Swin lecture notes: Methods of Investigation Week 04 Ethics

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Take care, TCB
- Lyrics by Otis Reading, sung by Aretha Franklin

A Scenario
A group of young multidisciplinary designers read about a remote town that does not have adequate electricity to run its water pump. The group of students decide they want to help. One of them has a cousin of a cousin who knows someone in the town who says, "Sure, come on down." The students raise money for the trip through bake sales and car washes. The cousin of a cousin begins to send pictures of the water pump, the town, and some of the people in it. The design students begin sketching out solutions to the problem. The industrial designer sketches ideas for a solar battery connector to the water pump. The interior designer sketches ideas for an enclosure for people getting the water. The interaction designer lays out a website to monitor water use in the town. The communication designer prepares posters to announce the solar powered water pump. Finally the students raise enough money and get to the town. They attend a town meeting where people share how the water pump is a place of communal sharing, but because the water levels are so low they need the pump to get at the water, but don't have reliable electricity.

Over the one week in the town, the students refine their ideas based on what they have seen and heard. The industrial designer makes sure the solar connector is child-proof because the kids like to play around the pump. The interior designer chooses to build a reed enclosure to protect women from the heat yet use local materials. The interaction designer realizes that he needs to simplify the layout of the website so that those with only 4th grade education can read it. The communication designer uses more graphics to explain key messages. Before they leave, the cousin of the cousin is taught how to repair the solar connector and is given a computer to monitor the water use.

After a few months the designs are executed in the town, t
he student designers return. The cousin of the cousin ceremonially cuts the ribbon on the new water pump station to lukewarm clapping. Later at the town meeting, the people angrily complain about the new solar connected pump and all the designs. Devastated, the students ask, "But why? Don't you have reliable energy to get the water from the pump in the shade?" "Yes, yes we do," the town people reply, "But now the [cousin of the cousin's] wife charges us $1 to get through the door of the enclosure to use the pump. The [cousin of the cousin] is the only one with the computer so he monitors our water use and charges us each week. We have this posters everywhere telling us how great the water pump is, but all it brings to us now is misery." 

Question: Was this an unethical project? 
Answer: Yes, because by focusing on only the technical solutions, the students ignored the wider social context by creating an individual with greater knowledge and access to the new system. Thus the designs disrespected the value of the water pump as a place of communal sharing. So while the project was technically competent, it did not demonstrate Respectful Design.

Respectful Design

In 2010, the Swinburne Faculty of Design decided that one of our strategic priorities would be producing students who engage in what we call, Respectful Design. In other words, every Swinburne student can clearly demonstrate respect for people, respect for other living creatures, respect for the environment, and collective self-respect in every design decision that he or she makes. As a reflection of the human "remade" world, design impacts people, other creatures, and the environment in fundamental ways. Respectful Design is about changing the underlying values on how humans "remake" the world so that it design works in harmony with people, other creatures, and the environment. Because research is an important part of all phases in the design process [Discovery, Concept, Development, Execution, Evaluation], we will address in this lesson both ethics in research and ethics in design practice.

Ethics in Research: The Belmont Report of 1979The history of developing formal codes of research goes back to end of World War II when the world had discovered the medical and scientific experiments conducted by the Nazis. The first ethics code was the Nuremburg Code of 1947 (US NIH 1949) which outlined the "Do no harm" priority for the medical experimentation. The document that defines contemporary code of research ethics is the Belmont Report of 1979. The report outlines the boundaries between practice and research, the three basic ethical principles, and their means of application.

Practice versus Research

First, we must start by untangling the concepts of research versus practice.The Belmont Report of 1979 describes how research and practice have different intentions, outcomes, and expectations. Practice has as its core intention the generation of a specific solution to a problem. For example, a client asks a designer to create an interior environment that makes them feel connected to nature. The designer comes up with specific design concept that the client recognizes as meeting his needs. Thus the outcomes of practice are solutions or evaluations with a final expectation of success. Research on the other hand is focused on the creation of general knowledge. A client might ask a designer, "What would be the effect of natural lighting on the mood of my employees during winter months?" The designer is not being asked to come up with a solution but rather gather general knowledge about lighting and mood. Thus the outcomes of research are principles or statements with unknown final expectations. For a summary of differences see Table 1. The distinction between practice and research is important when one seeks University approval for research projects because practice projects may not fall under review. But as design research begins to create more general statements to inform specific solutions, the boundary between research and practice as it relates to ethics will blur.

Table 1: Comparison Practice vs. Research

Practice Research
Intention Specific solution General knowledge
Outcome Evaluations, solutions Principles, statements
Expectations End in success Unknown outcome

The Basic Ethical Principles of Research and their Applications

The three ethical principles of research are (1) Respect for Persons, (2) Beneficence, and (3) Justice
(US NIH 1979).

Respect for persons requires that people have the self-determination (e.g. autonomy) to enter the research voluntarily and with enough information to make that decision. If a person has limited capability for self-determination through "illness, mental disability, circumstances that severely restrict liberty (ex. prisons)," then ethically greater protections must be put in place (US NIH 1979). You apply respect for persons by gaining informed consent where you provide details about the research and as people to verbal express or sign a document giving their consent.

