Swin lecture notes: Methods of Investigation Week 01

Swin lecture notes: Methods of Investigation Week 04 Ethics

Find out what it means to me


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].


The comments to this entry are closed.