Ethics for designers
Part I

The unexamined life

March 30, 2020 · 9 min read

Why ethics?

The 2010s were a remarkable decade for technology. Day after day, tech lined the front pages of major newspapers, the chyrons of broadcast news, and the glossy sheets of magazines. And in 2019, the trend took a turn: the stories became about the ethics of technology. Not the ethics of future technology — that’s still the realm of science fiction. Not the regular “ethics of AI” or “ethics of cloning” think pieces. Instead, 2019 saw countless discussions of the ethics of the technology we all use every day:

These are just samples of the many ways in which new technology leads to new ethical questions. And every time these topics are debated, the design community asks itself: how could a designer have contributed to these questionable outcomes? Just how responsible are the designers for these outcomes? What should a designer do when asked to contribute to an ethically dubious project?

James Cartwright, editor at AIGA’s Eye on Design, summed up the conflict neatly:

Some of the companies designers are so keen to serve are masking a lack of ethics behind a beautifully polished veneer; a selection of morally questionable actions perpetrated by companies on that wish list include the dissemination of fake news, manufacturing products in factories with non-existent rights and high suicide rates among its workers, and driving up the cost of property rental in cities across the world.5

The role of ethics in design

Many authors have discussed the ethics of design.

Lots of articles address why design needs ethics. A great place to start is Designing for Tomorrow - A Discussion on Ethical Design by Lu Han. Han sets out the case for design’s role in hurting people and its responsibility to prevent further harm. She discusses the incentives that lead to harmful experiences and gives great suggestions for how designers can change the way they work to reduce the harm that software causes.

There are examples of what ethical design looks like. One of my favorites is Trine Falbe’s Ethical Design: The Practical Getting-started Guide. Falbe identifies the results of unethical design — surveillance capitalism and dark patterns, for example — and cites real-world examples of how ethical design leads to better outcomes.

There are even arguments for why designers don’t need ethics. In 2019, Cade Diehm gave a talk called “Will Design Ethics Save Software?” Diehm contends that advocates for ethical design — he gives Spotify as an example — are often the ones that are guilty of unethical practices like making it harder for artists to get paid for their work. Designers, Diehm says, can’t make ethical decisions when the companies they work for are fundamentally unethical. In this case, designers talking about ethics contributes to bad outcomes rather than preventing them:

If good design is possible without resorting to the tactics of a used-car salesman — and it is — then by Spotify’s own standards they have practiced ethical design. But positioning design ethics as a practice-based framework, this liberates the team from the problems that their work enables, and it’s hard not to be cynical and interpret this as a deflection of deep, systemic problems.

I provide all these viewpoints to illustrate just how much of a minefield the conversation about ethics in design can be. For every essay about the ways we can purposefully apply ethical frameworks to the practice of design, there are ten news stories about dark patterns, spear phishing, data breaches, and digital addiction.

As you can see, the problem is not that designers aren’t talking about ethics. Ethics is now a common subject at most design conferences: AIGA’s 2020 conference promises to include “a diverse roster of speakers who are shining a light today on the topics and narratives that enable all of us to create better bridges to each other. Together, we’ll explore crucial topics such as Design Ethics, D+I, Automation, Future of Work, Future of Cities, Food, and more.”6

The problem is that the community lacks a shared vocabulary. Designers debate “justice,” “equality,” “equity,” and “fairness” without addressing the subtle differences or acknowledging that they are different ideas at all. The lack of common ground results in difficult conversations full of misunderstandings.

I’d like to change that.

In the next four essays, I’ll provide historical context into the main schools of ethics — what philosophers call normative ethical theories.

I’ll also provide examples of how design can be seen through the lens of each theory. I’ll explore the strengths and weaknesses of each, comparing and contrasting the theories; none are perfect, but each is useful in its own way.

Before we dive in, let’s go where it all began: the last days of Socrates.


Socrates was one of the founders of Western philosophy. He was a scholar, a soldier, a stonemason, and weirdly, not much of a writer. We don’t know much else about Socrates’ life. His teachings come to us through writers like Xenophon and Plato. One of the few biographical details we know about Socrates is how he spent his days: asking Athenians questions, exploring their answers, and attracting groups of people to hear his debates.

Occasionally, Socrates would corner a politician, challenging them to a duel of wits. While Socrates believed that this grandstanding was his duty, the politicians didn’t see it that way; Socrates was making them look bad in front of their constituents. In 399 BC, the Athenians put Socrates on trial for the dubious charges of “moral corruption and impiety.” Plato, a friend and student of Socrates, wrote an account of this trial called Apology of Socrates.

In the Apology, Socrates defends his behavior, but the jury finds him guilty. Before his sentencing, Socrates cheekily explains that no punishment would be appropriate; the jury should really give him a reward for all his teachings and wisdom. Socrates doesn’t even want to settle for an easy punishment like exile:

Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this… if I say that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue… that the life which is unexamined is not worth living — that you are still less likely to believe.7

Socrates can’t fathom a life without philosophy. He can no more stop challenging the nature of ethics than he can stop breathing. The jury agrees and sentences him to death.

Socrates’ trial, as told by Plato, was the spark that ignited Western philosophy. For thousands of years since Socrates’ death, philosophers have followed in his footsteps, examining themselves and others.

The way forward

According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest man in Greece. In his trial, Socrates describes his disbelief on hearing the oracle’s pronouncement. He asks, “What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great.” One clue might be the inscription above the entrance to the oracle’s shrine: “Know thyself.”

By the end of this series, I hope that you’ll know yourself a little better. At the very least, you’ll be able to apply ethical thinking to your own work and to the work of other designers. And through the common language of philosophy, your conversations will be more informed, more constructive, and more compassionate.

Footnotes & References
  1. Josh Constine, “Facebook pays teens to install VPN that spies on them,” TechCrunch, published January 29, 2019, ↩︎

  2. Justin Elliott, “TurboTax Deliberately Hid Its Free File Page From Search Engines,” ProPublica, published April 26, 2019, ↩︎

  3. John Koetsier, “Apple Hints China Behind ‘Billion Device iPhone Hack’ That Google Reported,” Forbes, September 6, 2019, ↩︎

  4. Casey Newton, “Facebook’s embrace of Breitbart doesn’t add up,” The Verge, published October 29, 2019: ↩︎

  5. James Cartwright. “Should Designers Take Responsibility for the Ethics of Their Clients?” Eye on Design, published February 13, 2017: ↩︎

  6. “Theme and Chair,” AIGA Design Conference, AIGA, the professional association for design, last accessed March 19, 2020: ↩︎

  7. Plato, Apology, translated by Benjamin Jowett, The Internet Classics Archive, Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics, last accessed March 18, 2020: ↩︎