity or “Occam’s Razor”)
  • Integrity: The product makes sense as a whole — it doesn’t have features that appear to be tacked on in an ad hoc manner
  • Durability: The product survives even when new problems arise and the respective industry changes (adapted from Dieter Rams’s Ten Principles for Good Design)

Ethical design virtues

  • Utility: the product maximises well-being and minimises harm
  • Honesty: the product is not misleading or deceptive
  • Inclusivity: the product provides equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised
  • Environmentalism: the product minimises negative impacts or maximises positive impacts to the environment as far as is possible
  • Sustainability: the product can be produced indefinitely, without depleting resources or causing harm to people or the environment
  • Philanthropy: the product is designed to promote the welfare of people over the agenda of an organisation, treating people as ends, not just as means.(Inspired by Immanuel Kant)
  • Power symmetry: the product does not introduce a power imbalance between people or between organisations and people (Inspired by George Aye)
  • Security: the product does not compromise the security of any individual or group

In my view, it is possible that a product can exemplify some or all of the design virtues without exemplifying any of the ethical design virtues. Conversely, a product can exemplify some or all of the ethical design virtues without exemplifying any of the design virtues.

For this reason, I would answer (1) No, (2) Yes, (3) Yes to the questions posed above. If you disagree with how I have answered the three questions, I’d love to hear why in the comments below. Likewise, if you disagree with or feel I have missed any important virtues off either list, please comment below. This post is very much a work in progress and I don’t intend to have the final say on the matter.

What is the threshold for being good or ethical?

As far as good design is concerned, I think that the threshold is what I have called ‘adequacy’. If a product doesn’t meet this criterion, then it is not reasonable to consider it good. If a product meets this criterion, I believe it can reasonably be called an instance of good design. However, for a design to be truly excellent, it would need to exemplify other design virtues (although not all design virtues will be relevant to every product).

With respect to ethical design, it depends on the kind of product in question. For example, if the product is a music player, honestly is not a relevant factor, though it would be for a marketing artefact designed to sell the music player. It could be argued that ‘Utility’ is an umbrella that includes the other ethical design virtues, in which case, utility (as I use the term) is the threshold for ethical design.

Once again, if you disagree with these thresholds for good and ethical design, I’d love to get your thoughts so please leave a comment.

(Some of the virtues I have included have been adapted from theoretical virtues of theory choice in the philosophy of science.)

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Human-centred designer and thinker

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Daniel Guy

Daniel Guy

Human-centred designer and thinker

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