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My Design Observer article

I have an article posted on Design Observer about how the design community would respond to designers being called to do service design (i.e. social and infrastructural systems design) instead of designing products and artifacts by the US Army. What are the ethical implications of that for the design community as a whole, beyond the ethical choice of individual designers. 

The comments have been interesting, but frightening in many ways for me. Interesting because (1) they are varied in both the readings and misreadings of my question and (2) more people have written to me off-line than on the post. It is frightening to me because no one has articulated a position for what ethical practice in the design community means. Not even a statement of "Thou should do no harm." In fact, the consensus (in feeling) seems to be that the question is a good one, glad someone is thinking about it, articulating it, but perhaps the question is premature.

Ric Grefe and I had a recent discussion of why I do not consider myself a designer. I'm a design anthropologist, and my students may be anthrodesigners, but whenever Ric speaks about "designers" I don't hail to that identity.  While part of it is that I don't have training in design (I've had training in fine arts and the principles of design shares with art.), the other part is that I think very differently from designers. In this case, I have a sense of group identity while designers tend to see themselves individualistically.  As an anthropologist (which is much more diverse a field than design), I do not act (as an anthropologist) without considering my actions impact on the entire field of anthropology across time and space. Obviously, designers don't have that sense of group identity and sometimes don't address the impact of designing on the field itself or of its social implications across time and space.

Yesterday, one of my students wanted to talk about changing her thesis topic because it felt too narrow. Now, through the research methods class, she wants her designing "to have a greater impact." I feel good about that because I have drilled into students the ethics of designing both within the community of designers and for whom you design (i.e. end user and client.) It saddens me that I have released them into a design community that is not prepared for them. So perhaps, they will revolutionize the design field when they come into positions of influence and power. It's sad that their passions and intentions will be premature (i.e. they will suffer frustration), because there is not ethical perspective to welcome them into the professional design community.


ksenija berk

Hi Dori!

I've just posted my comment on the Design Observer page, but it hasn't appeared yet so I have decided to post it here just in case...
"I completely agree with Dori, how design ethics is a topic diffucult to handle. The main reason is we are mostly talking about etihcs on a theoretical level and about responsibility on a practical one. We should all act responsibly no matter which part of the design process we are involved in. The issues regarding human rights and preserving the environmen shuld never be put under a question. The most unethical behavior to me is accepting a job, just because jour ego is eager for glory."

Mary W

Oh, and I admit, it did surprise me a bit, your observations that anthro is a much more diverse field than design. I guess my sense would be the opposite. There seem to be so many different types of design, education for design, design professions -- it seems like a hugely wide field. Industrial design, graphic design, UI design, information architecture, software application design, architecture/building design, interior design, fashion design, consumer product design...the field seems enormous. Rather like the field of "writing" -- there are so many types of writers (book authors, journalists, PR people, scriptwriters, speechwriters, copywriters etc.).

My guess would be, for these broad fields, people actually have their professional identity in one of the subgroups, rather than the overall umbrella group. So maybe it might make sense that there's not much emotional "center of gravity" around the broad idea of being a "designer", or that "designer" is a clear profession with a set of common professional approaches and ethics...?

Mary W

Your posting on Design Observer was great, IMO, and thanks for mentioning it on the anthrodesign list.

Yeah, the reply posts on DO were interesting...most of them didn't say much more than "re: ethics questions, that's the individual's choice." There wasn't much in terms of metadiscussion, or suggested guidelines, or how to think about ethical decisions in the profession, or even as an ethical person (designer or not).

Perhaps that partly because design, like many (most?) professions, doesn't focus on developing a more robust understanding or thinking tools around things like power issues, societal & political change, group dynamics etc.

One of the reasons I keep reaching for anthropological models in my job, is that in the business world where I work, group/social dynamics/issues are common, yet most businesspeople have had little or no training in how to approach these issues in an very insightful way. For example, most of my business colleagues might comment on a specific frustrating work situation by saying, "it's just office politics." But somebody who's trained in the social sciences (anthro, psych, org development etc) can hopefully find something to say that's more nuanced and more actionable, because they've been trained in the tools and concepts of social/group dynamics.

As an related example -- if somebody posted about an interpersonal issue (let's say, intrafamily violence) in different professional forums, the post would probably get very different comments from a group of psychologists (who have professional training and thinking tools that relate to that topic of interpersonal relations), than you'd get from a group of design people, or a group of generalist businesspeople, or a group of artists etc.

I don't mean to say that anthropologists have the market cornered on thinking about ethics -- not at all. However, this particular ethics issue (re: working for the military) has a lot of anthropological components -- so people trained in anthro have some mental models and language that they can use to talk about this ethical dilemma in a more complicated way. Whereas if you posed a design question to most social scientists, you'd probably get fairly simplistic answers back from them, because that's not their area of focus/expertise.

Just a thought, anyway...

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