Ethics in Design

Have you ever stopped to think about the impact your work has on people’s lives, and on society as a whole? Have you ever wondered what implications your choices may have? Questioning your attitudes is an indispensable concern that every designer should have. The way in which you develop a project, interact with your clients, and do business needs to be ethical and moral, respecting everyone involved in the process.

By studying ethics, you will get a better idea of how to create products that align with your moral values – and this goes beyond practices such as copyright compliance. So come with us to explore ethics in design!

What is Ethical Design?

First of all, we need to analyze the meaning of the word ethics. With a simple Google search, we can find the following definition, taken from Oxford Languages:

part of philosophy responsible for investigating the principles that motivate, distort, discipline, or guide human behavior, reflecting esp. regarding the essence of the norms, values, prescriptions, and exhortations present in any social reality.

But what does it mean to be ethical, that is, to follow the moral norms and values present in a society? And, within our topic, how does this relate to design?

It is difficult to determine a standard of what is or is not ethical. There is no right and wrong list that can serve as a parameter for all situations. There are factors, such as the culture of a certain people, that can turn what is considered immoral to another set of people into ethical.

In any case, for the designer, as in any profession, it is necessary to worry about doing an ethical job. For this, the ideal is questioning: what are your rights and duties? How do you differentiate right from wrong? What is the best attitude to have in that scenario?

The answers to these questions may change depending on the context you are dealing with. And that is where you need to know what values you believe in. Having your own moral compass as an individual helps you to carry these principles into your professional life – your work, be it a product, a website, a marketing campaign, should reflect what you think is right.

Taking responsibility for what you have done is also an important part of ethics. When you are aware of what you are doing and make decisions based on your concept of morality, the next step is to know how to deal with the consequences derived from your choices.

All this may seem a bit abstract, so we are going to look at some of the principles that will help you understand how ethics relates to the world of design.

Principles of ethics in design

1. Usability

Designers must create intuitive, easy-to-use products that make the experience more enjoyable for users. Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group defined five components of usability:

Learning: How easy is it for first-time users?

Efficiency: how much time do users spend on tasks?

Memorability: what is the experience for returning users?

Mistakes: what mistakes do users make, and how serious are they?

Satisfaction: how enjoyable is the use of the design?

2. Transparency and concern for the user

Exposing the details concerning the product for the user to make informed decisions is an ethical practice. By using gimmicks to mislead and confuse, you are acting dishonestly.

In addition, there is a major problem: the design is designed to be addictive. There are many examples of websites, applications, and products that are designed with the intention of grabbing the user’s attention. However, this is done at the expense of your mental health, as they end up causing an addiction. The designer needs to take into consideration what people’s relationship will be with his creation, always trying to establish a healthy bond.

3. Privacy

We know that it is very common for personal data to be collected by various websites and applications. Even our electronic devices, such as our cell phones, store a wide variety of information about what we like, what we do, and where we are.

The ideal is to create a design that avoids invasion of privacy. The focus should be on necessary information that makes sense with the purpose of the product and that will actually improve the user experience.

4. Inclusion and accessibility

We have already talked about inclusive design, and its relationship to ethics is indisputable. We also make it clear that inclusion is not just about accessibility, the latter being part of the former.

It is the designer’s role to contribute to a world with fewer inequalities, developing projects with all kinds of people in mind. Ethics lies in the act of being concerned about the difficulties that the user may have and seeking solutions to extinguish or lessen these problems.

5. User Involvement

Design is user-oriented, it is thought for the user, so it is natural that the user is part of the creation process. Listening to the opinion of the final recipient is essential to achieve a good result.

You can do several tests and ask users what they think. In this way, you are taking into account the human aspect of Design and putting the individual at the center of your project.

How to make a more ethical design?

1. Be concerned with social issues

There are many social issues that cannot be ignored by the designer. Performing work that reproduces some kind of prejudice, be it racism, LGBTQphobia, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, or any other form of discrimination will have an extremely negative impact on society and especially on the groups affected.

Prejudice may be present in the details, in subtle ways, as in popular phrases that bring stereotypes or inferiorization of a class, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be fought as well! Anything that might cause discomfort in a group of people needs to be eliminated from your design.

Here, we again reinforce the importance of inclusive design. To be able to respect inclusion, you need to be aware of social causes and what your representatives have to say. Not letting ego speak louder is the differentiator when it comes to serving all users equally.

2. Study and update yourself

Both to deal with the social issues we just mentioned, and to know what to do in any scenario, reading, studying, and updating are fundamental tasks!

Our society is constantly changing, and with these changes come new ways of seeing and behaving in certain contexts. To be a good designer, you must be aware of a range of subjects, not only those directly connected to design and technology: human behavior, economic and political issues, and climate problems are some topics worth studying.

Basically, everything that surrounds our world is of interest to them. With so much information accessible, it is your duty to stay informed and aware of the transformations and evolutions in our social environment.

3. Position yourself

You need to find your values and defend them. If you believe in a social cause, nothing could be fairer than giving voice to it. There are many issues that can generate discussion, so it is important to understand which side you want to be on.

Look for working with companies and clients that share your philosophies. As much as the exchange of knowledge and information is always valid, everyone has basic ideologies that act as an ethical guide and are present in their work.

People usually connect with that which reflects their beliefs. Therefore, there is no point in creating a product that you do not believe in. Work with what you love and remember your responsibility to society!

4. Examine the situation

Each case is a case, and you must not forget this. In practice, you will need to evaluate the problem to know what course of action to take. What are you dealing with and which decision best aligns with your moral values?

What may seem like the ideal solution in one situation is inapplicable in another. This is when you need to use your critical sense and analyze the facts. To come to some conclusion, you can list your options and make an evaluation of their pros and cons, taking into consideration the ethical weight that each one carries.

Once you have made the choice and implemented it in your project, be open to criticism and contrary opinions. Once again: insisting on what you believe at the expense of the user’s opinion will get you nowhere. The perception that we have can be flawed and it is up to us to understand that people can add and help us to improve our work.

Design is about creating and thereby changing the environment around you. To ensure that this change is made with care and integrity, any designer needs a good grasp of ethics. We hope this article has helped you reflect on your attitudes and how you can do moral, responsible, and conscientious work!

"The most successful brands link to existing communities. Instead of creating communities from scratch, they interact with communities that form organically. They move from top-down communication to having meaningful conversations. They build relationships that evolve, grow and stand the test of time."

Sid Lee
The Belong Effect
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