I have always been torn by the conflict between ethics VS morality, as a designer as well as a person.
Since I was a child, I have always been obsessed with understanding how the world works and how I can make it better for all of us.
I have a very strong sense of ethics, but no understanding of common morality, which has often generated conflicts with the people around me on issues of principles and values.
As designers, we are taught about persuasion and return on investment, we deal everyday with multiple pressures from stakeholders, clients, team members, and sometimes we may ultimately forget what we are doing, and why.
We often hear about corporate or governments’ responsibility… what about designers’ responsibility?
Here’s how I personally approach ethics as a designer today, but first: what is ethics ?
Ethics VS Morality
The word Ethics comes from ancient Greek èthos, meaning “character”, “behavior”.
Ethics is a branch of philosophy that studies the rational criteria to establish if a human behavior is good, just, lawful, or unfair, illicit, inconvenient or bad.
Morality corresponds to the set of norms and values of an individual or group, it considers norms and values as facts, shared by all, while ethics tries to give a rational and logical explanation of them.
We usually understand this difference better when we experience it firsthand, for example through discrimination.
Let’s make an example: as women, we have often been victims in the history of common morality, and we still are today. We had to fight to obtain the right to vote, to obtain equal treatment as workers, and this because morality (which adapts to the ages) allowed women to be considered inferior to men.
A law of 1800 in France forbade women to wear pants, considering that it was something immoral.
“The weakness of their reasoning skills also explains why women show more sympathy than men for the unhappy”.
While Freud characterized women as follows:
“When it comes to ethics, what is morally normal for women differs from what is morally normal for men. The female superego is never inexorable, impersonal, nor independent of its emotional origins … Women show less sense of justice, they are less ready to submit to the great demands of life and they are influenced more often in their judgments by feelings of affection or hostility”.
Ethic challenges for designers today
Today morality has evolved on many big issues of the past, but we live in an ultra connected world where new ethical challenges emerge every day.
In my opinion, technology and environment are the two most delicate topics for a designer today.
Innovation without technology: is it possible?
When I talk about technology, I mean it from an instrumental point of view and in a very broad sense, and not only in relation to the meaning of modernity that we often link naturally to this word: of course, technology means the Internet, social media, the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, but also the musical instrument for a musician is technology, or when man discovers fire he is in fact experimenting with new technology.
Today we increasingly ask ourselves how far it is legitimate to push technology, when it is right and when it’s not.
In the society we live in today, companies are allowed to collect data about their consumers while they use their products and services. It’s legal, it’s allowed, it’s culturally accepted, so it’s moral.
But from an ethical point of view, we should ask ourselves: what will happen to these data? Who will consult them? What will they do with them? Where will they keep them and for how long? Who will they share them with?
This is even more dangerous if instead of products and services, data are manipulated to support politicians, as we sadly know from recent scandals about Facebook and the social media campaign of Donald Trump for President of the United States.
Robotics is also making great strides, on the path of improvements in terms of artificial intelligence. There are hundreds of science fiction films or video games exploring the theme of ethics vs. technology on these subjects and they are really interesting to experience, in order to gain new perspectives. Recently, I played to Detroit Become Human on PS4 and I truly loved how they present ethical issues about technology in the story, giving the player the opportunity to think about morality and ethical choices.
Ethics knocks on our door even when it comes to familiar and everyday situations, apparently harmless: in the 1950s, refrigerators were small and single-door, often without a freezer. Today, mostly in rich countries, we see double-door refrigerators as large as wardrobes in many homes. A bigger refrigerator means more features, but also more food: and here we find ourselves buying more food than necessary, and wasting it, providing a striking example of the Jevons paradox. Needless to say, the waste of food in the world is a very serious problem today.
As a designer, I have been asking myself more and more lately: is technology necessary for innovation? Can we find innovation strategies that allow mankind to evolve in harmony within ecosystem, independently from technology?
Allow mankind to evolve in harmony within ecosystem
I just wrote:
“allow mankind to evolve in harmony within ecosystem”
and all these words are important, they all carry a deep meaning.
In my private life, I am vegan and antispeciesist, deeply convinced of the importance of sharing for a common evolution and in the equality not only among all human beings, but for all the species that inhabit this planet.
These beliefs are reflected in my approach as a designer, both in the dynamics that I build within the teams in which I work, but also in the methodologies and approaches that I adopt when I have to design an experience.
