I have recently been doing work on design ethics at the Ministry of Justice for the Office of the Public Guardian. I’m currently exploring what we mean when we say ‘ethical design’. One question that this has brought up is ‘what is the difference between good design and ethical design?’
I’m going to draw a line between these two terms as follows:
Good design — a design solves the problem reliably, consistently and well
Ethical design — a design is sensitive to its impact on the welfare of individuals, society and the planet
(These definitions are over-simplistic for convenience. I address the distinction between good and ethical design in more detail in my article ‘The Design Virtues’)
Good design happens when there is a problem that needs solving. For example, if my legs get tired from standing all day, then I have a need to be productive or comfortable without expending excessive amounts of energy to support my body. Thus, the chair was born. And not just one chair, a chair for reclining at the end of the day, a chair for being productive at work, a chair for sitting at the table to eat, a chair from which to rule a nation while wearing a crown and robes, and so on. Each chair was designed to solve a different problem and meet a different set of needs.
With each of these problems comes an objective criteria that can be used to judge how good the design of each chair is. If the chair is able to support my weight without breaking and injuring me, then it has done a minimal job at solving the problem. If I am able to be productive or relax, then it has done a better job. If it is comfortable and I can sit on it for long periods of time, then even better. At some point, the ‘good design’ threshold is crossed and the design solves the problem reliably, consistently and well.
Where good design can go wrong
Ignoring other needs
Good design can go wrong when other needs get ignored. To use another example, computer games are designed for human entertainment, to challenge their players and perhaps to give them a brief escape from reality. As humans, we have a need to entertain ourselves in various ways, but we also have other short-term needs, like the need to:
- Have social interaction
On top of these, we also have long-term needs, such as the need to:
- Form and maintain meaningful relationships
- Make progress in our education or career
- Look after our physical wellbeing
- Look after our mental health
- Managing our financial affairs
Imagine a computer game that was so captivating and immersive that its users preferred playing it rather than living life in the real world. In this case, while it might have done a great job of meeting the initial need, other human needs might lose out in favour of the short-term pleasure of playing the video game. This could take its toll on a person’s health, detract from their education or work, and could jeopardise their social life.
This gets us to an interesting point. Whatever we mean by ‘ethical design’, it will need to say something about what it intends to avoid, not just what it intends to promote.
Over and above the impact of design on individuals, there can be societal consequences. Imagine a world where people would benefit from being connected even when they are far apart. Imagine how much good could come from being able to share and consume information from a distance, how much more united we would all be and how we could discover and learn things together. Right? In that world, imagine that software exists to tailor content so you only see what’s relevant to you. While this might provide a great deal of convenience to individuals, this could have an unintended consequence of polarising people socially, politically or otherwise by tailoring information, news and points of view to match each person’s current beliefs. Wait a minute, this sounds familiar…
Due to our limitations as humans, we only see the world from our own perspective. Humans also have a tendency to form groups and display in-group/out-group behaviour. The ‘imaginary’ software above could exacerbate these human tendencies causing social division or manipulation. It’s easy to speak with hindsight, but that’s why designers need to think more widely, earlier on if we want to be stewards of ethical design.
Good design in bad hands
Design briefs aren’t ethical by default!
What if a product does what it set out to do well and effectively but the intention was bad from the beginning? What if it was designed to cause harm to its users, mentally, physically or financially? What if it was designed to make its users addicted? What if it was designed to divide people? What if it was designed purely to make money for its creators without caring for the welfare of people, society as a whole, or the planet?
These are cases where ‘good design’ (as defined above) clearly departs from the ethical.
‘Good design’ gets its objective criteria from how reliably, consistently and well a problem is solved. So what about ethical design?
‘Ethical design’ gets its criteria from how it impacts individuals, society as a whole and the planet. If it impacts them for the better, then the design is ethical. If for the worse, then it is unethical.
As mentioned above, ethical design considers what it wants to avoid, along with what it wants to promote. It keeps its eyes on its wider context in the world and how it affects people, society and the planet. It needs to be mindful of long-term as well as short-term effects. It also needs to be concerned with making things better in some sense — not just in terms of the problem it’s solving, but in terms of making the world a happier, healthier, fairer, more honest and peaceful place.
Bringing it all together
Good design on its own is not good enough. On the other hand, ethical design is also not enough if it is not good. Designing something to be ethical does not guarantee that it will solve a problem reliably, consistently and well. If my paper straw goes soggy as soon as I put it in my drink then it hasn’t met my need, despite the good intentions. The same can be said of my electric car if it runs out of energy after 10 miles when charger points are distributed every 20 miles.
So, good design vs ethical design, which one wins? Neither. We need to aim for good, ethical design.