Beneficence refers to the obligation of to "do no harm" and to demonstrate clear benefits to the research participant
(US NIH 1979). This is achieved through the assessment of the risks and benefits of the research project. In 2007, I developed the following chart of categories of ethical consideration based on the categories in a general research ethics form--physical, emotional, financial, and psychological-- and adding the social, spiritual, and environmental categories, See Table 2:

Table 2: Ethics Risk and Benefits Matrix

Benefits Risks
Physical Repair of injury, extend life Injury and/or death
Emotional Happiness, joy, bliss Guilt, shame, sadness
Financial Gain money, improve livelihood, pay for transportation and parking Loss of money, livelihood, opportunity, have to pay for transportation or parking
Psychological Better adaptation skills, reduction in stress Trauma, stress, anxiety, depression
Social Embraced by community, higher social standing Ostracization, loss of face, shunning
Spiritual Reconfirm faith, draw closer to spiritual entity Loss of faith, go against tenets of faith
Environmental Improvements to land, buildings, etc Damage to land, building

It is these social, spiritual, and environmental categories of respect that are discussed in the Purga Project (Sheehan and Walker 2001) on Indigenous Knowledge Research.

Justice refers to the question of "Who ought to receive the benefits of research and bear its burdens?"
(US NIH 1979). It is about making sure there is a fair selection of people for research to prevent injustices that result from biases about class, race, gender, sexuality, culture, religion, etc. It is achieved through the careful and fair selection of research participants. It often results in the close scrutiny of projects where vulnerable populations have been selected for research (e.g. children, prisoners and institutionalized individuals, pregnant women, those of low economic status, and some indigenous communities).

A summary of the ethical principles and their applications are below, see Table 3:

Table 3: Ethics Principles and Applications

Principle Application
Respect for Persons Informed consent
Beneficence Assessment of risks and benefits
Justice Selection of research participants

Ethics in Practice: the Living Principles for Design

As I stated before, the Belmont Report of 1979 distinguishes between research and practice. Yet, the design field has come to embrace a similar set of principles that relate to design practice. Partially, this is the effect of design research on design practice, such that the boundaries between research and practice have blurred. The latest and most highly endorsed initiative is the Living Principles for Design and their framework and road map of Four Streams of Integrated Sustainability: Environment, People, Economy, and Culture (The Living Principles 2010). The road map ask designers to address specific questions about how their design thinking, processes, and outcome can lead to greater sustainability in these four areas. For example, it asks designers to think about how projects can minimize overall energy use, fulfill society needs, assess value beyond financial profit, or promote cultural diversity.

What is important is that while a different language is being used, the design field draws from the same deep principles of Respect for Persons, Beneficence, and Justice. User-centered design methodologies are the design application of the principle of respect for persons. By including them in every step of the design process (e.g. Discovery, Concept, Development, Execution, and Evaluation), people have the opportunity to consent to the design and the impact it will have on them. The notion of Cost-Benefit (Lidwell, Holden, and Butler 2010, 68) relates directly to the risk/benefit assessment process required by the principle of Beneficence. The concepts of Accessibility (Lidwell et.al. 2010, 16) and Normal Distribution
(Lidwell et.al. 2010, 166) are the design practice applications of the principle of Justice. If you are designing just within normal distributions then others who require different modes of accessibility would not benefit from your designs. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs could be used to determine levels of vulnerability in the selection of research participants (Lidwell et.al. 2010, 124).


As emerging practitioners of Respectful Design, we expect you to know and apply the Principles of Respect for Persons, Beneficence, and Justice to your design research and your design practice. The scenario that began this discussion demonstrates how it is not Respectful Design to create technical solutions that lead to social or cultural problems. The challenge will offer you in tutorial discussion is to take your understandings of the readings and discuss how you would approach the same scenario in a Respectful Design way.


Lidwell, W, Holden, K & Butler, J 2010, Universal Principles of Design, Rockport Publishers, Gloucester, MA.

Sheehan, N, & Walker, P 2001, 'The Purga Project: Indigenous Knowledge Research', Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 29, 2, pp. 11-17, ERIC, EBSCOhost, viewed 26 February 2011.

US National Institute of Health, 1949, Digital Reprint of Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10, Vol. 2, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, pp. 181-182, viewed 25 February 2011, <http://ohsr.od.nih.gov/guidelines/nuremberg.html> 

US National Institute of Health, 1979, Digital Reprint of The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, viewed 25 February 2011, <http://ohsr.od.nih.gov/guidelines/belmont.html#goa> 


Tunstall, E 2011, 'Respectful Design and Ethics', HDC002 Methods of Investigation, Learning materials on Blackboard iLearn, Swinburne University of Technology, February, viewed [insert date].