From an ethical and philosophical point of view, this approach to life -even before design- goes under the name of Deep Ecology.
The term first appeared in a 1973 article by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss.
Deep ecology is an environmental philosophy promoting the belief that the living environment as a whole should be respected and regarded independently from its instrumental benefits for human use.
According to Deep Ecology, the natural world is a subtle balance of complex inter-relationships in which the existence of organisms is dependent on the existence of others within ecosystems.
Human interference with or destruction of the natural world poses a threat therefore not only to humans but to all organisms constituting the natural order.
In the ecosystem, all organisms have the same value and there is no space for superiority.
Ethics in circular design
The best approach I have found to translate my beliefs into concrete design work is through a circular approach to innovation, borrowing the adjective from the wider field of the circular economy.
The basic concept of circular design is:
how can I design the products, services or experiences I need today, so that they won’t have a negative impact tomorrow?
Right now there is a lot of interest and excitement in rethinking our systems so that they are better for all of us, whether in product design, experience, or even digital service design.
There for example, you are reading this article on a screen which was probably designed in a “linear” system: this means that we extracted the materials, we transformed them into a product and then, when this screen is no longer useful, we will throw it away or in the best of cases, we will recycle it.
This screen uses energy, which also comes from a process of exploiting nature.
Actually, everything that exists comes from nature, really everything. And that we take from nature as if everything was free: well no, it’s not free, at all! And the price is paid in the future.
In fact, in a linear system, from extraction to the end of the life cycle, we produce pollution, we deplete resources, we compromise the habitat of other species.
And we are very concerned because we humans are biological beings like the others, we need air and food and if nature does not work, that’s a problem for all of us.
Everything we see around us is the result of a design process, everything.
So as designers, we have every interest in designing what will keep us alive.
Systems and values
The idea is to change our point of view and stop designing in silos: we live in an ultra-connected world, we can buy something online at the other end of the world and have it at home in a few days, everything is just a click away and the systems are clogged with things that have lost their value, their meaning.
This is where we have to start from, two keywords: system and value.
Having a vision of the system means taking into account everything that goes around the service we design, imagining the impacts at defined time periods and far in time, seeing the interconnections between events.
It’s a bit what Edward Lorenz in the 70s called the “butterfly effect”:
“Can the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil cause a tornado in Texas?”
This means that, as a consumer, when you buy a service or circular product, you are actually buying a complete system where “everything is transformed and nothing is lost”, to quote again.
It also means that the use that the consumer makes of a good is as important as the life cycle of the good itself, and here ethics appears again.
We are ourselves an ethical, valuable system
If we think back to the principles of Deep Ecology and those of the Circular Economy, we know that in a system in harmony, each stakeholder is unique and necessary, and that’s where the concept of value comes into play: each component of the system has its own meaning and is essential for the other components so that the loop of the system can work properly.
A very simple example of a system in harmony: ourselves!
Our body is a system made up of subsystems (neurological, respiratory, blood, immune system, etc.). Basically, there is nothing superfluous in our body. And when our body is in harmony, everything is good, so that’s a perfectly ethical system.
When we eat a banana, our body breaks it down, then it goes back into nature after digestion: it’s perfectly circular!
In order to become more ethical and to develop the reflex of thinking in a system, designers should adopt the aptitude of a doctor, who cannot treat just the lungs or the stomach without considering the whole system. Only this way he will be able to make a diagnosis correctly, and then choose the good therapy, the best suited for the needs and problems identified.
As designers, we must be open in terms of methodology and tools: we can of course capitalize on the existing (Design Thinking methods, Agile, existing tools for service or experience design, etc), but we also need to innovate and be creative.
There is no miracle recipe, the magic pill that cures all ills, but I truly believe that kindness, honesty and share may be the best tools to bring positive change.
I also believe in the power of setting an example to others and lead the way: by seeing that you do it, other people will take courage, and do it too. It works in a good way, but also in a bad way, unfortunately.
We all need to transform our approach, personal and professional, into a more ethical, circular and creative approach.
We all need it because we all breathe and we all want to survive.
Want to know more?
Here’s some articles or videos I suggest to deep down into ethics, technology and environment:
Future Ethics is an intelligent, quietly provocative book by designer Cennydd Bowles. The book challenges technologists to stand up for change, and teaches essential ethical principles and methods for building a fairer future. Read the first 3 chapters for free here.
The Designers Ethiques collective offers very interesting methods and meetings around ethical design. Read their guide about attention design here.