Swin lecture notes: Methods of Investigation Week 01

Note: If you haven't noticed, I've been neglecting my blog as of the past year. This is mostly due to the fact that while I've been writing quite prolifically, I am having to write lecture notes, accreditation documents, journal articles, grant proposals, and committee proposals. I've probably written two books worth of texts this year. Currently, I am teaching several classes, the undergraduate Methods of Investigation, and the two postgraduate units in the Design Anthropology program, Intro to Design Anthropology and Research Methods for Design. What I thought I would do to make up for my blog neglect is to post my lecture notes on my blog.

This one is for the introduction to the Methods of Investigation course aimed at first year undergraduate students. I paired it with a video of David Butler from the 2009 AIGA Make | Think Conference. I think the students got the message.

Intro: the Changing Landscape of Design

A scenario:

Once upon a time, there was a sole genius designer who would be asked by a client to design something for her (ex. a poster, a room, a product, a website, or even a service). This designer would go into his and her studio and begin sketching and brainstorming, only leaving the studio to go to a museum for inspiration. Maybe, the designer would go out for dinner with friends where they discuss the horrible state of design aesthetics today. Several months later the client would return and be shown a beautiful design, which they would be to intimidated by the designer to ever say she did not like it.

Today, a designer is likely to work with a team, perhaps even an interdisciplinary team. This requires that there be a shared process, so they create a model of a design process as Discovery, Concepting, Development, Execute, and Evaluate. They may do sketching and brainstorming in concepting, but this is preceded by interviews and observations in discovery. They may ask people, including the client, to participate in sketching and brainstorming and even final development with them. When the design is executed, they know it will be successful because they will have conducted evaluations on how it met the needs of the client, who is confident that she has hired the right team for many projects in the future.

QAME, a Framework for a New Theory of Design

In the book the History and Theory of Anthropology (2000), Alan Barnard talks about theory as consisting of a set of questions, assumption, methods, and evidence, QAME. Everyone has a set of questions they seek to answer, make assumptions about how the world works, has methods or a process to answer the questions, and provides evidence to convince other people that one knows what one knows. Design practice has had its own theory, which we can use QAME to make clear:

Q: The question used to be, "How can I [the designer] design a successful communication, object, environment, or interaction?"

A: The assumptions were that the client would provide the brief and the designer would use his and her technical skills, creativity, and pure gut instincts to meet the design challenge. A prime example of this assumption playing out is on the show Project Runway. Henry Roth provides "the brief" or challenge for the week. The designers primarily have only their talent (e.g. technical skills, creativity, and pure gut instinct) to come up with an inspiring design that meets the brief. They create their final design which is evaluated by the panel of judges.

M: Methods would consist of reading or listening to the brief, brainstorming ideas, maybe doing some visual research for inspiration, doing some sketches, and then working on the final layout, prototype, or model.

E: Evidence of success would be winning design awards and/or the client making lots of money off the designs.

Now what has changed in the design landscape today is the definition of success. It is no longer about just winning design awards or making lots of money off a design by any means necessary. Today, a designer has to pay attention to the potential positive and negative impacts of your design decisions on the environment, on society and culture, as well as the economics of the client. Thus the assumptions, methods, and evidence has changed.

New Assumptions: The designer has a client's brief, but now has to reframe it so that he or she makes sure it takes in account what Paul du Gay and others call the "circuit of culture" (1997)-- processes of production (how things are made), consumption (how things are purchased, used, and disposed), regulation (how governments create rules), representation (how things come to symbolize ideas), and identity (how things help shape our understanding and communication of who we are).

The complexity of having to take in account all aspects of the circuit of culture means that the designer can not just rely on technical skills and gut instincts anymore. He or she may be an expert on how things are made, but has to now work with the consumers or users to understand how things are purchases and used, work with lawyers and politicians to understand regulation, work with social scientists and communities to understand how things come to symbolize ideas and shape our senses of who we are. The designer now needs to know how to investigate the aspects of the design brief (who, where, when, how, and what for) so that he or she can justify the design decisions made not just to the client, but to all the other stakeholders who may be affected by those decisions, including the end customer or users, as well as the environment and society.

Methods: Brainstorming and sketching is not enough. The designer has to know how to conduct interviews, observe people, environments, and interactions; use self-documentation and participatory games to include users and clients in the design process. The designer needs to know how to analyze the information gathered and synthesize them into compelling stories, visuals, and performances that convince the client and other stakeholders that the designs will be successful to the client's economics, to principles of sustainability, and to social and cultural respect for peoples. In this unit, you will be exposed to various methods of interviewing, observation, self-documentation and participatory games, analysis, storytelling, visualization, and performance to met the challenges of the new landscape of design.

Evidence: One may still win design awards or make the client lots of money, but today's designer will also need to provide evidence that the design does not harm the environment, that consumers and users will buy, use, and properly dispose of what one has created, and that it enriches the cultural experiences of many people. This unit will help you convince your various clients that your design ideas can accomplish all of those things.


Barnard, A 2000, History and Theory of Anthropology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

du Gay, P, Hall, S, Janes, L, Mackay, H, and Negus, K 1997, Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.